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  1. Spotlight on Policy
14 October 2021updated 02 Dec 2021 11:12am

Power to the people

From smart meters to heat pumps, technology will be key to a net zero future.

Once upon a time, the UK’s energy needs were served by a small number of large, industrial power plants that relied upon the burning of fossil fuels to create electricity. Many were coal-fired, and they contributed an enormous amount to the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. Today, only a small handful of coal-fired plants remain connected to the grid, and the UK is transitioning towards a low-carbon economy.

As we prepare for the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference, and as countries all over the world attempt to deal with the crisis of climate change, the UK has committed itself to ambitious targets for net zero by 2050. Already enormous progress has been made: In 2010, carbon dioxide emissions stood at around 600 million tonnes, but by 2019, that had been reduced to 435 million.

But the road to net zero has just begun.

An essential part of our energy transition has been a rapid move away from the old model of electricity generation, which relied on coal and gas being burnt in huge plants, and a shift towards clean, renewable energy generation in a great many more places that are spread more evenly across the country. In 2020, energy from renewable sources contributed more to the UK’s energy mix than fossil fuels. Taken together with nuclear power, 59 per cent of electricity came from low carbon sources that year.

This reformed way of energy production, distribution and storage is being developed across cities, towns and rural areas all over the whole UK. The network of electricity producers is being vastly expanded. Consumers, businesses and public institutions can produce their own electricity and even sell their surplus back to the grid. From offshore wind farms to solar panels on the roofs of homes, businesses, and even schools, hospitals and local authority buildings, energy production is moving away from a top-down model, and is being rapidly decentralised and democratised.

We’re now moving into a world of smaller, more localised energy grids and individual energy generation. This era of decentralisation goes hand in hand with our decarbonisation journey.

It’s a model which offers more resilience and sustainability – if we have more varied and diverse sources of energy, then we won’t be over-reliant on one or two centralised plants, or on importing gas and other fossil fuels from abroad.

But the new, decentralised system can’t simply be conjured into existence. It will require a data-driven, smart management system that collects, collates and organises huge amounts of information, sending signals and automating electricity flows efficiently. It will require the production, distribution and storage of energy across multiple integrated systems. And it will require the transformation of our network from a 20th to a 21st-century model. And that’s where smart meters come in.

Over the coming years and decades, in tandem with the decarbonisation drive and perhaps counterintuitively, demand for electricity is going to increase. But that rise in energy demand is linked to our collective push for net zero and is something that is positive and something we need to prepare for. The spike will have two main causes. The first is the increasing number of electric vehicles (EVs) that will be on the road. (The government will outlaw the sale of diesel and petrol vehicles in nine years, in 2030). These vehicles demand a huge amount of energy, usually far more than a normal, average household uses. They are essentially, according to Rob Cheesewright, Director at Smart Energy GB, “batteries on wheels”. Secondly, in addition to electric vehicles, the use of heat pumps for keeping domestic and commercial premises warm in winter will become more widespread as we transition away from today’s preferred method – burning gas. While they’re far more energy efficient, and while they are responsible for far less greenhouse gas emissions, heat pumps, like electric cars, will push electricity demand much higher.

So how does this relate to smart meters? Smart meters can provide constant, anonymised data from individual users to energy networks. “We’re used to the old energy system, where there were a small number of power stations, largely gas, coal and nuclear”, says Cheesewright. “They generated electricity and then we transferred that around the country to millions of homes and businesses – a relatively straightforward system.” Now, though, we’re moving towards having “millions of panels on millions of rooftops and wind generation up and down the country….and that’s more complex”, he says.

“So we’ve got a complicated supply system that we’re building, and a really complicated demand profile” – that’s once we factor in the crucial uptake of EVs and heat pumps. “Both are happening as a result of decarbonisation”, Cheesewright told Spotlight. “And so there are two crucial things we need to do. The first thing we need is data, and you need good quality information about what’s happening so you can run the system more efficiently, and run it more cheaply.” That will include sharing information with network companies about which streets and which areas of the country have trouble getting EVs or heat pumps, and therefore where investment can be targeted most effectively for the upgrade of the infrastructure.

Additionally, smart meters will allow customers with heat pumps and EVs to be rewarded with a cheap energy rate. “Instead of plugging your electric car in at the very time where it’s most expensive”, says Cheesewright – or at times of high energy demand – smart meters will allow customers with smart tariffs to automate the charging of their EVs at times when less energy is needed and when it will “put less pressure on the grid”. The same applies with heat pumps, which can be run at a more constant, lower temperature throughout the day.

Smart meters will also help solve the problem of renewable energy storage. If the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow, then renewable energy, which is as hard to store as energy from traditional sources, will be in much shorter supply. But smart meters, and the data-powered, automated processes they facilitate, will allow the grid to make use of a host of electric car batteries connected to its network in domestic settings and on roads and streets across the country, using two-way charging points that sell energy back at times of higher demand.

A low-carbon and net zero future is coming, and smart meters are key to that transition.

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