Putting the ‘smart’ into smart grid


By Eugen Mayer

With climate change right at the top of the political agenda, governments across Europe are introducing radical compulsory emission reduction targets. In the UK alone, carbon emissions must be slashed from 1990 levels by 34% by 2020, and by at least 80% by 2050.

A recent study by UK electricity regulator Ofgem suggested that an investment of up to £200 billion is required to hit these environmental targets and to secure supply. With the UK’s energy industry struggling with rising prices, fuel poverty, growing exposure to a volatile global gas market, and a raft of rapidly expiring power stations, never have governments been under more pressure to back new clean technologies, improve energy efficiency and reduce consumption.

As part of the drive to meet its legally binding targets, the UK is moving towards a smart grid model for its energy market. The smart grid is a simple idea: an intelligent power generation and distribution system that automatically balances and controls supply and demand to make maximum use of energy at minimal cost.

But while the idea of the smart grid is simple, there are significant challenges when it comes to implementation and impact. It will drive a fundamental change in the way we all consume energy and this starts with smart meters. As the communication channel between suppliers and consumers, smart meters transmit and receive detailed data on energy use. This two-way exchange of information means that consumers can play a far more active role in the supply chain, taking greater control over their energy consumption, carbon emissions and energy costs.

While the shape of the final model for smart metering remains unclear, it will certainly need to be underpinned by a solid communications network – something that is sorely lacking at the moment. Smart meters can only provide their intelligent functionality if they are supported by a seamless communications structure that provides bi-directional transmission of consumption and control data in real time. Broadband over powerline (BPL) technology does exactly that.

BPL, already widely deployed in Germany, turns existing electricity grids into an internet protocol-based communication platform. Every power line becomes a broadband data interface and power grids turn into intelligent systems, connecting to meters in homes and businesses.

Because BPL uses the existing power networks, gearing up the grid for the technology is comparatively straightforward. It eliminates the need for additional networks, support services or third-party approvals, and significantly reduces investment costs. Furthermore, as a “plug-and-play” solution, BPL can work instantly with any meter from any vendor.

As well as relatively low set-up costs, a BPL-enabled smart grid has some clear advantages for the consumer in terms of savings. Remote metering will give them a very detailed, real time view of their actual power consumption. BPL will provide the technology to enable suppliers to introduce more flexible, lower-cost tariffs at non-peak times. Access to this broader range of tariffs should also encourage consumers to reduce their peak time consumption, reducing the need for extra plants to cope with this peak demand. These same carbon belching plants could then be replaced by cleaner sources of renewable energy such as wind power.

Crucially, BPL is not a static technology: its use of internet protocol means that a wide variety of additional smart grid applications can be implemented step by step, as they become available. In the future, intelligent power networks could also be used for load management through automatic, time-of-day and load dependent adjustment of user appliances such as freezers or dishwashers.

Besides the consumer, there is one other group that could be a key beneficiary of BPL. The advent of smart metering will also support the creation of new and profitable revenue streams by the owners of the electricity networks themselves, the distribution network operators (DNOs).

The UK network is owned by a small number of DNOs, which are licensed to distribute electricity in their own particular region. As the UK moves towards wide-scale adoption of smart meters, DNOs are in a prime position to capitalise on the benefits of BPL.

With just eight DNOs, the structure of the UK market is currently very flat compared to markets like Germany, which has as many as 800. And as the network owners, they have a direct connection to every meter in the UK.

A partnership between the DNOs and BPL communications providers would be an important step towards reducing the UK’s carbon footprint by supporting the integration of renewable energies. Altruism apart, it could also generate significant benefits for the DNOs themselves, enabling them to generate new revenue streams if they have the strategic vision to grasp the opportunity to make the most of this and take the money before other people catch on. In addition to these new revenue streams, DNOs can also benefit from other applications opened up by this, such as power quality measurements and other network monitoring.

Current studies indicate that 60% of companies in the energy market plan to invest in smart metering over the next three years, with a quarter of these firms already having committed money. This level of investment by governments and energy companies alike gives a clear insight into the potential of smart metering technology in terms of improving energy efficiency, securing supply and exploring new products and markets.

As the UK approaches its carbon reduction deadlines, BPL technology makes sense from all sides of the energy equation. With the smart grid poised to transform the way energy is produced, bought, sold and consumed, BPL will provide the vital communications platform to support large scale low carbon generation through renewable sources and by helping consumers to monitor – and improve – their patterns of energy usage. As an economic, straightforward and undisruptive solution, BPL is poised to give energy suppliers the power to turn the electricity grid of today into the smart grid of tomorrow.