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Smart Grids: A Cleaner Planet, a Smarter Planet

01/08/2014 12:18 BST | Updated 01/10/2014 10:59 BST

Last week, Rolton Group proudly hosted the launch of the latest CTF report, which explores the vital role of a smart grid in the UK. I was invited by Dan Byles MP to open the event, and in my introductory speech I explained why the advent of the smart grid is of such importance for businesses and consumers alike:

'Before we start with the heavyweight policy discussion, I thought I might offer a brief historical perspective on electrical distribution. I say 'brief' because... things haven't changed much in the past century.

In the 1880s, the world was witness to the American War of the Currents, AC versus DC. This acronym simply stood for Alternating Current and Direct Current at the time, and bore no association to Australian heavy rock bands that would go on to use the same moniker.

After an epic battle and several high profile publicity campaigns, AC - the superior system for long distance distribution - claimed victory and DC retired hurt to contemplate a future of battery charging and powering children's toys. AC's triumph set the template for global large-scale energy distribution, and when Britain's National Grid began operating in 1933, it did so using said template. In principle, it has remained almost wholly unchanged ever since.

In the 135 years since the War of the Currents, we have discovered penicillin, powered flight, fired up the internet and been to the moon and back. Meanwhile, we haven't managed to improve the basic principles of power distribution. What's missing? The answer is simple: intelligence.

Let me explain by way of an analogy: our current grid could be envisaged as a large bucket with many taps attached to it. Into this bucket pours water from a hose, the generation sources, and the taps are opened and closed by thirsty consumers. The problem is there's no dialogue between the hose and the taps; water pours in without any control over when it pours out.

We've got away with it until now because we could turn the hose up and down to match demand from the taps. Now, however, with the decline of fossil fuel production, a shortage of generation capacity and the advent of renewable technologies, this is no longer the case.

With a growing amount of renewables such as wind, solar and in years to come marine and tidal, mother nature now has her hand on the hose; nature is moving at least in part into the driving seat, and it can't be switched on or off. The wind will either blow or it won't, the sun will either shine or it won't, and of course we all know what happened to King Canute when he attempted a bit of tidal control...

We have to get creative with our energy management if we're to ensure we have enough to meet our needs as they arise. Vitally important to achieving this is an intelligent grid that responds to demand and supply rather than arbitrary times of day.

The serious point is that we have to move away from old habits like setting time clocks; I'm sure most people have programmed their hot water cylinder to come on at some point between 6 and 8am when, in fact, it is irrelevant when that water is heated during the night as long as it's there when you step into the shower.

A smart grid should mean energy can be priced upon availability and not on time of day. Improved visibility for consumers will no doubt also encourage reduced consumption and better management of the loads on the grid, and with this visibility consumers and generators can make informed active choices about consumption to get the best from what available.

So: smart grids won't hoover the floor, do your tax return, or help with the kids' homework, and it is but one part of a much wider mix of solutions that will help us to make the low carbon transition. It can, however, make life easier and cheaper for businesses and households around the country, which is why we welcome the CTF report and are proud to introduce it today.'

For details of the event, in which Dan Byles MP formally presented the report to Baroness Sandip Verma, Minister for the Department of Energy and Climate Change, please read our press release.