Last reviewed 21 October 2016

Could the need for extra gas-fired power stations to offset lulls in solar and wind renewable energy generation be replaced by smart energy metering and the Internet of Energy? And when? Jon Herbert looks at how software is beginning to beat the hardware.

A problem with green wind and solar energy production is that standby power station capacity must kick in when winds don’t blow and the sun refuses to shine — or effective energy storage technology is developed on a macro and domestic/small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) scale.

However, there might be a less costly answer. Energy efficiency is the first defence. Using less power makes good sense. The digital revolution offers two more options. Smart metering could see many household appliances — the clever washing machine — switching themselves on when national, local and neighbourhood power demand is low, perhaps at night. Even then, some moments in the night will be more efficient than others.

The Internet of Energy goes further. As power generation devolves from a central grid towards dispersed micro-energy production, the ability to efficiently link together many different users and suppliers in changing moment-by-moment patterns is evolving swiftly but is not yet quite a reality.

The concept has strong advocates. The National Grid, a London-based company managing electricity and gas networks in the UK and the north-eastern USA, believes that technological advances could come to the Government’s aid. With coal-fired power stations being shutdown to meet EU environmental rules — the last is due to close by 2020 — National Grid’s Executive Director, Nicola Shaw, sees technology as a white knight. While arguing that more investment in gas-fired generating capacity will be essential, she also says that between 30% and 50% of the fluctuations, the power grid experiences could be averaged out if businesses and households are given the ability to adjust their energy consumption away from peak times. Thus, the advent of washers, dishwashers and even fridges and deep freezers that “talk” to the system and react accordingly.

Ms Shaw explained recently, “We are at a moment of real change in the energy industry. From an historic perspective we created energy in big generating organisations that sent power to houses and their businesses. Now we are producing energy in these places — mostly with solar power.”

The price is right

Now, a growing number of businesses and general users are adjusting their energy usage away from peaks to periods when power is cheaper, incentivised by the introduction of off-peak tariffs.

The driver — enabling technology aside — is price.

Ms Shaw adds that this real “smart energy technology is altering the way energy managers and individuals are thinking about energy across the UK, with households and companies now able to generate, store and use energy flexibly as a result of new control technologies and online software”.

The move towards flexible energy is one of the early imperatives identified late last year by the newly-formed National Infrastructure Commission, on the back of energy software advances that have been described — along with solar power — by the World Energy Council as the “biggest changes in 21st century energy”.

The Commission’s Head Lord Adonis says the new energy revolution could save households some £8 billion annually, while also helping to meet carbon cutting commitments and guaranteeing secure energy into the foreseeable future.

Snapshot of the near-future

A neo-Wellsian future could see your refrigerator discussing your household’s weekly online shopping needs competitively with a range of preferred supermarkets through The Internet of Things while optimising its energy requirements — in consultation with your solar panels, home storage battery and electric car — with the world through an Internet of Energy. All without needing to involve you! Oh, and your shopping might at some point be delivered by a flying robot through the fast-developing Internet of Drones.

Different agendas

However, Nicola Shaw’s more down-to-earth prediction that winter blackouts could be avoided without the need to commission so many extra power stations from raw steel, concrete and hardwiring is not a vision supported everywhere.

The GMB is the UK’s main power workers’ union. GMB General Secretary, Justin Bowden has claimed that the National Grid is being “naively complacent”. He added, “Avoiding winter blackouts with a ‘smart energy’ revolution is fanciful nonsense, the smart grid is years away.”

Bowden’s view is that the only way to keep the lights on in winters ahead is by building new power stations, beginning with approval to start construction of Hinkley Point C nuclear station on the Somerset coast, a decision that the Government is still reviewing.

Reality is a moving compromise, with rapid strides being taken towards a digitally-modulated energy system that is not yet complete, and perhaps won’t be before major planning decisions need to be made. A fusion of optimism and realism.

Local systems

Even so, local and regional forerunners are already working efficiently setting precedents for the near future. In Britain’s Sunshine State — more accurately, the Sunshine County of Cornwall — a growing number of homes are being offered the advantages of a “sunshine tariff” by one solar-generating company. The conditions are that they agree to using technology that kicks in their appliances when the sun shines, in effect, letting software decide the best moment to do the weekly wash. More consumers will be given opportunities in the future to connect to some part of the grid online for this type of option.

Energy saving can be made in the smallest of places — the incremental gains philosophy that brought the UK cycling team Olympic success recently. One example could be freezers that switch themselves off safely for a few minutes to compensate for high-mealtime power demands. Another is when extra capacity is needed momentarily as the nation pauses to pop the kettle on during a Coronation Street advertising break. Grid operators must plan for so-called “television pickup” demand surges.

All change

By 2020, every micro-business and home will have the opportunity to change their old analogue meter for a smart meter at no extra cost. No one will be forced to join the new energy internet. However, with the price flexibility that technology is now bringing, consumers that do will be able to save money, pollution and costly infrastructure building programmes.

Part of the new energy reality is the emergence and sophistication of a growing army of micro-generators worldwide. Sharp is a Japanese electronics company that is developing software and control systems designed to allow solar energy stored by batteries in ordinary households to be sold back into the grid when power demand — and thus prices — rise. Sharp expects its system to be available commercially without subsidies as early as 2018.

The future of electric cars is a good example of the need for a responsive energy system. If everyone came home in the early evening and plugged their car into the mains, the current grid would be overwhelmed. A smart system’s ability to stagger recharging, coupled with better energy storage technology and a much wider generating base, could be critical to the successful introduction of clean electric personal and commercial vehicles.

The current problem of poor urban air quality — that is now speculated to cause brain damage and contribute towards Alzheimer’s disease — would improve too.

Help with a business problem

Some of the largest barriers to change are cultural. Human behaviour is often difficult to redirect.

Other help is at hand. The Environment Agency’s Energy Savings Opportunity Scheme (ESOS) is one several offering usage audits that are becoming the norm across industry. The manufacturers’ body, EEF, has reported that energy affordability now concerns some 83% of companies; energy costs account for more than 6% of total business turnover in more than 25%.

The EEF recommends energy monitoring and metering as a way of collecting vital data about plant performance, plus simple ways of reducing energy waste and avoiding peak tariffs. It notes that companies often hold half-hour data for electricity but work with only estimates for natural gas.

One area where more companies are beginning to drill down deeper into their energy use is by moving on from whole plant monitoring in favour of information about individual production and process lines. This opens opportunities for benchmarking performance, pinpointing energy waste from damaged machinery and installing modern control gear, which in many cases can be operated directly from a laptop.

In 2011, the internationally recognised ISO 50001 standard for energy management was launched. Like its quality and environmental counterparts, ISO 9001 and ISO 14001, the new ISO 50001 offers a comprehensive energy management strategy that includes an element of continuous improvement. The standard is designed to cut use and costs but also improves reputation, especially as it is increasingly specified by clients.