As society changes, so does the grid that powers it

Changing power consumption patterns spark a fundamental rethink

The consumer can’t see it, but the electric grid that keeps their home lit and their gadgets charged is undergoing a fundamental change.

Solar panels are being installed on rooftops and community energy-sharing schemes are emerging in towns, cities and villages. Electric cars on rapid charge are slurping far more power than traditional domestic appliances. Smart meters allow households to monitor their usage for the first time.

But the change is driven not only by technology. Much is being driven by changes in lifestyle. Our society is powered by the grid, and as society is undergoing rapid change the grid needs rapid change too.

Traditionally, power came from large, coal and gas-fired plants. Demand was largely predictable, right down to the spike in demand during the Coronation Street ad break when the nation put the kettle on.

This old model, however, is becoming obsolete. Fragmented working and living patterns mean we no longer come home and switch on the TV at predictable times.

The complexity is multiplied by the move to low carbon power. Consumers are increasingly choosing renewable energy, and the government has pledged to cut Britain’s carbon emissions by 2050 to 80 per cent of 1990 levels. Unlike a constantly running coal or nuclear plant, however, the electricity produced by renewables is often dependent on weather – creating a fluctuating supply of power that needs to be balanced if the grid is to receive the reliable, consistent flow of power it needs.

In the future, anyone could be a producer and a consumer of energy

These factors add up to a big change. Sotiris Georgiopoulos, head of smart grid development for UK Power Networks, which owns and maintains the electricity cables in southeast England, the east of England and London, says the biggest change is that electricity is moving from being a utility to being a commodity.

“In the future, anyone could be a producer and a consumer of energy,” he says. “You might be able to use your electric car to power your house at peak times, or sell solar energy you’ve generated from your rooftop panels to the network.”

Big business is getting in on the electricity-as-a-commodity trend too. Companies known as aggregators are working with major users of energy, such supermarket chains, to reduce their electricity use. They then sell that power use reduction to the National Grid, which profits from not having to pay power plants to increase generation.

As a result of these innovations, grid operators are facing seismic changes to their ways of working and talk of decentralised “smart grids” abounds in the energy industry. These new grids don’t just transfer power from big central plants to customers; they can move power both ways. For the traditional power suppliers and distributors, these changes pose a huge risk – or opportunity.

Andrew Burgess, associate partner of energy systems at regulator Ofgem, says electricity suppliers who fail to evolve will suffer. “For suppliers, their traditional business model is being challenged. It’s up to them whether they adapt to these changes.”

Eric Brown, director of innovation at government-backed energy researchers Energy Systems Catapult, says the UK simply cannot afford not to embrace such a future. “Without making the grid smart, the changes in generation, the growth of electric vehicles, and digital advances will force industry and government to deliver new power plants and grid networks – and at a high cost. This won’t be needed if the grid can be enhanced to be smarter instead.”

There may be opportunities in the future for consumers to trade electricity with each other

So what does all this mean for the consumer? Mr Brown reckons our relationship with electricity will become more localised and responsive. “In the future, consumers will be able to use smart appliances to reduce their electricity use at times of high demand, and take advantage of lower price periods if costs vary at different times of the day. They could also use their own solar panels to charge their electric vehicles.

“There may be opportunities in the future for consumers to trade electricity with each other, and enjoy increased options around who to buy electricity from.”

Mr Burgess of Ofgem says the general public should not notice these shifts: the transition to an app-driven, self-generating, low-carbon, localised power grid should be seamless. Indeed, some of these advances are already happening: new battery storage units such as the Tesla Powerwall, for instance, can store the intermittent power from renewable energy sources in homes and communities to be released to the grid when it is most needed. Demand can be managed too: apps and smart appliances are allowing consumers to track their home energy use (and expenditure) and make adjustments via their smartphones.

Olivia Gagan is a journalist writing about energy, sustainability and culture for titles including The Times, The New York Times and Time Out London.