Our electricity grid is an amazing thing. From the humble beginnings with the Electric Lighting Act of 1882, it has constantly evolved over the last century into something that millions of us take for granted – and couldn’t live without. It delivers an average of 871 million kilowatt hours of electricity to consumers each day to power everything from your old fridge to your shiny new Android phone.
But that is all set to change.
The nature of the supply and demand of electricity is rapidly changing in a way we have not seen before. The introduction of new low carbon power generation is shifting the traditional transmission model – one dominated by a handful of large scale generators – to something more distributed. Rather than a handful of industrial sites, the future of generation can come from a variety of locations: marine turbines under the sea, wind farms both on and offshore, solar panels on roofs – to name just a few.
These structural changes provide a whole host of challenges and opportunities in the way we think about the generation, transmission and use of electricity.
The concept of a “smart grid” is the approach to modernising our aging electricity system. By incorporating modern computer-based monitoring and control techniques, virtual power plants, advanced transmission systems, and local demand response technologies our electricity grid can be ready to adapt to the low carbon future and continue providing us with our daily electricity needs without interruption. Most importantly this balance and certainty of supply should result in lower or stable electricity bills relative to the associated upgrade costs for consumers for years to come.
Many of the individual pieces that make up a smart grid are available today on a commercial or near commercial basis. You could go out to purchase and install any number of solutions for your home or business, from control and monitoring systems like smart meters and in-home displays to distributed generation like solar panels or wind turbines. However, without grid-level integration, you would be working in isolation and won’t fully reap the benefits of balanced demand and lower utility bills.
Despite enormous potential there has been limited progress at a practical level on implementing smart grids.
Wales, with less than 5% of the population currently provides just over 7% of UK power generation and 6% of the UK renewable generation. Our recent work with the Welsh Government has shown that Wales is uniquely positioned to lead on smart grids.
With its ICT and advanced manufacturing sectors Wales is well placed. The Superfast Cymru programme will deliver high speed fibre broadband communications to 96% of homes and businesses by 2016 – one route to enable smart grid deployment.
Wales has also embraced the widespread installation and use of best practice domestic low carbon technologies – including distributed generation – installing solid wall insulation, solar photovoltaic panels, solar water heating, and heat pumps through the multi-million pound Arbed housing retrofit programme.
Its proven convening power to create public-academic-industry partnerships will be essential in piloting smart grid technology on a large scale.
Smart grid development in Wales is much more than supporting the move to lower carbon energy sources. For Wales it would ensure security of supply locally while promoting growth through electricity and technology exports. Our initial analysis has indicated that the benefits are significant; unlocking some £820 million of economic activity and creating over 10,000 local jobs linked to the growth of a local knowledge, skills, and manufacturing supply chain.
Welsh coal fuelled the industrial revolution – and through early adoption of smart grid development, Wales can now help to fuel the low carbon revolution, modernise the electricity grid, and create thousands of new local jobs. Now that really is smart thinking.