SMART POWER: The Future of Electricity?

Posted on March 7th 2016

by Alexander Ferguson

Two thirds of the UK’s existing power stations are expected to close over the next fifteen years as our aging gas fired, nuclear and coal power stations approach the end of their lives.

In order to meet the future electricity demands of the country, it is evident that new sources of generation must be brought online to replace the imminently decommissioned power stations.

The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) see this challenge as a huge opportunity. An opportunity in which a new ‘Smart Power’ electricity system can be put in place to help the UK meet its 2050 climate reduction targets, secure its energy supply for generations and provide consumers with savings of up to £8 billion by 2030 [www.gov.uk, National Infrastructure Commission].

As technology advances, the demand for electricity increases. For example, the total number of electric vehicles in the UK  is expected to exceed the 1 million mark by 2020 [My Electric Avenue.info, The growth of electric vehicles]. This ever increasing demand for electricity must be balanced with a reliable supply, failure to do so will result in an unstable system. The NIC claims that a smarter electricity infrastructure in the form of Smart Power will provide this reliability.

So what exactly is ‘Smart Power’?

The Smart Power system  will utilise three innovations:

  1. Interconnection
  2. Storage
  3. Demand Flexibility

“Together, these three infrastructure innovations have the potential to create a leaner, more efficient electricity system at the cutting edge of global technology” -Andrew Adonis, Interim Chair of the NIC

Interconnection

By connecting the UK’s electricity market to those of our neighbours on mainland Europe we will be improving the flexibility of our current system. It will allow us to import electricity during times of peak demand and export it when we are producing more than we need. Interconnections have the potential to lower prices for consumers, improve the investment attractiveness of power stations and improve the security of our supply by trading large volumes of electricity (import & export). The UK currently has 4 GW of interconnection capacity but this can be expected to increase to 11.3 GW by 2025; the majority of which should be sourced from low carbon electricity markets, like Norway and Iceland.

Storage

Historically, it has been extremely difficult and expensive to store electricity. Resulting in consumers paying inflated prices at times of peak demand instead of paying lower prices and storing the electricity for future use. However, breakthroughs in technology, such as Tesla’s Powerwall, are now allowing consumers to do just that: store electricity efficiently and affordably. An increase in storage capacity would ease the supply constraints on our grid -which last year (2015) resulted in wind farms being paid £90 m NOT to produce electricity [www.gov.uk, NIC, SMART POWER]- by allowing intermittent energy sources such as solar and wind to store the electricity which is produced at times of low demand.

Demand Flexibility

Demand flexibility covers a wide range of activities which can be carried out to reduce or shift consumer’s demand for electricity during times of peak demand. One example of these activities is the installation of smart meters in homes across the UK. These smart meters will enable households to save money by shifting their electricity demand to off peak times. This can be done by the individual or set up automatically so that appliances operate at the most cost-effective times of the day; coupled with electricity storage this can provide consumers with significant savings at minimum inconvenience.

The Future

While the topic of global warming largely revolves around our main source of energy: fossil fuels. Not enough emphasis is placed on the rate at which we are consuming energy. Current renewable and sustainable energy tech cannot economically supply all of our energy demands on their own, the world still needs fossil fuels. By focusing our attention on reducing our consumption of energy rather than trying to meet our current energy demands with sustainable sources, we can:

  1. Reach our CO2 reduction targets quicker
  2. Provide lower levels of energy demand which can gradually be supplied by sustainable sources, as the tech becomes more economically viable

As American physicist Amory Lovins once said “A megawatt of energy saved should be rewarded as highly as the power generated”.

It is evident that fossil fuels will continue to play a large part in the energy production industry over the next century, until sustainable tech becomes more economically viable. The innovations described in the Smart Power system are extremely progressive and highlight how we can integrate new technologies into our infrastructure to improve upon our energy production and consumption; ultimately helping the UK reach the 80% CO2 reduction target by 2050.

 

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