Recent developments demonstrate that the government is committed to reducing carbon emissions and introducing cleaner energy, but will the grid be able to cope with the changes to come? Dr Edward Colby, chief technical officer at smart meter and smart grid organisation, Sentec, examines how smart technology can help

The introduction of legally binding emissions targets in May and the publication of the Electricity Market Reform whitepaper in July, show the government’s commitment to cleaner energy. It’s great to see the government looking for ways to encourage renewable generation and reduced energy consumption. However, all these technological changes will put an immense strain on our national grid. For the network to cope with the strain, careful investment is needed.

Room for renewables

One thing that is agreed is that the grid will be required to deliver more energy than today. This increased demand will be met through a combination of new generators, renewable generation and distributed micro-generation. Today, if you plug-in your electric vehicle it is likely to be charged from a nuclear power station. Tomorrow it could be charged from a combination of your neighbour’s electric vehicle, which knows that it will not be needed today, another neighbour’s solar panels, a wind farm and a nuclear power station. However, this combination of sources poses a challenge to the grid.

For example, solar power has immense potential, but for that to be realised it’s essential that this source can be properly integrated into the network. There are some specific issues associated with the efficient use of solar photovoltaics in the network, for example, co-ordinating with demand response and the provision of storage capacity, currently not available, to allow the maximum penetration of low carbon energy sources.

The PEV challenge

Plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) are expected to cause the most significant increase in energy consumption. For example, the Mitsubishi MiEV PEV was launched in Japan in 2010 with a 16kWh battery pack, giving a range of 80 miles. Assuming 50% daily usage and a charging efficiency of 80%, this vehicle will increase the power consumption of an average European home from 350kWh to 580kWh/month, or a 65% increase.

With many major car manufacturers now showcasing eco-friendly vehicles, it seems that the electric car is on the verge of achieving a long awaited breakthrough in the UK market. However, wider adoption could be hampered by concerns that the grid will be unable to cope with the pressure from thousands of new electric vehicles, all of which need to be charged, putting substantial pressure on an already strained system. This increased demand may be met either through upgrading the capacity of the grid or through smart operation of the existing infrastructure, operating the distribution grid with average consumption closer to peak. Of these the latter is considerably more cost effective.

A smart solution

The forthcoming introduction of smart meters across the UK will provide a vital interface into the home, and a potential gateway for electric vehicles to manage their charging patterns. The two-way information exchange provided by the smart meter will also enable utilities to give their customers far greater control over their energy consumption by offering favourable tariffs designed to encourage them to charge their cars at times that avoid piling additional pressure on the grid. However, smart metering and TOU tariffs are not enough to resolve the issue of spikes in power consumption associated with EVs. A grid wide intelligent management system needs to be created to spread the start of EV charging over a period of time and prevent the needle peaks in consumption which would occur if everyone decided to charge their cars at the start of the cheap tariff each night.

Targeted reinforcement of the grid would create a smart grid, which brings a whole host of benefits including better utilisation of renewable energy resources. The government must demonstrate leadership in the development of the smart grid to address these concerns, which will be particularly challenging in the UK because of our fragmented energy industry. It’s also crucial that the interests of generators, DNOs and energy retailers are aligned. If we don’t have more ambitious timescales the UK is in danger of being a follower rather than a leader in this space.

The US now has a thriving smart grid sector valued at more than $21bn. In the UK, on the other hand, we have a smart meter roll-out which is yet to formally begin and only a tentative proposition for a smart grid. It’s a necessity to invest in the smart grid to make the most of our new methods of generation, and to allow for the extra capacity that will be required for future demand, for example, electrification of heating and vehicles. Additional government support for pilots for smart grid schemes, as well as a detailed review of the market to minimise the barriers to adopting smart grid technology, would be a sensible next step. We have the home grown engineering skills to produce the innovative solutions needed, what we need now is more government direction and leadership.