Gear up for the growth of small-scale low carbon energy or the lights go out, warns think tank

The UK’s energy system must respond to the rapid growth of electric vehicles and small-scale solar power or face the consequences in the shape of blackouts and rising costs, a new report has warned.

Think tank Green Alliance urged the government to be proactive by ensuring the UK switches to a smarter power system.

This would avoid a scenario where as few as six electric cars charging in close proximity at peak time could overload the grid and disrupt the local power supply, according to its report.

It also pointed out that currently a fifth of local grids are unable to accept distributed energy such as rooftop solar.

‘Right now, technology is moving faster than the government,’ it said.

‘Recently, Tesla surpassed General Motors to become the US automaker with the highest market value, by 2020 IKEA will be a net exporter of its own solar and wind energy, and the falling price of battery storage could soon allow UK households to operate off the grid for months at a time.’

By 2020, Green Alliance believes the UK will reach a ‘tipping point’ after which the government will be unable to control the speed of small-scale energy deployment.

The report cited the example of California where power supply is protected thanks to smart EV charging infrastructure.

Maximising the potential of small-scale energy

It said four main government interventions are necessary to get the benefits of small-scale energy:

  • a new, independent system designer should be employed to ensure small-scale energy is well integrated
  • distribution network operators should be transformed into distribution system operators to actively integrate EVs and solar in a smart network
  • small-scale technologies should be enabled to provide system flexibility, for instance through smart charging of EVs
  • automation and aggregators should be adopted to make more flexible ‘time of use’ tariffs attractive to consumers.

‘Small scale energy is growing rapidly because consumers are choosing it, regardless of government subsidy,’ said Dustin Benton, acting policy director at Green Alliance.

‘It has already led to blackouts and billion pound losses for unprepared governments, and it won’t be any different for the UK.

‘But it doesn’t have to be this way. With the right policy, EVs and solar could help keep the lights on and cut consumer bills. Political parties need to outline how the large scale energy the UK needs and the small scale energy people want can work better together.’

Matthew Knight, director of energy strategy and government affairs at Siemens, said: ‘The energy transition is unstoppable and will in part be driven by customer choice, i.e. democratisation as well as decarbonisation of energy.

‘The challenge for government and industry is to help customers to make good choices. And adapt markets so that the system can benefit from the flexibility new technologies can bring.’

‘A new energy world’

Brian Tilley, head of policy development at E.ON, said: ‘A new energy world is emerging; more decentralised, more flexible.

‘We’ve adapted our business and now we believe the way the system is governed needs to adapt too. That’s why we welcome this report from the Green Alliance and applaud them in not only asking the right question but also in coming up with answers that point us in the right direction.

‘Put simply, in the coming years customers will increasingly take control of their own energy generation blurring the lines between consumer, generator and supplier.

‘The benefits of this change, if handled correctly, could be huge for both customers and the country. Ultimately, the transition to a more decentralised energy system should be grasped as an opportunity, and not be placed in the too difficult to do pile.’

Shaping the system of the future

Simon Harrison, chair of the Institution of Engineering and Technology’s energy panel, said: ‘The Green Alliance rightly highlights the challenge of mass electric car charging to our electricity system.

‘It is one of a number of challenges as we transition to a low carbon world – and in many ways these challenges upend a hundred years of how we’ve thought about the system.

‘Work undertaken for government by the Institution of Engineering and Technology together with the Energy Systems Catapult has demonstrated that the system of the future will need to perform substantially different functions to today’s.’

Dr Harrison added: ‘Most of the changes are around how consumers want to use the system – for example to charge their electric car or to generate their own electricity supply using solar panels, and the work has demonstrated that we now have to think about the decisions of individual consumers and the electrical equipment they use as much as about the planning and use of large power stations and transmission lines.

‘The way in which we govern and manage change on the system in the context of the fast moving world of consumer technology needs significant and urgent overhaul – something our ongoing work is exploring.

‘There are solutions but we must ensure that the new energy system we create is one that will serve us well beyond 2020 to accommodate not only electric car charging, but future low carbon technologies that we may not have even thought of today.’

Photo by OregonDOT

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Austin Macauley

Austin Macauley

Editor, Environment Journal

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