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The Electric Future is Bright

Fri, Aug 04, 2017

 Electric Future (cropped)

A flurry of recent political announcements should have given those working in electrical engineering cause to celebrate as the UK Government revealed it plans to bring in some very significant changes to rules around energy in the UK. 

Key to the shake up is the announcement that it will bring in regulations to enable home owners to generate and use their own power, store it in batteries and sell it into the National Grid as part of a new “Smart Systems and Flexibility Plan”.

Small energy producers, such as households with solar panels, micro wind or hydro generators, will be encouraged to use electricity in a way that balances demand on the National Grid through support for smart and battery technology to better manage surplus production and to help with potential deficits in supply.

By the end of 2020 all households are to be offered a smart meter, which will enable suppliers to make smart tariffs more widely available to consumers. The government hopes that this will allow everyone to manage their energy usage more effectively and be rewarded for making adjustments at peak times. Consumers with smart meters will be offered an in-home display that lets them see how much energy they are using and what it will cost - there will be no need to manually read meters as smart meters communicate directly with the energy supplier.

The plans will also include changes to the way that energy suppliers account for the energy they buy through increases in smart tariffs and a new framework for digitally enabled white goods and electric vehicles that respond to price signals and use electricity when it is cheapest. These changes are a long time coming, and reflect the significant advances in technology used in digital appliances, vehicles and batteries.

However, if the UK is to truly embrace flexibility in energy consumption, improvements in the efficiency and cost of energy storage systems will be needed to encourage consumers to use them. The announcement includes proposals to create a "battery catapult" to provide research and development finance so that the wider UK economy can benefit from developments in the battery industry. It is also important that the changes ensure that it is the ultimate consumer who benefits from these policies, and does not exclude occupiers and tenants.

All of this is great news for consumers, but there is a larger challenge for Governments both sides of the border when it comes to heating, which accounts for approximately two-thirds of domestic energy consumption. The research and development going into fuel cell electric vehicles could help with the decarbonisation of domestic heating but costs will need to come down significantly. If this research discovers that surplus and stored electricity from micro generating stations could be turned, cost effectively, into gas it could also be used to supply the heating needs of the UK.

The National Grid claims that more than a third of fluctuations on the grid could be smoothed out by consumers adjusting their demand at peak times and by encouraging behavioural change there is huge scope to reduce energy bills for all - Ofgem have quoted savings of up to £40 billion by 2050.

More broadly, the UK government is starting to think about how energy can be generated and consumed in a more efficient, cost effective and environmentally friendly way. While it will be a few months before the regulations are drafted and submitted for public consultation, these announcements show that the government has realised that using energy more flexibly will benefit everyone.

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