The smart meter roll-out has been bumpy, and bedevilled by technical issues around its communications systems. To date, about 6m have been installed towards the goal of achieving 50m+ installations by 2020, and the Government remains adamant that that date is not negotiable.
We are de-commissioning old coal-fired and nuclear-fuelled generating plants, and replacing some of that capacity with enormous wind farms. Solar power is becoming more commonplace (nearly 1m householders now have a solar panel on their roof), and we are experimenting with tidal power and other technologies. But all our existing cables and wires are in the wrong place to transmit this electricity to our homes.
On top of that, we are moving with increasing rapidity to electrically powered transport (100,000 electric cars on UK roads this March – a threefold increase in two years), which adds significantly to our overall demand for electricity. There is a lot of interest and investment in batteries both for cars and for the home (and the price of lithium-ion batteries has halved since 2012). Most of these developments are good for the planet, but pose significant challenges for our national and local electricity grids.
Smart meters are a key to managing demand for electricity and meeting these challenges, because they facilitate the introduction of time-of-use tariffs, which should encourage us to shift our demand by pricing energy down when there is plenty available – when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining – and moving prices up when we all want to cook a meal, turn the televisions on, and charge our car batteries. Smart appliances will enable us to do this more efficiently, with equipment such as freezers or battery chargers which only switch themselves on when the electricity is cheap. If we can smooth demand from the present pattern of peaks and troughs, we will need less generating capacity overall to keep the lights on – so less investment in pricey new nuclear generating plants.
It’s a massive new juggling act, and it needs the consumer to be participating too. Most of us don’t want to spend every minute paying attention to our electricity meters, and thankfully the smart appliances mean we don’t need to – the equipment does the work for us. But we do need to understand the principles behind the new way of doing things, so we can programme our appliances properly and use our electricity intelligently. The challenge is to spread that consumer awareness and influence consumer behaviour in quite a short period, before all the other changing elements overwhelm our grids, and the lights really do go off.
Older householders, comprising one third of householders in the country, have a massive part to play in managing this energy revolution. It has been quite hard in the past to persuade people even to adopt energy efficiency measures which would keep them adequately warm at an affordable price, but now the stakes are getting rapidly higher. We all need to get smarter about using energy and what it is costing us.