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The smart play: building an intelligent foundation for Britain's power grid

26 Nov 2015

The transition towards a low-carbon economy will change both the way power is produced and the way it is consumed. Smart grids are an essential element to facilitate this transformation.

Take the UK, where the government is committed to stringent carbon dioxide reduction targets. These can only be met by massively increasing electricity use – which currently accounts for about a third of all energy consumption – from renewables at the expense of oil and gas.

Peak demand on the UK grid is currently 60GW, but by 2050, the government estimates this will increase six-fold as demand for electric cars and household heating soars.

To meet this demand, more pylons and cabling will be needed, adding up to £1000 a year to consumer bills.

And it’s not just about higher demand and cost, as renewable power sources such as wind and solar are variable – when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine, little or no power is generated.

As Mike Wilks, at Poyry Managing Consulting, says: "We need more flexibility in our energy mix."

Countries the world over, and particularly those investing heavily in the green sector, are facing the same problem, and the solutions are few and far between.

Increasing fast-acting generation in order to fill energy gaps would seem the smart thing to do, but as most generators of this type, such as diesel turbines, emit CO2, they are somewhat counterproductive.

A winning solution

There are two ways to solve this critical problem, and both are attracting huge sums of money in the market.

The first is energy storage. Sounds simple enough: storing energy generated during periods of low demand to use during periods of high demand. Not only does storage help overcome the problem of variable supply from renewable energy sources, but it allows electricity grids to operate more efficiently and cost effectively.

Storage allows the system to be run at average load rather than peak load.

And the savings are huge: Imperial College London’s Energy Features Lab estimates that energy storage technologies could generate savings of £10 billion a year by 2050.

Innovation and investment

There are a host of new technologies to store energy – from pumped hydro to powerful batteries – currently being developed around the world.

Estimates by Lux Research suggest the global industry for energy storage could be worth £100 billion in the next few years.

The most advanced smart grid technologies are in electrical transmission: Flexible alternating current transmission systems devices enable existing transmission lines to deliver maximum power, and help stabilize the grid with precise power control. High-voltage direct current technology can deliver long-distance power with low losses on land and under water, and connect asynchronous grids. Wide area monitoring systems track critical system parameters to prevent development of dangerous instability in the network. Supervisory control and data acquisition systems analyse real-time grid conditions, providing data for fast power adjustments.

Smart grid technology is not a single silver bullet but rather a collection of existing and emerging technologies working together.

The big rollout

 The rollout of smart meters in the UK is being coordinated by the Department of Energy and Climate Change.

They may have been introduced to end the costly need for manually reading meters, but smart meters have developed into far more than that. By monitoring constantly energy use in households and linking directly to smart appliances, the time will soon come when these meters take over some of our decisions about energy use.

The real change will come when there are enough smart meters to know when to turn things off.

For instance, the meter will be able to turn a fridge off automatically for short periods when electricity is needed elsewhere in the system, or decide when to switch on a washing machine in order to balance the grid as a whole.

The smart metering program aims to cover all homes and small businesses by 2020.

Electric city

Energy storage and smart grids mean energy generation and distribution no longer have to be done at a national level – individual households and communities are now able to control their own power, and with it the price they pay and the security of supply.

IT services company T-systems sees Britain as a potential European leader in smart networks. Consumer and industry groups are looking forward to benefits to the economy and to the environment that smart technology can bring. In its responses to consultations on the smart metering rollout in Britain, T-Systems says this needs to be looked at to achieve those benefits as fully and swiftly as possible.

“What are we trying to achieve – remote meter reading giving accurate bills? That is relatively easy,” says head of smart metering Dr Svan Lembke. “The difficult part is the creation of a scalable, secure communication infrastructure with multiple directions of communication that can analyse data and enable consumers to manage their own energy consumption and to play a part in Britain’s transition to a lowcarbon economy. As a consumer in this country myself, I know what I would choose.”