Global demand for energy is never going to diminish. However, it is set to change significantly over the next century, as governments pursue cleaner energy policies and consumers rethink how they use, and even generate, power. To support this change, a countrywide rethink of the networks that manage the flow of electricity is required. But this isn’t just a job for energy providers. To create the converged approach so central to making smart grids a success, telecommunications companies have an important contribution to make.
The changing face of energy users
Within just a few decades, much of the technology we rely on will be very different, and this will have a big impact on our energy usage. By 2030, for example, the UK has pledged that half of all new car sales will be hybrid or electric. As reliance on petrol diminishes, people are likely to have significantly higher electricity demands.
There will also be greater requirements on the grid at certain times – such as when large numbers of 9-5 workers return home, and need to charge their vehicles. Likewise, the inevitable ban on petrol cars will eventually transform ‘petrol stations’ into charging points, with super-fast ports that can bring an electric fleet vehicle back up to full power in just minutes.
But it isn’t just a case of using energy differently. Whether in pursuit of cheaper bills or environmentally friendly credentials, the small-scale energy generator is also on the rise. Consider solar power – in 2017, the UK led the way for European solar growth, and solar power is expected to provide half of global electricity generation by 2050. Businesses with significant real estate, like warehouse roofs, could stand to generate large amounts of their own power.
We need to think about energy customers in a different way. They’re no longer just consumers – they’re producers, selling energy back to the grid. Which means the existing power networks need to be reimagined, creating more flexibility, better management of capacity, and above all, more intelligence.
Creating a two-way smart grid
An initiative called the Open Networks project is leading the way, spearheaded by the Electricity Networks Association (ENA). The project aims to help networks shift from simply delivering energy to becoming the smart platform for a range of technologies that generate, consume and manage electricity. Through this, local networks and smart cities can become more active managers of supply and demand – in time, turning DNOs into Distribution System Operators (DSOs).
Telecommunications providers are essential to this process. For a start, telecommunications companies can assist with connecting those who are generating energy back into the grid, which is vital for the two-way purchase and sale of energy to succeed. Substations will need higher capacity and faster connections – provided by fibre – in order to facilitate this flow, so it’s clear the telecommunications companies need to be part of this conversation.
From a management perspective, telecommunications providers also have a valuable contribution to offer. In a two-way system, there needs to be interfaces on either end that can communicate effectively with the system and, in time, local areas as a whole. The technologies that will be used in the two-way grid, like smart meters, can already be seen in telecommunications. In a smart grid, these communications will facilitate real-time monitoring and help to manage demand and supply. As such, it’s essential these devices are supported by rapid and robust fibre connections that won’t fail when so much is relying on them.
Convergence is key
Finally, from a purely practical standpoint, telecommunications and energy companies need to work together to ensure a converged smart-grid future is created. One of the challenges at the moment is that, as a great deal of smart energy technology is in its infancy, there’s no standardisation across strategy or end-user interfaces. To consider electric cars again, there are different schemes across the country for using charging access points, rather than a standardised approach. Likewise, smart meter providers each currently offer their own solution – which then becomes obsolete as consumers switch suppliers in pursuit of better pricing.
If this scattered approach continues, there could be serious problems for widespread integration down the line. If the country is going to make the most of the opportunities created by the shift to DSOs, everybody needs to work together to create a cohesive plan, instead of forging ahead in silos.
Ultimately, there’s a lot of buzz around this conversation at the moment. In reality, very few people know for sure exactly what shape a smart grid will take, or how it will be implemented. What we do know is that this isn’t just a job for the energy companies. Telecommunications providers have a role here, too. Because while the benefits of moving from DNOs to DSOs could be significant, it will only work if it’s planned and carried out in a clear and strategic way – and, most of all, supported by reliable connections.