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Spotlight on virtual power plants

“Virtual what?” you might be saying. Don’t worry! To help you better grasp the concept, we interviewed David Saint‑Germain, our Chief Technology Officer. Besides being an expert on the subject, he’s also skilled at explaining it in simple terms anyone can understand. Let’s get started!

Hilo: What exactly are virtual power plants?

David Saint‑Germain: First, you need to understand how the power grid works. The hydroelectricity generated must equal the electricity used across the entire grid. This balance can now be maintained by virtual plants: a set of software technologies that, among other things, help control the consumption of connected devices to meet the needs of the power grid.

H: How exactly does it work?

DST: In Quebec, heating demand peaks during periods of extreme cold weather. Of course, we have strategies to combat this: we can import power and/or ask people to use less electricity at certain hours. However, for accuracy, efficiency and performance, nothing beats virtual power plants, which control electricity use through cloud computing. Here’s how it works: the plant receives an order from Hydro‑Québec (e.g. “Tomorrow morning between 4 and 10 a.m., please lower consumption based on the following curve”). The plant then issues a series of commands to certain connected devices to ensure a balance between power generation and consumption.

H: How is this useful to the community as a whole?

DSG: Using virtual plants helps us avoid considerable costs, and we mean both financially and environmentally. Not only does optimized power management reduce the need for new infrastructures (dams, transmission lines, transformers), but we also become smarter in our power use, using only what we need and no more. As a result, we don’t need to scale down our exports or buy power from our neighbours to the south, who produce it with less eco-friendly technologies and at a higher cost . . . and we can also export our surplus. Basically, virtual power plants help make our energy consumption more predictable and even out peak demand events, which are very costly.

Virtual power plants are a perfect example of smart cities, which are expected to multiply in the coming years and lead to a vast increase in the use of connected devices: charging stations for electric bikes, cars and buses, street lighting, central heating for downtown, etc.

H: What part does Hilo play in all of this?

DSG: Hilo is the conductor—the mastermind behind the various connected devices that help balance electricity generation and consumption.

Each device set up to receive Hilo commands helps the grid in its own way. For example, you can lower the set temperatures on your thermostats to avoid using energy during peak hours. And if you need a little boost, you can even use the battery from your electric vehicle or other items to feed power back into the grid.

We know: we need to move away from petroleum for the sake of the planet. “Balancing” technologies like Hilo are essential to transition to electric mobility. With the current system, if everyone charged their vehicle at the same time, it wouldn’t work. Supporting technologies are needed for the system to function. All the world’s power producers will need to get on board within the next 20 to 30 years for the grid to hold—and to prevent price hikes!

In practical terms, Hilo smart home customers are invited to take on challenges up to 30 times per winter. These challenges involve lowering the temperature of their thermostats by a few degrees during peak hours. To thank them for doing their part in reducing power demand (and helping keep rates low for all Quebecers), Hilo offers cash rewards that work out to an average of $120 per participant, per winter.

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