Smart grids under scrutiny

Legislation regarding CO2 emissions and the commensurate shift toward installing renewable sources of energy has presented our utilities engineers with a unique set of technical challenges.

These challenges haven’t gone unnoticed by our representatives in Parliament and tomorrow sees the release of a report from the House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee entitled ’The future of Britain’s electricity networks’.

This time last year the Committee called for written evidence addressing a vast array of issues, notably including how the regulatory framework could encourage network operators to innovate.

One of the Committee’s particularly pertinent questions regarded the potential of smart grid technologies, and this is currently being addressed at the 2010 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Diego

Among the speakers in California is Dr Keith Bell, senior lecturer in Electronic and Electrical Engineering at Strathclyde University. Dr Bell warns that the expected global investment in smart grids needs to be matched with training to ensure there are sufficient engineers to develop and manage the technology. In doing so, disruption would be minimised when new technology is rolled out.

‘As we develop more and more renewable sources and smart devices, we will have many more devices to control and coordinate, and grid operation will become ever more complex,’ argues Dr Bell. ‘It will be crucial to meet renewable energy targets with acceptable cost and reliability of supply. To make that possible, we need to address the shortage of electrical power engineers.’

Dr Bell, whose employer is a founding member of the IET Power Academy, brings the issue of skills shortages in a burgeoning technology arena into sharp focus.

Such worries — coupled to the broad discussion surrounding the deployment of smart grid technologies — were echoed recently by Eamonn Whelan, general manager for monitoring and diagnostics at GE. In the 8 February issue of The Engineer he warned that the skilled labour required for transformer maintenance is dwindling. You can read this article by clicking here.

Remaining with skills, news that the RMT will this week open a national strike ballot, accusing Network Rail of plans to axe up to 1,500 ’safety-critical’ maintenance jobs in favour of external contractors. The ballot, scheduled for Thursday, 25 February, will be run in parallel with a vote for strike action by its sister rail union, the TSSA.

‘We are balloting for a national strike because we know that the threat to axe jobs and compromise safety standards makes another Hatfield, Potters Bar or Grayrigg disaster on the UK rail network inevitable,’ said RMT general secretary Bob Crow.

Prior to the ballot, the RMT will lobby the Department for Transport tomorrow, to coincide with the third anniversary of a Virgin Pendolino train from London to Glasgow derailing at Grayrigg near Kendal in Cumbria.

In air travel this week, a coalition of councils, environmental bodies and residents’ groups will begin a judicial review of the government’s decision to allow a third runway at Heathrow.

The group argue that the decision is based on the government’s  2003 aviation policy which is ’out of date and at odds’ with current government climate change policy.