The effect of smart grid technology on energy usage and power systems in the UK (part 1)

By Joe Couling

It’s a dark December morning and you’re late for work. In your hurry to leave the house you forget to turn the lights off.

Ouch! Those peak-rate energy bills are going to hurt. Then you receive a text…

It’s your house: “Hello, you left the lights on. Your schedule says you’re at work for the next 8 hours. Would you like me to turn them off?”

Problem solved.

That in essence is the ‘big sell’ of smart grid technology and it’s certainly an impressive proposition. The complete computerisation of the energy grid allows near instantaneous communication from appliances, generators, and a central computer hub meaning the vast army of smart devices in the Internet of Things (IoT) will all be able to talk to one another and adjust power usage as required. Very smart indeed.

In the energy economy of the not-too-distant future there’s going to be a much greater emphasis on sustainability. Higher energy rates during peak usage times means a market for devices that can monitor the going energy rates in real time and act accordingly. That means your dishwasher taking matters into its own hands and washing the dishes when you get the most bang for your buck, like in the middle of the night.

The smart grid roll-out

Smart grid technology is being heralded as the beginning of a new era in energy conservation and the roll-out is well under-way. The government is busy providing the regulatory and commercial framework for the new energy economy, businesses are springing-up to solve the technological challenges the smart grid presents, and the entire energy infrastructure is being overhauled to integrate the new technologies. This amounts to the biggest engineering project in modern history involving the installation of some 53 million smart meters in over 30 million homes and small businesses.

The UK government aims to have all smart meters in place by 2020 and the energy companies are scrambling to meet this target by training smart meter installation engineers to the standards set by Ofgen, running diagnostics on the first wave of meters to ensure they are working effectively, and preparing their own internal information infrastructures for the vast influx of data they will be soon receiving.

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The benefits of smart grid technology

If the smart grid delivers on it’s promises consumers will save on their energy bills, no longer have to perform manual meter readings, and have a greater degree of control over their own energy usage by monitoring their own energy habits in real time. The government estimates that in the period of 2020 to 2030 the country stands to accrue net benefits from the project in the region of £6.2 billion.

Energy usage will be managed by making continuous adjustments according to the data being received from a vast network of sensors across the entire energy grid. This new information affords new possibilities for optimisation. Power surges can be managed to avoid taxing the grid, devices can automatically turn themselves off to conserve energy at times of peak demand, and fault detectors can identify when energy is being lost and adjust accordingly. Currently 7-10% of energy on average is lost due to leakage and this number can rise to as high as 30% at peak times. Fully-realised smart grid technology will end this waste for good.

The additional benefits of the smart grid include the integration of modern energy production sources like wind and solar power, the integration of electric vehicles which is necessary for the new era of self-driving cars, and it even offers the possibility of consumers generating their own energy and feeding it back into the grid at a profit to themselves.