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Crisis has given us a glimpse into the future of energy

Source: 
The Herald

LAST week it was announced that Britain had gone an entire month without coal-fired electricity generation for the first time 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, but the subsequent lockdown caused demand to fall by an unprecedented 15 per cent just two months later, briefly catapulting Britain four years into the future.

The reason? Millions of UK workers swapping the office for the kitchen table and the vast number of hospitality and leisure facilities left empty, all combined to bring down electricity consumption.

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 more 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 the rise of electric cars. 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 the supply and shift energy usage away from traditional peak times – which are currently 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’re 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, we will be able to sell energy back to the grid when demand and therefore the price is high.

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.

Iagan MacNeil is Head of Policy at Smart Energy GB

CREDIT: Drew Allan

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