How smart energy networks will transform lives

artificial intelligence
Image by Niran Kasri from Pixabay

Ray Hammond

In this carbon-conscious age, we are all aware that smart electricity and gas meters are able to save consumers money and make energy consumption more efficient.  Although this message has been widely received across Britain, some people are still waiting to make the upgrade from analogue to digital.  In just a few years time, when the majority of energy meters are digitalized, the smart networks that will evolve inside our homes will help to change the way we live.

A recent report published by Smart Energy GB, entitled The Future Smart Energy Consumer, examines how smart meters will contribute to this transformation.

Smart meters already help us monitor energy usage in the home, sending automated meter readings to your supplier at chosen intervals, ensuring an end to energy usage estimates.  But soon stand-alone appliances may be able to report energy consumption to smart meters, allowing consumers to see which items are using what quantities of power, and at which times of day. This will allow smart meters to provide vital information which can be used to suggest energy-saving “improvements” to a consumer’s usage of appliances such as buying energy for washing machines and dryers at off peak times.

Home and power networks will be transformed as old analogue appliances such as heaters, cookers, lighting systems, air conditioning units and other domestic tools become “smart” and start communicating with each other, and with our smart meters, over different wireless networks in the home.  As more appliances become smart, your smartphone could become a secondary interface to your smart meter and the data it collects about your energy usage, data which you can monitor from anywhere in the world.

Smart meters are only the beginning of what will become low-carbon smart-energy networks in our homes.  The smart domestic ‘grids’ they help create could allow users to save so much energy that we can even start to pay off our individual historic legacy carbon footprint – carbon offsetting for the greenhouse gasses we’ve caused to be emitted.

But the really big change to domestic electricity use will occur when consumers are able to add battery storage capacity, such as a stand-alone domestic battery or a battery in an electric vehicle, to their domestic power system. This enables consumers to use their smart meter data and choose to buy and store energy when it is at its very lowest price.  Just as battery storage is the key to making renewable energy a viable alternative to fossil fuels for system operators and energy suppliers, domestic batteries will allow consumers access to the greatest price flexibility.

Over the next decade or so the software agents we use today such as Siri, Alexa and Google Home will have matured into domestic artificial intelligence (AI) systems.  With direction from the consumer their AI will be capable of running domestic power ‘grids’ entirely unaided and, using data shared by your smart meter, your AI will be monitoring prices on both the national and local networks every second of the day and night and will decide when to buy power, when to activate an appliance, how much power to divert to battery storage and how much renewable power to sell on the neighbourhood network. As climate change could bring more extreme weather by the 2030s, the energy savings made by such tightly controlled domestic power networks will be vital to get to a net zero carbon position by 2050.

Experimental neighbourhood power networks have already been trialled in Britain.  In a typical local power network individual homes, capable of producing and storing renewable energy, are linked together to form a kind of microgrid: a self-contained electricity distribution network that can operate independently of the national or regional electricity system.

The energy systems in the individual homes work together to balance the energy load across the neighbourhood network — the renewable sources harvest energy, connected electric vehicles can store electricity as needed, and large battery packs in each home can supply power when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing.

When one home produces more energy than it needs, it can autonomously make the decision to redistribute it to its neighbours or store it for later. Depending on the amount of renewable energy they capture, many homes could become net exporters of energy and make profits. By 2035 such microgrids will be common across the UK, likely set-up by smart meter data, tech companies and energy suppliers. 

Data available from smart meters in the future can also be analysed to provide help to the more vulnerable members of our society, such as supporting consumers who are not taking advantage of the increased control over power consumption that is available.  With consumer consent, individual suppliers can contact the consumer to see if they can provide advice in managing their domestic power supply.  If such a follow up suggests that further support is needed, energy suppliers can also work with local authorities or charities to provide additional assistance to the householder.

Data privacy and network security is the cornerstone of the smart meter rollout, and will be paramount on the smart energy networks of the future. Smart meters use their own secure, wireless network – they are not connected to the Internet and do not use the Internet to send or receive information. Only energy information is stored on smart meters, and this is encrypted.

In addition to monitoring energy usage and appliance performance, domestic networks could also carry data gleaned from fitness and health wearables worn by the occupants of the household.  These highly personal data will require maximum security and protection, and clear consumer consent.

By 2030 home networks will run on 5G cellular networks as well as WiFi systems, bringing the “Internet Of Things” (IoT) into the home.  As the domestic IoT matures, almost every item in the home will be connected: door locks, window latches, taps and power sockets.  This will allow consumers to manage their home in fine detail and the data an owner can access from their smart home will be rich and layered.  The top level of data will merely provide security information – “everything is as it should be”.  But if they wish, owners will be able to dig down more deeply into the household data set to manage as they see fit. 

It can be hard to visualize today how the steps we are taking now, such as having a smart meter installed, will contribute to a more efficient, cleaner future. But it is clear that each individual’s contribution to helping digitalize the energy system will bring benefits, and soon.

Ray Hammond is a world-renowned futurist, technology analyst and commentator on the digital age. Ray has spent almost four decades studying the major trends that will shape the future. He provides keynote lectures, workshops and seminars on the digital future for the world’s leading corporations. The author of 14 books about the future, a body of work which he began in 1980, stands as testament to the long-term accuracy and reliability of his foresight. His 1984 publication, The On-Line Handbook, was the world’s first book to identify the overwhelming importance of the Internet and to identify ‘search’ as the key driving force behind all future on-line advertising and digital commerce. He is based in London.

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