Smart grids - how far have we come?

21st February 2013

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Smart grids reduce energy network outages and disruption, minimise risk, lower costs, improve operational efficiency and help increase environmental sustainability.

In 2009 the UK Government published a discussion paper on the opportunity presented by 'smarter (electricity) grids'. Subtitled, a 2050 roadmap, the paper outlined the action required to transform the way the UK produced, distributed and used electricity. Three years down the line, projects and programmes are getting underway, but much time still seems to be spent in committee discussing the issue. The UK has a Future Networks Strategy Group, a Smart Grid Forum and a UK Smart Grid Capabilities Development Programme, to name but a few. The European Commission has a Smart Grids Task Force that comprises 25 separate European market associations.

There is without doubt important work to be done at the national and international level and Government funding is instrumental in getting many projects off the ground. But away from all the meeting minutes, reports and papers, where are we today in terms of actual achievement? The answer is not a straightforward one.

Complex challenges

Our electricity system is in desperate need of an overhaul. The current grid was designed to produce and distribute a predictable amount of electricity from a central source (such as coal-fired power station) to fixed destinations such as houses, offices, factories, etc. A system structured in this way cannot easily overcome the complex challenges presented by the transition to a low carbon economy, which involves huge increases in the number of renewable power sources such as wind and solar energy. Making matters yet more difficult are the global demands for cost efficiencies and for reductions in energy consumption; the need for a reliable, universally accessible charging grid for electric vehicles, and changing consumer behaviour.

Turning to IT

In other words, the energy and utilities industry needed to find a way to deliver accessible, affordable, reliable and (increasingly) renewable energy - and this meant changing the way in which energy is generated, distributed and consumed. The industry turned to IT to bring intelligence to the system, and the concept of the smart grid was born.

Smart grids have been described as the electricity 'Internet' - enabling the fast and free exchange of data among all components of the grid from generation plants to substations, home and business meters. The embedded intelligence of smart grids facilitates integration, dynamic flow, management and control, and enhanced security and process-optimisation that transform previously rigid and incompatible components into an interconnected, flexible, responsive and scalable environment.

Smart grids provide more detailed information about supply and demand so that energy operators can better manage the system and shift demand to off-peak times or re-route power when there are problems. They reduce maintenance and operating costs because they enable a more efficient use of available energy. They are vital to the UK's commitment that by 2050 virtually all electricity will be generated from clean sources.

Furthermore, with the rise in global terrorism and cyber-attack, critical elements of national infrastructure such as the electricity network are becoming areas of immense vulnerability. Smart grids play a vital role in mitigating risk across the network, as well as providing security, reliability and resilience to industries for which a constant power supply is mission-critical.

In short, smart grids reduce energy network outages and disruption, minimise risk, lower costs, improve operational efficiency and help increase environmental sustainability. Much of this may currently be lost on consumers.

For consumers, smart metering is the first visible manifestation of smart grids at work. Smart meters provide real-time updates of energy usage and are giving consumers more control over how much electricity they use and when. The Government has committed to ensuring all households have smart meters by 2020.

The second manifestation is the rise of the electric vehicle. The Government has committed £30 million in funding for the development, purchase and charging of electric vehicles, aimed respectively at manufacturers, consumers, infrastructure operators, local government and private sector electricity suppliers.

Yet the adoption of electrical vehicles to date has been discouragingly low. Just over 2,000 have been sold in the UK, with sales hampered by high retail prices, a 100 mile journey limit in terms of battery capacity and a lack of suitable charge points: the Government says there are 2,500 across the UK, but maps tend to locate around 1,500.

A smart electricity management system is vital for the successful mass uptake of electric vehicles: enabling reliable, fast charging and supporting a robust nationwide network of charge points.

Fast-charging a considerable number of cars simultaneously would currently place unsustainable stress on our electricity grid. Smart technology will be critical in mitigating demand and generation surges, for example by drawing additional power from alternative sources. This is even more important when you consider that the early adoption of electric vehicles is likely to be clustered in concentrated areas, such as urban zones.

Proof of concept projects are beginning to spring up across the country. The UK's first Wireless Electric Vehicle Charging (WEVC) trial is expected to launch in London in 2012 and will involve up to 50 electric vehicles.

At Critical Software we have created a software platform that helps charging suppliers to optimise the management of their charging infrastructure; with real-time usage and performance monitoring, centralised management and control, and seamless communication with other business areas such as billing.

These tools already support a major charging network in Portugal and we are extremely excited about getting involved with smart charging programmes in the UK.

Kick-start funding

So the answer to the question above is that some innovative projects are in place, and valuable kick-start funding is available; but real progress remains slow. Five years from now that will no longer be good enough. Smart grid capability means enhanced security and reliability of power supply in a rapidly changing world, as well as increased global competitiveness and environmental sustainability.

However, these benefits in themselves could exacerbate vulnerability to supply problems: magnified dependence on electricity would make any serious infrastructure breakdown devastating.

We cannot afford either to miss out on these opportunities, or to ignore the challenges. We must get smarter about smart grids.

Critical Software is based in Southampton, UK.

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