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.
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.
Self Sustaining Communities in Britain
July 18, 2012
The suspension bridge, penicillin, first intercity railway. What do these things all have in common? Answer – they are all Great British discoveries, with varying degrees of desirable effects.
More importantly, these inventions are synonymous with a time when Great Britain powered ahead of the world using an innovative mindset by using practical solutions that resulted in elevating London as the world capital of the merchant trade. Today, we find ourselves in a position where other countries have not only caught up with us, but have actually overtaken us. This is great for the rest of the world, as it as means that economic wealth is spreading globally.
However, as more countries follow the successful British Industrial model of development, the world in which we live has become more and more polluted, and is also struggling to meet the demand for energy that is driving this change. Britain itself has unfortunately become stuck; ironically laboured by the model it had previously exploited so successfully.
How is Britain being left behind?
So, given that Great Britain had previously spearheaded human development and innovation, why are we not now the leading proponents of green energy and green network solutions? The answer simply lies with the fact that we are well behind continental Europe in decarbonising our economy. Our recycle rate still hovers at around 20% and our renewable energy sources account for less than 5% of our total energy output. Germany, on the other hand, has a renewable energy rate five times higher than ours. Therefore, we are in no position to lecture others on what we believe are the right ways to make a sustainable economy move forward.
The economy at the moment is languishing. I feel that we really need to pull out all the stops out as a nation to make sure we create the right climate for ideas and innovation to allow us to lead the world once again; this time, by leading a green economy with green energy provision and greater energy efficiency. I know we can seize the initiative.
What can we learn from others – the mindset?
As Brits, we are proud of our heritage and our past, but we can no longer rest on our laurels. We pulled together as a nation in previous times of crisis, and we can do it again. If we look around, we can learn a great deal from other cultures as well. For example, after being devastated by war, Japan and Korea both galvanised their populations into action and, due to concerted effort and focus, rose to become two important global economies.
More specifically, when Japan was defeated after World War Two, it signalled to the nation that the values that had bought them to that point in their history were no longer relevant. They needed a new way of thinking and collaborating with the world to move forward. By observing and learning from our car industry, engineering projects, bridges, roads and railways (and those across Europe and the USA) – the Japanese were able to produce cars quickly, but with even better value for money. They also constructed more impressive roads and faster railways, and their business values and quest for innovation brought us household names including Sony, Canon and Nintendo.
In the United Kingdom, we have an aged distribution network both for electricity provision and in the supply of gas for heating. It is an industry that is continually struggling under the demand and requires increased maintenance focus and investment to keep at the same operating levels that we have at the moment. In the near future, the population of the UK is expected to exceed 70 million, resulting in demand for yet more energy. If we stick with relying on the old systems, it will result in actions such as digging up our roads, simply to install yet another transformer. This will cause more chaos and misery – we must confine this model to the history books.
What can we learn from others – are there any practical solutions?
One great idea that I have seen on the continent, and which I would like see applied in the UK, is to introduce a self-sustaining community model to replace the network model we have at the moment. On the island of Samso in Denmark, for example, their energy provision is operating entirely self-sufficiently (independent from the mainland), thereby allowing its inhabitants to live completely off-grid.
A CBS report described visiting there like ‘turning back the clock’; the town boasts idyllic features and buildings steeped with history. But on closer inspection, it is actually ‘way ahead of its time’. The island used to rely exclusively on oil and coal (much like the current energy solution we have in the UK), but since the end of the last decade, it has managed to reduce its carbon emissions by 140%, which when articulated means it has started to export electricity back to the mainland. More importantly, it has demonstrated that you don’t need a centralised model – the spine of a network in the middle of the country that relies on big polluting power stations and radioactive nuclear power plants to provide your home and business with the energy needs. It is far more localised than that.
This is a truly inspirational story for us all, and offers a municipalised model we should look closely at imitating. If you have been reading about key concepts in the news lately, such as smart grids, smart meters, feed-in-tariffs, solar PV and heat pumps, you may have started to build a picture of what our energy provision could look like over the next two decades.
How can Britain learn and adapt to the changes required?
The EcoIsland project on the Isle of Wight offers a perfect example of how Britain can learn. Although the projects that have currently been deployed on the island are small scale, like the one at Shale (renewable energy for a community housing area), the Eco-Islanders one day envision 120MW of power being produced by renewable sources.
Moreover, biomass, wave and tidal power will also have a major role to play. To make it more self-sustaining, the islanders would all be involved – they would have a stake in the energy business to ensure that they reap the benefits delivered. Therefore, this is just one step at the start of a long journey to show that a British community like the one on the Isle of Wight can one day be self sustaining and become the Samso of tomorrow.
But how do you convince millions of people to implement eco-friendly solutions in a major conurbation that houses millions of people and provides transportation for them? Well, closer to my home in London, a £30m Low Carbon (LCL) project has been initiated by UK Power Networks and is being funded out of OFGEM’s Low Carbon Network Fund to provide community-based proofs of concept. One day these can be leveraged as an all-encompassing solution for this great city.
This LCL project, located within the Mayor of London’s green zones, will look to implement solutions such as the one we have seen at Shale, but on a much bigger scale. Furthermore, for a big city like London, some of these solutions will also require behavioural shifts – for example users will have to be educated as to how to understand their smart meters so that businesses and households can make those optimal energy decisions. For transport networks, it will be necessary to show where electricity charging points are so that electric car users can optimally plan their journeys.
Keeping innovation and change in the mindset
I hope therefore, that over the next few years, we will see many changes in Britain, like some of those rapid changes that were experienced during the Industrial Revolution. Electricity sources are going to become more varied and we may well see electric vehicles taking over our roads soon. At this point, we have to be aware that, for this to happen, we need to climb some metaphorical mental mountains to try to catch up with the nations that are surging ahead of us. I have no doubt that with some dedication; we can eventually leap ahead, so as to once again be seen as leading the world from the front.
To conclude, this means keeping an open mind when encountering new technologies over the next few years. It is easy to stick with what we know – no one likes change – but we have been innovators in the past, and we can continue to be so. Wind turbines are something new – we must be ready to embrace them and realise that they are helping the UK back to a more important, and sustainable, position.
A Call To Arms
July 6, 2012
‘Treat the earth well: it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children. We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children’
I have a lot of time for this proverb; I think it wonderfully captures the necessity for the duty of care that we should have for the world around us. After all, we are here for 70-80 years, which, in the grand scheme of things, is simply the blink of an eye. We are mere visitors on this planet, to hopefully enjoy all that is around us and leave it in reasonable shape for the generations to come that were so kind to lend it to us.
The world is roughly 4.5bn years old (as far as we can tell), and humans, as we recognise them now, have only been wandering around for 200,000 years. So what is the issue? Well, I am ‘visiting’ earth in a seemingly turbulent time; while we push frontiers of science (like this week’s finding of the Higgs boson we also have on-going arguments (to put it nicely) about how religion should shape our lives, disagreements over oil reserves and so forth, some of which have been going for decades, while others are relatively new.
I don’t think my arrival on the planet is the only one that has coincided with unrest. My father was born in 1941, slap bang in the middle of the 2nd World War. I think the lessons learnt from this event in particular, allowed humans to gain a spiritual perspective and wisdom that had perhaps not been present before. It provided us with the ability to draw a line and start afresh, all pulling together to rebuild fallen countries and forge new relationships with people who years before had been considered adversaries.
The challenges facing us 70 years later are obviously very different, but once again we all need to pull together, working to protect the planet albeit in a different way to that which was done all those years ago.
As the current lessees of the planet, we have the chance to pull together in the same direction, all of us, transcending faith, politics and even our own limitations. As Al Gore puts it, we are one of the lucky few generations to be given a ‘Generational mission – the thrill of being forced by circumstance to put aside the pettiness and conflict that so often stifle the restless human need for transcendence; the opportunity to rise’.
So, since we have been given this mission, and we are all in it together, why are we so slow to act? We talk a lot; we have governments who could debate the same topics 24/7. They seem obsessed with setting up enquiries; someone burned their toast – how did this happen? What can we put in place to stop it happening in the future? Maybe there should be a new governmental body?
All these debates and enquiries seem to be disguising what is in effect, simply procrastination. We need to take action; as Martin Luther King put it ‘Procrastination is the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with lost opportunity’.
Unfortunately, the mission we have been given has a time limit, we are fast reaching a tipping point, one that we won’t come back from; if you go to Co2 Now.org, it illustrates how we are adding CO2 to the atmosphere, roughly increasing by 2ppm / year.
This CO2 and other man made greenhouse gases increase the ‘thickness’ of the atmosphere. As a result it traps the infrared radiation that would otherwise be reflected off the surface of the planet back into space. This results in a heating of the planet, known simply as global warming.
It is now relatively well understood that human activity over the last 100 years has led to much higher levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. A growing population and increased demand for electricity per person has resulted in increased CO2 levels to 397ppm as of May 2012, and in the next year or so we will see this level go through the 400ppm barrier.
The last time this occurred was 15 million years ago according to Aradhna Tripati, a professor at the University of Calafornia (UCLA), when global temperatures were 5 to 10 degrees warmer than they are today. Prior to the Industrial Revolution in the late 19th and early 20th century, the carbon dioxide level was about 280ppm.
Obviously these readings ignore the estimated 48% of CO2 we have released into the atmosphere as a result of burning fossil fuels that have been absorbed by the oceans since 1800. Every day the oceans are thought to absorb an additional 22 million tonnes of CO2, which is approximately 1/3 or our daily output. This CO2 is changing the chemistry of the water, making it more acidic. The acidity is affecting the growth of coral, which use carbonate ions in the sea and prohibits the development of shell dwelling organisms living in the sea.
No one yet has been able to intrinsically link climate change with warming temperatures & less predictable weather. However the patterns do fit; glaciers melting, nine of the ten hottest years on record since 2000 (records began in 1880), increased flooding across the world and the list goes on.
Our mission, should we choose to accept it, should be a global effort to combat climate change. We have the technology to allow us to do just that, we cancapture carbon, and make useful products (not just store it), we can produce clean electricity, using renewable sources such as wind, solar, geothermal, hydroelectric and new techs that are being developed all the time.
We need less procrastination by our Governments; someone bold enough to make the big calls and implement new legislation to get the ball rolling. Legislation is present now, but we need to go bigger, brasher and better.
Now is the time for a unified generational mission so that our kids and their kids can enjoy the world that they have so kindly lent to us. After all, the actions that we carry out now will have an impact that lasts well beyond our lifetime.
As always, thanks for reading – and let us know your thoughts in the comments box below.
The Green Economy
March 15, 2012
A bit about me!
I studied Zoology at University, much to the amusement of my friends; the reasons for this area of study were twofold, firstly I had a fantastic biology teacher at school and secondly because I had a genuine interest in the environment and how humans and other animals co-habit the planet.
Since leaving university I have worked primarily in finance, which has bought a distinct sense of economic perspective to my thinking and this is based loosely on, amongst other things, the three ideas below.
Supply and Demand drive the price of any consumer item.
If multiple products are available that fulfil the same need and are of the same quality, the consumer will 9/10 times choose the cheaper alternative.
As a new commercial manufacturer there are barriers to entry in terms of competitors and higher production costs until economies of scale can be taken advantage of.
So how does a degree in Animal Science and a finance qualification shape my view of the Green Economy? I have attempted to articulate my thoughts below, making the simple assumption that Cleantech vs traditional power sources is an analogy for the wider greener Economy. I apologise now for this oversimplification.
Would I pay more (especially in these austerity driven times) for electricity that comes out of my plug socket, just because it was sourced from ‘Cleantech’ rather than from Didcot coal power station? The electricity is fundamentally identical – I can’t see it – yet from either source, I would have the power to be able to make a cup of tea in the morning.
Wallet sadly over heart
My heart says yes, I would do the responsible thing, unfortunately my rather lightweight wallet appears to be less excited, and therein lies the problem – the proposition only becomes practical and workable if the price of electricity derived from Cleantech is equal or lower than the price of electricity derived from coal.
Fortunately that is only half the story, there are other artificially created and natural factors at work helping Cleantech put up a fight. For one, OPEC, those financial geniuses who live in countries sat upon the black stuff, can restrict flow at any moment. Single handedly they can drive the price of oil up, or bring it down by controlling supply. Rather cleverly by restricting supply they are driving the price up, and even I who has only been driving for 10 years or so has seen the petrol price almost double since I first got behind the wheel.
Why is this clever? because of our complete dependence on them – we have to pay, we have no choice.
Our dependance on oil – a finite source
This brings up two points; firstly our dependence on a finite source, as the world economy continues to grow, oil will be used up quicker and quicker further driving up prices (supply / demand) that unfortunately will be reflected in your normal utility bills.
In addition our dependence is quite worrying simply due to the unrest in the Middle East, the process of weaning ourselves off this staple to our daily lives has to begin at some point, so why not now? Why not make this a gradual process as opposed to enforced cold turkey?
Thus far I have touched upon why I feel the price of fuel can only go up, but what about the other side of the coin, reducing the price of electricity sourced from ‘Cleantech’. Well as seen with solar panels, not only has the technology improved driving efficiency up, but also the price of solar PV has decreased, halving over the last two years, bringing it down closer to the tipping point where a kWh of electricity produced from Cleantech is equal or less than from more traditional methods.
The UK government is also having a part of play, as are other governments around the world. At the time of writing the Feed-in Tariff for domestic solar PV is still 43.3pence for every kWh of electricity produced. This certainly makes any of the Cleantech technologies applicable for the subsidies a very attractive proposition, however does the government acting as an artificial market maker actually help? The argument is certainly there for giving newer technologies the leg up in the same way the Nuclear, Coal, Oil plants had their helping hand back when they were new and exciting technologies. However when everyone else is pulling in their belts, even the Government now accepts that this subsidy is too generous and will decrease significantly from April 2012. On the plus side this is helping drive limited economies of scale throughout Cleantech industries, which will continue to bring the prices down in the long term.
The Deal maker – putting a value on environmental consciousness
The final point in the equation is environmental consciousness, and the value people assign to that. Obviously it is impossible to assign a monetary value to a feeling, and in also the size of feeling is different for everyone, but this could be the tipping point that could swing the balance.
If the feeling became more embedded in society, this environmental consciousness could be the real difference maker. I for one am a big believer in green technologies; I really do believe they are the future. We cannot keep going on in the same way that we currently do, our current economic activity consumes more biomass than the Earth can generate on a sustainable basis. Things have to change.
I have a feeling the process will be slow, but all the while the price of electricity derived from traditional power stations is rising, while the price of electricity derived from cleantech is decreasing, so the difference is decreasing on a daily basis. When the difference will become small enough for the social consciousness to be able to sufficiently bridge the gap – unfortunately I can’t predict. However we are getting there. Companies are becoming more focused on sustainability, and the companies that are getting it right are making strides forwards compared to their direct competitors that are failing to embrace it. This illustrates to me that it is becoming intertwined into our everyday lives. Children nowadays all know about global warming and are being educated on it from a very young age.
We are in a very exciting time, where we have the potential technologies to change the world we live in for the better, however until this tipping point is reached the economies of scale on these technologies will not be reached. When it finally does, the flood gates will open and nothing will stop it!
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