The smart power revolution is on its way, that seems to be the message from two reports in the last week. The first was from Energy UK. The second is from the national infrastructure commission. This latter body was set up by the chancellor to give political cover to controversial infrastructure projects such as nuclear power stations and airport expansion. I’m not sure this report is what he was after.
As “Smart Power” says we face a number of challenges. We need to cut CO2 emissions by 80% by 2050. At the same time we are closing a a whole heap of coal and nuclear power plants. The only types of generation the power companies want to invest in appear to renewable sources (mainly solar and wind). The cost of these are now close or at competing with traditional sources of energy. It looks like the traditional model of power generation is now dead (that of large central mostly fossil fuel powered power stations). These new sources of power are however more difficult to manage their power output being both variable and diffuse (so you need lots of them). A final challenge is that the UK grid was never designed for distributed generation and in any case needs renewal.
The answers lie in what this report calls smart power. The characteristics of which are according to them;
Interconnection – sharing our power with our neighbours so that peaks and troughs in renewable production can be ironed out.
Storage – storing power- there are a variety of technologies not just lithium batteries. Again ironing out variability in production.
Demand flexibility - this includes such things as smart devices at a domestic scale which switch on when power is cheap and plentiful and demand management for big users. Also smart meters which allow consumers to maximise power use when demand is low.
By doing all the above we can largely negate the need to build large power stations. So far so good and largely we agree having covered a lot of the above in our book. The report comes up with some rather vague recommendations to take this forward none of which involve the government spending money. However I have some concerns and caveats.
The first is that interconnections should not be used as an excuse not to build up our own generating capacity. By doing so we would and have indeed have become more dependent on our neighbours for our electricity. We have largely import through the French and Netherlands connectors although the Irish connector is largely used for export. In addition one of the interconnectors suggested is Scotland-Iceland. At the moment as this report admits the Iceland has little excess generation capacity, so would not be worth building. I would also add that the distances and therefore resistance power losses would be huge as would the cost.
I have no problems with storage at the grid level. As Energy UK say this is the next big revolution. I have suggested before at the domestic level storage will not make the grid easier to manage without smart meters.
I do some concerns about smart meters and domestic demand management. I don’t have any problem with the concept of smart meters but wonder whether their implementation as it is planned at the moment can make them easy to hack. The second concern is over smart devices. Do you really want an internet of things with all the risks over security and hacking? In addition getting people to use their white goods at night maybe risky, disturb neighbours and downright difficult. However, I’d by and large recommend the report which says we could save £8 billion a year if we go down this route which maybe not in precisely this form, is the future of our energy system.