Communication will allay resistance to smart grids

Features editor

The ways that we generate and use power are, as regular readers will know, among the most daunting challenges facing engineers today. Whether it’s developing new forms of electricity generation, refining existing processes or improving efficiency of machinery and appliances, the landscape of energy involves pretty much every engineering discipline, and there are no easy solutions.

In our upcoming issue, we look at one of the least-understood but possibly most important aspects of the energy landscape — distribution, and more specifically the concept of the smart grid. It’s a term that’s been thrown around by many players in the energy sector, all of whom seem to have a different take on what it means. Perhaps as a result of this, it’s already becoming a target for cynicism — just another buzz-phrase to justify increasing bills, the critics allege.

But introducing data processing into the grid is a vital step in the way that electricity distribution will be managed in the coming decades. As we move towards generating from many diverse sources, operating at different — and, in the case of renewables, often uncontrollable — times of the day, the grid needs to be more flexible in the way that it receives and manages power.

That’s uncontroversial; the tricky bit is the other end of the process. Introducing smart metering for energy consumers is the part where it could all fall down, because it means bringing new, unfamiliar equipment into people’s homes and expecting them to change an aspect of their lives which they’d not paid much attention to until now. This sort of thing is notoriously difficult. Moreover, the equipment in question will transmit data about energy usage back to the supplier — and this at a time when everyone is being warned to be much more cautious about who has access to personal information.

Our feature reports about the efforts in the Canadian province of Ontario, where smart grid pilots are being introduced in many communities. The message from there is that domestic buy-in is vital, and the information sent out to people has to be carefully drawn up to allay possible fears and point out the advantages — access to cheaper tariffs at different times of day, the information needed to conserve electricity. Anyone setting up smart grid infrastructure has to build data privacy safeguards into the system.

There are several ways that UK firms could approach the introduction to smart grids. One might be to make the domestic side as easy to handle as possible, minimising anything that could change the way people currently interact with their energy supply. But this would also reduce the opportunities to save energy and reduce bills. The idea of the data link, with its advantage that you only ever pay for the energy that you use and don’t have to worry about estimated bills or meter readings, has to be very carefully handled; its downside is that there will be, for the first time, a piece of telecommunications equipment in every home which cannot be switched off. People will, quite rightly, be wary about this and their fears must be addressed.

Perhaps more than any other introduction of technology, smart grids depend as much, if not more, on the way that users are educated, rather than the development of the technology itself. And let’s be honest, addressing the public is not one of the historical strengths of any of the UK engineering sectors. Anyone involved in this field has to pay attention to how they communicate, and to look carefully at the efforts of other countries approaching these issues.