Whether we’re talking dress codes or technology, it can sometimes be hard to know what ‘smart’ really means. But by making us cleverer about the ways we use energy, the UK’s electricity network is smartening up its act – without needing a whole new wardrobe.
Lauren Bravo asks Allan Row, Commercial Manager for British Gas, to enlighten her about the smart grid.
Lauren: Hi Allan. So how would you sum up a smart grid for the not-so-smart among us?
Allan: I think the easiest way to think of a smart grid is that currently we have a host of wires, substations and transformers with limited monitoring, automation, or communication on them – a ‘dumb’ grid, if you like. But once you layer those three things on top, it becomes smarter. A smart grid is essentially the electricity infrastructure we already have but overlaid with data on customer demands and behaviours. This can help the operating companies better manage and maintain their networks and help them to better balance the question of supply and demand.
Are those demands and behaviours changing?
Yes. As part of the UK’s low carbon transition plan there’s a target to cut carbon emissions by 80% for 2050, so we’re now moving to a low-carbon economy. You’ve still got the historic energy peaks – such as the traditional early evening rush when people make dinner, watch TV, and put the kettle on – but on top of that peak we’ll also have new things like air source heat pumps (for heating buildings) and people charging electric vehicles, which could create new energy demands.
Could the existing ‘dumb’ grid cope with those demands?
If the network wasn’t robust enough in certain areas, we’d soon have to install a lot more copper wiring to accommodate all the uptake of low-carbon technologies. Research says that significant investment would be required between now and 2030 to reinforce the networks, and this work would also have a big carbon footprint.
So is there a better plan in progress?
British Gas has been working with the Customer Led Network Revolution (CLNR), a consortium of partners led by Northern Powergrid and funded under Ofgem’s Low Carbon Network (LCN) Fund. The LCN Fund aims to help the networks innovate, so that they don’t go down the route of saying: ‘okay the network’s falling over, let’s just reinforce it’, but instead look at measures to smooth out peak usage.
All that layering and smoothing the peaks makes the grid sound like a bit like a trifle. So do we want to even out the layers rather than buying a stronger bowl?
Sort of! The smart grid is about redistributing rather than reinforcing the network. We have to look at the ways people are using these new technologies and generating electricity. Once we’ve understood that behaviour, we’ll be able to ask: ‘how can we help shift that behaviour away from peak times, so we don’t have to keep rewiring the grid?’ and add incentives to do so.
What kind of incentives are we talking about?
Well, a time of use tariff is one of the things the CLNR has trialled. The purpose of time-of-use tariffs is to shift usage away from current peak times and level it out across the week. This will lower the pressure on the grid. It also means people can save money by changing their behaviour and doing more outside peak hours. Overall, people on the British Gas trial were able to reduce their energy consumption by about 7%, and in peak hours they reduced their consumption by around 14%.
So people might be surprised by how easy it is to change the times they use energy?
Absolutely. Things like cooking, heating, and bathing are pretty stable – you eat when you eat, you heat the house when it gets cold – but some things you are able to move. Like, when do you put the dishwasher or washing machine on? When do you charge your batteries? Potentially customers on a time of use tariff could save by not doing chores…
Fine by me!
…until outside peak time.
Oh. And what happens if we take things one step further and generate our own energy?
Then we have the feed-in tariff, a Government-led scheme that effectively pays you a price for every kilowatt of energy that you generate, through solar panels and other renewable energy technologies. It also pays you a smaller fee for exporting some of the energy that you don’t use back into the grid.
There are also air source heat pumps, effectively air conditioning units in reverse, which take in cold air from the outside and convert it into heat on the inside. They’re more efficient than conventional heating types like gas central heating; for every £1 you put into it in power, you get £4 of heat out.
Let’s do some future-gazing – what other kinds of new technologies will the smart grid bring to life?
MicroCHP is a low carbon microgeneration technology that fits really well with smart grids. Put very simply it’s a bit like a boiler that lets you generate heat and electricity. As well as being much more efficient than a traditional boiler it also helps homes reduce their carbon footprint – so people could save money and do their bit for the environment. It can connect to smart meters and other smart devices and is also capable of being automated, so in the future it can play a big role in reducing strain on our networks.
Another evolution might be real-time pricing, for example ‘wind twinning’ tariffs. When the wind is blowing, there would be an automated signal from the grid to make energy cheaper – an automated set-up in your home connected to your appliances would then see that signal and turn them on, for example, your pre-loaded dishwasher or the socket waiting to charge your phone.
That is clever. So are smart meters the first step towards a smart grid?
Yes. They give us the data we need for a smart grid. Smart meters don’t just benefit customers, who can see and understand their energy consumption in near real time, but also the energy industry as a whole. Smart meters mean we will be able to see consumer demand in enormous detail and adjust the national supply accordingly. There are other benefits too, like identifying places where energy might be lost from the network. Better data means more accuracy, more efficiency, and more savings for everyone.
So sharing really is the smart option. And that goes for trifle, too.
Find out more about upgrading to smart meters with British Gas.
Published August 2016, all facts and figures correct at the time of publishing.