17-08-2021 | By Robin Mitchell
A recent press release by the UK Government discusses how smart energy meters and other technologies will help the UK meet its climate goals. What challenges does renewable energy provide, what solutions has the UK Government provided, and are such proposals viable?
With global temperatures rising and the weather becoming more erratic and unpredictable, governments worldwide are starting to pay more attention to climate change. Many governments want to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. The UK government has projected that all fossil fuel vehicles will be eliminated by 2040, and the need for fossil fuel power stations will be eliminated before this.
In reality, replacing fossil fuels is unlikely to happen for several decades due to the many advantages; their high-energy density makes them ideal for transport. They can respond to energy demands quickly, and they are cheap to implement.
Renewable energies are those that come from energy sources that do not “run out”. For example, coal is non-renewable as it can all be mined with no more coal available, but solar energy is renewable as the sun constantly emits light (at least for a good few billion years). While renewable energy sources may have infinite capacity, they all suffer from their own challenges, making them harder to implement than fossil fuel energy sources.
Solar energy can provide high amounts of power, but only when the sun shines and is at its apogee in the sky. Any clouds that block the sun can reduce the output of solar panels meaning that instantaneous power availability from solar panels can be highly unreliable. Wind energy suffers from unreliability as the wind does not always blow, and tidal energy can only produce energy on changes in the tide.
Other forms of renewable energy such as hydroelectric dams can provide both reliable power and react to sudden changes in demand. However, dams can only be placed where there are water sources, and the use of a dam can cause flooding upriver.
Any country that wants to become 100% reliant on renewable energy needs to address these challenges and create a dynamic, intelligent power grid that uses the best of each power source. Suppose dynamic power solutions cannot be met. In that case, countries will have to continue using fossil fuels to meet sudden demand and utilise technologies such as nuclear power to provide the bulk of energy.
Recently, the UK government released a whitepaper that outlines plans and details regarding how the UK will respond in the long term to meet climate requirements in the energy sector. The first plan to help with energy distribution and generation is to move towards smart meters.
Traditional household meters can be either analogue or digital and record the energy consumed (in kWh). However, these devices produce no output that can be measured or read over an internet connection meaning that such meters need to be monitored by hand. However, the lack of an internet connection and real-time data support also makes power generation and distribution harder to anticipate and plan.
Smart meters are those that integrate smart technologies which allow energy providers to anticipate energy demand. Renewable energy cannot be generated on demand if the source of energy is unavailable. However, it can be stored using storage technologies such as batteries, pumped hydro, and air compression. Furthermore, knowing current energy demands in real-time and creating behavioural models to predict instantaneous energy demand can allow for price scaling so that consumers can be charged less when energy availability is at its highest.
The second part of the government plan is to research into storing excess energy in electric vehicles. Excess energy from the grid can be stored in special-purpose battery units, and it is arguably more efficient to use devices that are already connected to the grid. Simply put, batteries in electric vehicles can be dual purposed into energy storage for the grid during times of peak power.
A smart charger connected to a car charging port could be made to communicate with grid controllers whereby the car is only charged during peak output. This would provide electricity at a discount rate to the user of the car, reducing their overall electric bill. If the grid experiences a sudden demand for energy that renewables cannot provide, cars connected to the grid can feed power back into the power grid using their batteries. The electricity can be purchased at a premium, incentivising car users to keep their vehicles connected to the grid. Thus, a large virtual battery can be realised that is always connected to the grid, encouraging the purchasing of electric vehicles.
The whitepaper also outlines how the use of smart technologies could provide jobs for many thousands and many billions in technology exports to other countries. As the climate crisis is a global issue, exporting such smart technologies can help improve the worlds carbon footprint while providing jobs and income.
There is no doubt that fossil fuel vehicles will continue to be available past 2040 for several reasons, including ease of availability, the cost of producing electric cars, and the environmental damage caused by precious and rare mineral mining, including Lithium. However, the popularity of electric cars will continue to increase, as will renewable energies. It is estimated that the UK already produces the most windfarm energy globally, and while UK weather may be miserable at times, it continues to install photovoltaic technologies.
The proposals relating to smart technologies and the use of car batteries for grid storage are not only practical but very easily doable with today’s technology. One challenge that the government may face is the refusal of homeowners to change their perfectly working meters for a new smart meter. These meters could be installed free of charge, but there have been many reports of such meters catching fire due to poor installation. There may be privacy concerns with a device that can monitor and control power consumption, leading to a security concern. A foreign power or attacker can gain control of an internet-enabled smart meter and potentially cut off the power as energy companies will want the ability to disconnect the power inside the meter (e.g. from no payment of bill).
Overall, the UK Government plans to show how smart technologies can help fight against climate change. Furthermore, batteries in devices to store excess energy could provide the grid with the perfect storage.