Britain had the beginnings of its national grid system in 1937, when a group of engineers connected a series of smaller electrical regional grids, in an effort to increase supply security and reduce overall electrical cost. This was to form the basis of the national grid, which we have relied on ever since to provide us with electricity as and when we need it.
However this National Grid was created when energy was relatively inexpensive to generate. This meant that reliability was ensured through the production of excess capacity.
The limitations of the current national grid
As we have mentioned previously, the current grid has its limitations. First of all, it is an ageing infrastructure that is creaking and straining under the weight of the current electrical needs of the country. In the sections below we are going to examine some of the issues that the national grid currently faces:
Electricity supply and demand
Previously, as demand increased, so did capacity – simply, a new power plant was installed. Over time though, the cost of installing new capacity has risen dramatically, as has the cost of the fuel used to power it. Nowadays, more and more of our daily activities rely on electricity. This has led, in spite of improved energy efficiency in many appliances, to a sharp rise in the amount of electricity we consume, pushing up our peak demand to unprecedented levels.
This has put the current electrical grid in an interesting position. Energy demand has increased over time; however new capacity has not been installed at the same rate, so the amount of headroom (the difference between peak supply and peak demand) has been dramatically reduced. This has resulted in the need to fire up older, highly inefficient power stations just to meet current demand. Unless new plans are put into place, things will only get even stickier in the years to come.
The active process of getting electricity from where it is generated to where it is needed is actually a fairly simple process. However, as the demand for electricity has increased, the Grid has been forced to handle huge amounts of electricity that has to be transmitted great distances from its source to where it is required. This is a highly inefficient process, with large amounts of electricity being lost due to lengthy supply lines and basic transmission intelligence.
Increase in renewables
The UK used to rely on a centralised core of fossil fuel and nuclear power plants running up and down the spine of the country to provide itself with power. However, as these power plants have aged, many have closed down, and a new EU carbon reduction directive has meant that many more are due to close in the near future.
The Grid has had to replace this lost capacity by installing new power plants. Since the turn of the century, this new capacity has largely been in the form of combined-cycle gas turbines and renewables.
The major issues with gas is that we need to import it and although it is cleaner than coal, it still produces harmful emissions when burnt. The major issue with renewable energy is that it is intermittent; if the wind isn’t blowing, no power is produced from wind turbines. This makes integrating renewables into an ageing and inflexible grid much more difficult, since energy storage will have to be bought into play. This further complicates the energy picture in the UK.
Reliance on imported fuels
As previously mentioned, many of the UK’s ageing fossil-fuelled power plants are shutting down, however new combined cycle gas turbine plants are still popping up. One of the fundamental issues that we face is energy security. As things stand, the UK is incredibly reliant on gas, especially when it comes to heating homes. This was partly the result of North Sea gas, which we assumed would never run out! The problem is that unfortunately it has; so we import the majority of our gas from Qatar and Norway.
So ultimately, the ability to heat our homes does not sit with the UK energy companies; instead we rely on the Middle East where much of our gas is sourced from – one of the most politically volatile places on earth. We have already seen massive price fluctuations, and it’s pretty worrying to be absolutely at the mercy of these countries.
Centralised energy production
The centralised method with which Britain powered the National Grid is fast becoming outdated. Previously, hundreds of fossil fuel power plants would stretch up and down the centre of the country, supplying the nation with electricity. However, with the increase in solar panels and wind turbines comes the massive increase in micro generation. This is decentralising a grid designed to run via centralised means.
Increased cost of production
Not only is demand increasing, but also generation is becoming progressively expensive to expand. You may have read the recent nuclear power plant go-ahead and wondered why energy production has become quite such an expensive business. The simple fact of the matter is, that while the current grid system remains, prices of generation will continue to rise and these increases will be passed onto the consumers. Nuclear power is pricey, importing fossil fuels is expensive and renewable energy can not yet be relied upon.
So what can we do?
Obviously, peak supply falling below peak demand would cause serious issues, the concept of rolling blackouts has fortunately not been something most of us have come across in our lifetime. However these are a real possibility in the years to come unless we act now – so what exactly can we do?
We could use less electricity – energy conservation
We could install more electricity generating capacity – energy generation
We could be wiser in our electricity usage, try to dampen peak demand and produce electricity closer to where it is needed – Smart Grid
Obviously the best thing to do here is to use less electricity and energy, by generally being more energy efficient. This means that, without placing constraints on what you can do, you use less energy in everyday tasks.
Increasing the electricity generating capacity is probably the most expensive of the options. This is highlighted by the US Government having calculated that it costs about 3x as much to roll out new capacity, compared to reducing demand through energy efficiency.
The final option available is to be wiser when using energy– now this doesn’t necessarily mean energy efficiency. Instead it is looking at ways to remove the peaks in our energy demand to allow a lower installed electricity generating capacity to meet our energy requirements.
How can we use energy more effectively on a national scale? By creating a ‘smart grid’.
A smart grid relies on data – not only about how much electricity is being produced, but also about demand at a very granular level.
In order to improve stability and restore order to the national grid system, the smart grid is developing out of a number of technological improvements and controls, which should be fully functioning by 2025.
This smart grid simply means the introduction of high tech computers and 2-way communications into the national grid system in the hope that it will help the UK respond to the energy demands of the 21st century, while also work with the planned reduction in carbon emissions.
Historically, the UK has been powered by fossil fuels: for example coal, gas and oil. However more recently, we have seen the introduction of renewable energy into the energy mix. This has put increased pressure on the national grid, since now instead of having a few large power plants, essentially whenever someone gets solar PV installed on their homes, we are having to integrate this extra generating capacity into the grid. We suddenly have millions of mini power plants, and unfortunately the national grid was not meant to work in this way.
The introduction of ‘Smart’
The smart grid, and the smart meter, will allow the consumer to manage electrical energy usage more than ever before, creating a more efficient, more reliable and lower carbon energy industry for all.
Smart grids will focus on:
Renewable energy distribution
Demand-side management and time shifting the demand
Real-time monitoring of grid performance
These three points will allow for:
Reduced peaks in power usage achieved by handing power stations the prerogative of controlling our smart appliances
Reduced electrical wastage by delivering instant information on consumption
The increase the number of ‘smart appliances’ to reduce electrical usage
Early warnings for blackouts and rapid recovery systems
One of the main improvements that the smart grid will have over the current national grid system is the introduction of a 2-way digital dialog system. This introduces intelligence, automation and control into the electrical grid. It enables not only the transmission of electricity from grid to home, but also the integration of an intelligent communications network.
So unlike today’s National Grid, which just allows electricity to be delivered into the home, the introduction of this 2-way dialog as part of the smart grid enables real-time energy usage data to be sent from the home back to the energy suppliers. This allows instant meter readings so actual usage can be billed without the need to send someone out to read the meter.
This 2-way dialog increases the potential for consumers to interact more with their energy consumption, helping to reduce peak demand and therefore lowering carbon emissions within the grid.
Real time control
Through the use of the digital communications technology that the smart grid uses, real-time control can be implemented. Both the utility companies and consumers are able to see and monitor electrical usage as it occurs. This real-time control increases the reliability, efficiency and speed of the grid. It also allows for Time of use tariffs, which aims to time-shift the demand, resulting in more evenly distributed electrical usage, so new expensive generating capacity doesn’t need to be built since peak demand will actually fall.
Ability to identify issues within the Grid
Currently, once an area loses power, the Grid is only informed once a customer complains about a lack of electricity. This can therefore lead to a long process of repairs, especially if the problem occurs in the middle of the night and no one contacts the utility company until the morning.
With the introduction of the smart grid, when an area is affected by unforeseen circumstances that causes it to lose power, electricity will automatically be redirected via an alternative route ensuring there is no impact on the customer. This self-healing power of the smart grid, enables rapid fixes and allows for a more reliable, efficient electrical grid.
Better integration of renewables in our energy mix
Since 2006 the amount of electricity produced by renewable energy sources has more than doubled. This includes the massive wind farms that are now dotted around the country as well as individual properties that have solar PV panels on their roofs. This has led to a far more complicated energy mix than we have had to deal with before, with intermittency now having a far larger impact on our energy supply than ever before.
The smart grid allows the energy companies to marry real time production with real time demand, if an issue is spotted or the headroom becomes too tight, a gas power plant can be fired up to help bridge the gap. Hopefully in the future the ability to store energy when demand is low will be available and this can be used to help balance supply and demand.
Using electricity closer to home
One important feature that the smart grid will impose is the introduction of the intelligent allocation of electricity. This means that if you were to flick on the kitchen lights, the electricity required would come from the closest possible source. The current grid has many transmission problems that can lead to the loss of electricity due to the distances the electricity has to travel from the few centralised fossil fuel power plants to the home. However with the smart grid, and the introduction and integration of millions of micro power plants such as wind turbines and solar panels, electricity can be used much closer to home; thus reducing the potential losses transmission creates.
Imagine the whole country coming back from work at 6pm and switching their kettle on, plugging in their electric vehicle to charge and turning on the T.V.
The smart grid would use distributed intelligence, which allows it to recognise these daily trends. This would enable the grid to implement miniscule delays upon the delivery of electricity that relieves pressure and reduces the sudden increase in demand.
Data is administered where electricity is consumed, at the end of the smart grid, and can be analysed in order to make real time decisions on the distribution of electricity. This distribution intelligence will reduce the amount of pressure that the centralised grid is put under, while also multiplying the other benefits of the smart grid.
Operations centres and resilience
The active process of getting electricity from the grid to the place where it’s needed used to be fairly simple. The number of appliances in the UK was at such a number that it allowed for a small quantity of cables to easily transport the electricity. However, as the need for electricity increased, more cables were put up until it became a complex web of criss-crossing wires stretching for miles on end.
This often causes damaging oscillations within the network, which leads to blackouts and a potentially inconsistent supply. However, with the smart grid comes the introduction of new operation centres that use real-time information to help efficiently transform the electricity network into an organised system, effectively reducing the chance of blackouts and failures.
The highly technological smart grid will also have the power to resist attacks and natural disasters through the introduction of extremely assured security protocols.
The advantages and disadvantages of the smart grid system
Rolling out the smart grid should help keep the lights on in Britain, reducing the threat of blackouts while hopefully providing value for money for the consumers.
Aside from helping the country transition to a low carbon energy industry, it will also benefit consumers through a variety of means that we look at in detail below. Obviously rolling out the smart grid also raises a few areas of contention for consumers and we also look at these.
Advantages of the smart grid for the customer
Empowering the consumer
The smart grid will give the consumer the potential to save money; however this is very much dependant on the consumer acting on the information available to them. For example, one of the potential benefits of the smart grid is the time of use tariff, which will charge customers less for using electricity at off-peak times and more at peak times (like a much more accurafte Economy 7 tariff).
Obviously, while this has the potential to allow the consumer to change their energy usage habits to ensure they pay less for on their bills. It also means that they may be charged more if they use electricity during peak times. This ties in with real-time electricity consumption.
Real-time electricity consumption
Perhaps the main advantage that the smart grid will offer the consumer is an increased responsibility over their electrical usage. Real-time consumption will display up-to-the-minute information on how much electricity is being used and at what price.
The end of estimated bills
The smart grid allows the energy companies to see energy usage from individual houses in real time if they so require, so they should be able to bill exactly the right amount each month. No more overpaying during the summer and getting whacked with sudden additional payments when they finally get actual energy usage details from the meter.
Electrical reliability/swifter power outage detection
Due to the increase of data available within the smart grid, power outages, or blackouts, can be predicted and sometimes even prevented altogether. The self-healing capabilities of the grid allow problems to quickly be fixed, potentially even before customers are even aware of the issue. This obviously creates a more reliable electricity network that should mean power failures become a thing of the past.
Lower carbon footprint
The smart grid – through initiatives like the time of usage tariff – should help lower peak energy demand, meaning less generating capacity will be needed. This should result in lower carbon emissions since fewer old fossil fuel electricity generators are required to be switched on.
The improved integration of renewables inside the grid also helps minimise carbon emission within the UK’s electrical generation mix.
Remotely monitored usage
The introduction of the smart meter within the smart grid system means that utility companies no longer have to pay the high admin fees involved with checking meter readings. This is because information is passed from the home’s smart meter, along the 2-way dialog communications system and into the smart grid’s database. The removal of these admin fees mean that the savings the companies make may be passed onto the consumer to a certain extent.
At present, the National Grid is not suited to high levels of electricity being produced by renewable energy sources. The reason for this is the complexity in balancing supply and demand, which was hard enough when they could predict when power stations were going to be off and online.
Think about the added complexity that 1 million homes having solar PV have added to our energy mix. We now have millions of micro power stations that are all producing unpredictable amounts of energy.
The introduction of the smart grid allows the increased integration of renewables energy in to our energy mix. This will reduce our dependence on imported fossil fuels, relieving us from these volatile markets. Not only will it save the consumer money, but also lower the carbon footprint of the grid and therefore consumers are safe in the knowledge that the electricity that they use is as green as can be and that it is being produced here in the UK, with no need to import fuels.
Disadvantages for the consumer resulting from the implementation of the smart grid
Cost of installation passed on
The upfront capital cost of installing smart meters nationwide is quite frightening, with reports coming from governmental sources suggesting that it may be close to £12billion. This has ignited public opinion that the money required for this revolutionary smart grid will come from the consumer. However this may not necessarily be the case, as utility companies will pay for the technological improvements and recoup the costs through the improvements that they bring.
Lack of electrical pricing clarity
The smart grid brings with it the potential for utility companies to alter electricity prices through real-time consumption information. One of the key concepts of the smart grid is that it will aim to level off the peaks and troughs in electricity demand. The way that this will be achieved is to alter unit prices through time of use tariffs.
Energy companies will increase the price of electricity during peak times while decreasing it during periods of reduced demand. However, while previously people have been comfortable with how much they are paying, whether through a standard tariff or Economy 7, the smart grid does add complexity to bills.
Loss of smart appliance control
Many people have read about the potential loss of control of smart appliances. This will be in the case of utility companies remotely switching off your smart freezer during periods of peak demand in order to reduce pressure on the grid.
Now, while neither you nor your freezer will be able to tell, for many it represents a step in the wrong direction towards a more regulated and controlled state. However, if switching off your smart appliances remotely means that you are using less electricity during peak times and therefore saving money, then surely this could also be looked at as an advantage.
Smart meter health impacts
Some consumers may be apprehensive over the installations of smart meters outside their homes in light of some media coverage of potential health impacts. The worry is that the smart meter, through their wireless communications with the grid, will emit harmful radiation that could cause cancer. However we can categorically reassure people that there is no information nor scientific research that suggests smart meters can be harmful to human health.
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