Networks are engaging with customers to deliver a smarter future

Energy networks are pivotal not only in securing the nation's energy supply, but in facilitating the

This winter has already seen a fair amount of bad weather. You know the usual message about not going out. Stay at home, safe, wrapped up warm. Every year this happens and every year there is one particular sector that has to ignore this advice. The energy network companies go out and battle with extreme weather and what is more they do it whilst dealing with one of the most perilous forces in nature - electricity. This has been the story of the networks. Always there, ever reliable. That is what you get when you pay the networks component of your energy bill. For just 20% of the average bill you get a national network of efficient reliable infrastructure. The wiring of Britain is one of our greatest engineering stories, if not the greatest. Other countries marvel at our well over 99% reliability. This has been our story. The silent war horse forever delivering, little acknowledged but vital.

But this is changing. Our relationship with the customer is transforming. It is nothing less than revolutionary. Increasingly the networks are becoming pivotal not just in their traditional role of securing our nation's energy supply but in facilitating the low carbon transition and vitally all in an affordable way. Something an industry that has seen a 50% reduction in real term costs since privatisation has a track record in delivering.

Addressing the challenges of energy and climate change is undoubtedly one of the most significant the UK faces. Finding a solution to a secure, sustainable and affordable energy future for the UK is in interests of government, industry and consumers - that is why creating the right balance and mix is crucial.

Renewable generation such a solar panels, wind turbines and tidal barriers are all key parts of the mix but there remains a need to store capacity on the network to ensure that the peaks of energy usage can be catered for when the sun doesn't shine or the wind doesn't blow. These important pathways to a low carbon future are not without complications. They require new technology and improved efficiency and usage of the energy they generate, and all these new technologies carry with them an element of risk. These are not risks to be feared, but issues that need to be managed.

The situation with the nuclear power plants at Fukushima in Japan has caused some to question the role new nuclear will play in the future. With this need for a balance in the mix, the part nuclear has will need to be carefully thought through. Whatever comes of reviews and discussions on this issue, with rising demand for energy, it is important to realise that a future without new nuclear presents significant challenges.

These varied challenges we face all point to a clear role for gas in our energy future both as a means of heat and generation. Gas is the cleanest fossil fuel and new technologies such as Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) and the injection of biomethane will further improve the ability to retain this capacity whilst meeting climate change targets.

The real jewel in the crown of our low carbon energy future will be 'smarter' networks. Through the creation of a Smart Grid, networks will be able to connect renewables of all sizes, from a solar panel on a roof to a wind farm on a hillside, and improve the efficiency, performance and security of energy supply. The network companies will increasingly come into contact with energy consumers. Initially this will be through the roll out of Smart Meters. But beyond this there opens up a world of new relationships between networks and customers.

This is not about the spy in the fridge. It is about the public being empowered to manage energy resources more efficiently and more effectively. Smart means power quite literally in the hands of the consumer.

Central to making this happen is engaging the customer. This presents a challenge.
Their experience is that energy supply is one of the constants in their lives. They switch it on and switch it off with as little thought as they draw the curtains or open the front door.

This is a challenge that energy network companies are more than keen to take up. Look at the projects currently underway through the Low Carbon Networks Fund. They reflect an unprecedented level of customer focus. They are all about service to the public.

Network companies know that customers hold the key to our energy future. If they can be persuaded to modify small things en masse such as modify their usage so they do not all come home at 5pm and switch on their lights, TV, washing machines at the same time, they can bring down their costs.

But this is only part of the story. We are enablers. We need our customers to use energy more constructively, and to do that we need to make it easier for them. We cannot promise lower bills, but we can help them to minimise cost rises. For the networks, this means ensuring the wires and pipes can handle the capacity at peak times. It may mean conducting electricity over long distances from source to outlet as well as connecting micro-generation and integrating the electrification of transport and heat.

We have the opportunity to inform and enlighten the public, and make them our allies. For our part, we can introduce the technological advances we need to manage demand more effectively. By working together with customers in partnership we can deliver this change and central to that is building a new and exciting relationship. To transform this relationship will mean network companies increasingly talking to the public in a way we have not done before. However we will be building on a relationship that already exists. It is based on service.

The networks combine the highest aspirations of public service with the commercial rigour to deliver it efficiently and cost effectively. Just like the lines men and women who are out this winter putting people's supplies back on. It is that very same spirit that will deliver a smarter future. Yes the relationship with the customer is changing but the networks are embracing it and delivering to the public is at its heart as it has always been.

Tony Glover is Head of Press and Public Affairs at the Energy Networks Association