Smart Grid – How to teach an old dog new tricks!

Electricity MeterAlthough the ‘smart grid’ means different things to different people, there is the general idea that it all means big change.  But the smart grid isn’t all about brand new technologies.  Managing and storing electricity from the intermittent renewables, our electric vehicles charging in the garage and our incredibly efficient appliances at the other end can just mean using what we already have in a better way.

Demand Side Management (DSM) is about managing intermittent supply with flexible demand but it sounds like something right out of a textbook – so what does it really mean?   It means that instead of making sure there is enough electricity in the system to meet your demand for kettles and fridges and phone chargers, in the future we will have to match the demand to the available supply.  That’s what DSM is all about.  It isn’t new and can be as simple as turning things off when the supply is low, when it is less windy for example.  But how simple is that, in practice?  Well, as many researchers will tell you, not very!  Being able to reduce demand on cue involves predictions of supply and demand in order to know when you need to drop demand – you can’t just ‘turn off the lights’.   So how else can we manage the levels of supply and demand?

Another aspect of DSM is to generate electricity and export it to the grid when supplies are low.  That’s where the humble diesel generator comes in.  They exist up and down the country as back up for companies in case of power cuts.  We have research being undertaken in the SEE ERL discussing the financial and technical benefits to using these generators in a more effective manner.  It can be as simple as moving pre-existing maintenance schedules to peak electricity consumption periods in the day which can help with network management and make the companies who own the generators money!   Generating more locally to the peaks in demand could assist in reducing transmission losses as well.

The principle of using what we have in a better way has to be a core principle of moving to a more sustainable society.   We can’t replace everything we have every time there is a new technological breakthrough.  You can’t knock down the 25million households in the UK because we have found a more energy efficient way to build them.  Instead we add insulation, advise residents on how to use them in the best, most ‘intelligent’ way possible.

The smart grid is about enabling consumers to use electricity more ‘intelligently’ – when there is enough supply available – as well as generating and transmitting it more ‘intelligently’ as well.  Consumers aren’t just in the home but in the commercial and industrial sectors too and here there is more scope to change electricity consumption patterns.  Some enablers may well be brand spanking new technologies but don’t underestimate the contribution of what we already have.  Let’s get teaching our old grid system some new tricks!