The grid is the electricity network that connects energy producers with energy suppliers. It’s what we literally plug into to power everything from mobile phones to electric vehicles. The grid works well to deliver power when it’s needed, where it’s needed. But the UK must lower the amount of greenhouse gases in its energy system to deliver the greenhouse gas cuts that it committed to in the Climate Change Act 2008. So, the grid will need to adapt to support that decarbonisation.

The smart grid is ‘a key to deliver low carbon electricity more efficiently and reliably’.[1] The UK needs the smart grid to be able to handle the ways that electricity will be both generated and used in the future. For example, as electric vehicles become more widely used, more businesses and people will need charging points. As well, the increased use of wind and solar power opens up the way for houses and businesses to generate their own electricity at a local level.

This will change the way they draw from the grid, and they may also be able to send excess electricity back to the grid. At the moment, electricity distribution mostly runs from supplier to consumer. But with localised energy production, the grid will need to run both ways. So, the traditional patterns of electricity use are likely to be disrupted and the grid must be able to adapt to meet future needs.

There are several features that combine to make the grid smart:

– Smart meters

– The Data and Communications Company (DCC)– the company which manages the flow of smart meter data between customers and suppliers

– In home displays and consumer access devices (CADs), which help customers understand and potentially reduce their energy use 

– Energy use data – for example, data from half-hourly meters. This helps the district network operators (DNOs) predict and react to energy use to enable real life adjustment times

– Distributed energy – as more people and businesses generate energy, the grid will need to work from consumer to supplier, as well as from supplier to consumer. That’s an extra load of complexity for technology to handle

– Flexibility – the ability to respond immediately to changes in energy demand, for example with demand side response (DSR). DSR includes factors like time of use tariffs, which might reward businesses for using less energy at peak times; the ability for small energy suppliers to feed electricity back into the grid at peak times

The smart grid in practice

The smart grid isn’t a theory, it’s something that is already happening. The world’s first large scale smart grid trial is in plan and due to go live in May 2019 in the south east. The Power Potential project is a scheme shared by National Grid ESO and UK Power Networks. Suppliers who generate more than 1MW have been invited to join. They’ll be able to send renewable electricity through the smart grid, from its source to wherever it’s needed, at the point of need.[2]

[1] Ofgem factsheet, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/321852/Policy_Factsheet_-_Smart_Grid_Final__BCG_.pdf. Accessed 22 February 2019.

[2] Power Potential: England’s first reactive smart grid project. 21 January 2019. https://www.power-technology.com/features/power-potential-englands-first-reactive-smart-grid-project/. Accessed 22 February 2019.

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