Tuesday, 23 June 2020

How the Crisis Has Offered a Glimpse Into the Future of Energy

Written by Rob Cheesewright

On Wednesday 10 June, Britain hit a significant landmark, going for two full months without burning coal to generate electricity – the longest period since the Industrial Revolution.


In a pre-Covid-19 world, this announcement would have made headline news. Way back in February, the Government announced plans to phase-out coal from Britain’s energy system by 2024. However, the subsequent lockdown caused demand to fall by an unprecedented 15 per cent just two months later, catapulting Britain four years into the future.

As millions of UK workers swapped the office for the kitchen table and the vast number of hospitality and leisure facilities were left empty, electricity consumption plummeted.

At the same time, we’ve seen record output from renewable sources, particularly solar. Oil prices have plummeted, and oil sits unwanted in tankers. So, is this what the green energy system of the future looks like, years ahead of predictions?

In some respects, yes. One way this mirrors the future is that a number of customers have been able to benefit in the form of low and even negative energy prices – some customers with smart meters have even been paid to use excess renewable energy in recent weeks by one energy supplier.

The acceleration of this trend is crucial for the stability and affordability of our electricity system. Our electricity system operator has to match the supply of energy with demand on a second-by-second basis. With increasing low-carbon generation and changes in the way we are using energy, matching demand to supply is going to become even more challenging in the future.

The necessity for us all to use energy more flexibly is becoming acute, because there is an important way in which our current situation is different to the future – rather than electricity demand dropping, it is set to radically increase. This will be caused by the move away from gas space heating and petrol and diesel-fuelled combustion engines. That means replacing gas with technologies such as heat pumps, which use significant amounts of electricity, and moving to electric vehicles.

According to National Grid, if electric vehicles are not charged smartly to avoid peaks in power demand, such as when people return home from work, peak demand could be as much as 8GW higher in 2030.

Luckily, the technology to create a more flexible, smart energy system already exists. Smart meters will help the energy system better manage and shift energy usage away from traditional peak times – which are currently most reliant on fossil fuel energy. And by doing so, households will increasingly be financially rewarded for using up those green electrons when we need them to.

And whilst electric cars increase electricity demand, they are also a solution to the problem of unpredictable energy supply. When green energy is cheap and abundant, we can store that energy in car batteries and release it later, rather than using high-carbon electricity generated later on. Better still, with the addition of vehicle-to-grid charging, we will be able to sell energy back to the grid when demand and therefore the price is high.

As the smart meter rollout recommences, engineers will play a key role in tackling the wider issue of improving home energy efficiency. The coming industrial revolution will be one built on high-value green, engineering jobs, allied to the smart use of data. The broad consensus that Britain’s economic recovery plan should prioritise green growth applies here, too. Investment in sustainable energy jobs and infrastructure should be central to any Covid recovery stimulus.

The Covid crisis has given us a partial window into the high-renewable energy future, but the truly green and cheap energy revolution, with smart meters at its heart, is just beginning.

Robert Cheesewright is Director of Corporate Affairs, Smart Energy GB