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Smart meters and smart grids

By Dave Elliott

The newly emerging energy system will need new grids of various types. In my previous two posts I looked at international low-loss High Voltage Direct Current supergrids, and suggested that though they may well be developed in the years ahead, the process could be uneven and incremental, starting with local/national smart grids designed to aid local balancing of variable supply and demand.

Some see smart meters as the first step in that process, although others see the sort currently being introduced as being hopelessly limited – basically to just monitoring of consumers’ energy use, mainly to aid the energy supply utilities. The attraction of remote monitoring to the utilities is that they would no longer have to send out staff to read meters and could build up a dynamic picture of energy use for corporate planning purposes. Consumers could of course use the displays offered by the new meters to plan their own energy use more effectively, although it’s unclear how much impact that would have on energy use (most homes already have readable meters, after all). A national 5% saving perhaps? However at a huge cost:  the full roll-out cost has been put at £12 bn, some of which will end up on consumers’ bills: perhaps up to £400/house, assuming 30 million properties over 4 years. The roll-out was delayed to provide more time to improve the complex IT system, but it is rumbling on  That is despite it having attracted some quite savage criticisms:

Some of this criticism was focused on poor IT design and management, a familiar issue with large complex IT systems, but some was about the basic concept – the simple type of smart meter chosen was, some said, already obsolete and might have to be ripped out when new better versions emerged.  It would, for example, arguably make much more sense to wait to have a fully interactive smart meter, including pricing systems – part of a proper smart grid with interactive demand management. This is currently a major area of activity around the world. I mentioned some emerging examples in an earlier post, with demand being constrained at peak times by raising prices, and consumers being invited to respond, either directly or via automatic preset smart meters, avoiding or limiting some easily interruptable energy usages for the duration. For more see: and

There are also other dynamic power management systems that could help balance supply and demand at local level e.g. MASH – the ‘Multi-family Affordable Solar Housing’ programme – a California scheme for ‘virtual’ net metering.  It allows collectively generated solar power to be shared equally between tenants in the whole scheme. By July 2013, 6,265 social tenancies in California were benefiting from schemes that deliver almost 100% of their electricity – and the power for common lighting services – before putting surpluses into the grid.  It could also work with community wind.

Whether that sort of approach could be built on to support and link to the much wider supergrid networks remains to be seen. It’s an issue that is becoming central in Africa, where there are few prospects even for full functioning national grids in many countries – most people are off-grid.  There are plans for some large cross-Africa power grids, North and South, East and West, but it is hard to see how they will help local village-level energy users, at least for a while. So at best, green electrification means local off-grid renewables like PV, possibly in time linked up in mini local grids and later to national or even international grids: see my next post on Green Energy in Africa. Basically then, off-grid is the norm for now, local mini grids are an interim target, possibly with smart grid attributes, although in the African context, mobile phone links may have to be used instead of wired internet, for pricing signals, unless the grid itself is used. Gradually though, given local support, they may be linked to the evolving national grid and to the supergrids.

The situation is somewhat similar in Asia, although there, the huge cities and also huge spaces, some with large distributed green energy resources, perhaps make supergrids more urgent, not least for balancing power. See for example the Gobitec plan for using large CSP projects in the Gobi Desert to feed power to China, South Korea and Japan.  For more on very ambitious concepts like that see the outline by Roger Faulkner, Roy Morrison et al – who envisage an Asian Supergrid  evolving from existing and under construction HVDC transmission lines within China being  interconnected into a cross China Supergrid, which could in time also be extended across Asia creating  a supergrid-wide market for electricity, and enabling intermittent renewables to be balanced over a vast area. 

Of course some say, why stop there? Why not link up the HVDC supergrids inter-continentally to create a global grid? That would mean day-time solar generation could supply power to consumers at night on the other side of the planet.  An energy internet, shifting excesses to where they could be used.  Quite a mind-blowing idea, fraught with many challenges, and some way off from where we are at present – just struggling with smart meters!  But interconnections are already being made between large national and regional electricity systems and there are plans for more e.g. between the EU and Russia: see the RUSTEC project So the beginnings of a global grid may not be too far off:

And with a little Buckminster Fuller-like vision,  it might reach full reality:   and for the full global grid

I looked at this, and some even wider ideas for global wireless transmission of energy, in my IOP ‘Renewables’ ebook, but in my next post, I will look much closer to reality – at what can be done in Africa, where for most people any sort of grid can be rare. It’s a region I’ve been focusing on in support of the EU backed Sustainable Energy for All project on which my OU colleague Terry Cook has been working.


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