Smart, flexible electricity for a greener Britain
The energy industry is undergoing rapid change. Alongside increasing decentralisation and digitalisation, rapid deployment of renewable energy sources is driving decarbonisation.
In May this year, the UK experienced its first coal-free fortnight since the industrial revolution and offshore wind will soon be commercially viable without subsidies.
With these exciting changes come new challenges. Just as it is hard to predict the weather accurately, it can be hard to forecast supply from weather-dependent energy sources like wind and solar. Not only that but unlike conventional fossil fuel generation, solar and wind farms cannot easily be turned up or down to meet the country’s demand for electricity.
These factors make the job of National Grid Electricity System Operator more difficult as it needs to balance supply of electricity with the nation’s demand every second. Since the supply of electricity is becoming harder to forecast and control, how we use electricity in the future will need to be much smarter and more flexible than today.
The rise of electric cars in the UK is a good example of how various systems might one day work together to enable this. As electric vehicle drivers undertake long-distance journeys, they will need to charge their cars along the way just as we need to refuel now. Charging a single car in just a few minutes needs high power flows – equivalent to turning on hundreds of kettles at once – which can put pressure on the local grid and might not line up with the country’s renewable output.
To help achieve the UK’s net-zero ambitions, we want the future electricity system to work as efficiently and as cleanly as possible while minimising costs to bill payers. To do that it would be helpful if we could nudge drivers to charge their cars in a way that works in harmony with the electricity system and without causing drivers any inconvenience.
One solution could be to combine real-time updates from electricity transmission and distribution system operators with GPS navigation systems and intelligent pricing at charging stations. Future ‘smart satnavs’ could suggest routes that optimise for both the electricity network and traffic. Drivers could be rewarded with lower electricity prices or a free coffee if they use a particular charging station, or if they are happy to take a little longer to charge
Such a smart system could also influence when a driver stops to recharge – either earlier or later – depending on when there is likely to be more or less renewable generation available. Drivers could be offered a discount or even free electricity if they accept the suggestion, all while making better use of our renewable energy resources and reducing costs for bill payers.
By combining multiple datasets like electricity demand and generation forecasts and accurate location data with tools like intelligent pricing mechanisms the whole system can be optimised to work in everyone’s best interests. While this vision of the future is no pipe dream, it will take strong ambitions and coordinated effort from a diverse mix of people, including the network operators, charging providers, interactive mapping providers and of course the drivers themselves.