You can’t ignore the smart grid

Look at any magazine or website that deals with the supply and use of electrical power, and you’re almost certain to find references to the Smart Grid. Typically it’s described as something that will have implications for all users of electricity. But what exactly is it and what are its implications right now?


Let’s start with a very blunt statement; the Smart Grid is not going to go away. It will be implemented because it’s the only affordable and practical way the transmission system (the national grid) that supplies us all with electrical power can be adapted to ensure that it continues to operate successfully and, above all, reliably in future. The need for this adaptation of the grid is driven by major developments in the electricity supply sector.

Until recently, generation was concentrated in large power stations with a more-or-less predictable output. Now the grid increasingly has to cope with large numbers of small-scale green energy sources, such as wind turbines and photovoltaic solar installations, which have outputs that change dramatically minute by minute.

The behaviour of electricity consumers is also changing. Electric cars are growing in popularity and it won’t be long before there’s a big surge in demand for electricity every evening when consumers get home and plug their cars in to recharge. There’s also a trend away from say, gas fired central heating to heat pumps. They may be more energy efficient, but heat pumps are another new load on the supply system.

These changes, and others like them, will only accelerate in future and, if nothing is done, the grid simply won’t be able to cope. It will come as no surprise to hear that the solution is the Smart Grid. But what is it?

The easiest way to explain is to return to the electric cars we’ve already mentioned. Yes, most people get home around the same time, but does that mean they all need to start recharging their cars at the same time? Obviously not. So let’s control the power outlets used for charging so that some cars are charged early in the evening and others later, thereby spreading the load.

This is something that the Smart Grid could do. In effect, it allows the Smart Grid operator (which may or may not be a utility company) to monitor and control loads remotely. And we’re not talking just about cars; the same principle can be applied to any type of load. Naturally, there will have to be some form of override. It may sometimes be essential for you to charge your car immediately, for example. Undoubtedly provision will be made for this, although probably at a premium price.

All of this may sound a bit like science fiction and appear to be a long way in the future. Bear in mind, however, that the EU has already published a directive that requires 80% of consumers to be equipped with a Smart Meter (the first step towards full Smart Grid implementation) by 2020. That’s just nine years away. Now ask yourself how long you expect your current electrical installation to last, and it becomes very clear that the time to start taking the Smart Grid into account is now.

Fortunately, a wide range of enabling technologies are already available, and deploying these will not only help to make sure that electrical installations are ready for the Smart Grid when it arrives, but will also start delivering significant benefits straightaway. Examples of these technologies include variable speed drives that can be fitted to HVAC plant. These are well known to offer large energy savings compared with fixed speed starters, but if a drive with a network interface is used, it’s also ready for integration with the Smart Grid.

Another example is submetering for individual loads or groups of loads, which may, in any case, be required to satisfy Part L2 of the Building Regulations. Choose the latest meterpacks, however, which have facilities for transferring data to a network and it’s another important step towards being ready for the Smart Grid.

There are many other possibilities. However, for facilities managers and building services engineers, the most important thing to remember is that you can’t ignore the Smart Grid and that now is the time to start planning for it.

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