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IoT will help ease transition to renewables, says National Grid chief

The National Grid’s chief executive, Nicola Shaw, wants to use the internet of things to balance energy demand as the UK transitions to renewable energy sources

Power-hungry domestic appliances, such as dishwashers, fridges and washing machines, will soon begin to use the internet of things (IoT) to operate more efficiently and smooth out spikes in demand, helping keep the lights on as the UK transitions away from fossil fuels towards cleaner renewable energy.

This was the prediction made by the National Grid’s executive director, Nicola Shaw, who said by using smarter products, the need to build conventional power stations fired by gas could be reduced.

Gas-fired stations generate around 30% of the UK’s total power needs, according to 2015 figures. The old Department of Energy and Climate Change – since wound up by prime minister Theresa May and subsumed into a new Department of Business, Energy and Industry – had committed to eliminating coal-fired power stations, responsible for around 20% of UK power generation, by 2025.

This means there will soon be a growing need to make up for a shortfall in electricity generation while more renewable options come on-stream. The previous government saw gas (and nuclear) as a means to do this, but still hopes to phase out gas-fired stations in 20 years or so, adding more pressure.

Speaking to the BBC, Shaw said adjusting peak demand using what she termed the “internet of energy” could effectively smooth over between 30% and 50% of daily fluctuations in demand on the grid, going some way to plugging the gaps in generation capacity.

In her interview, Shaw highlighted a “moment of real change” for the energy sector.

She said having historically generated power at large facilities that was then distributed to homes and businesses, these homes and businesses were now generating electricity themselves, usually through solar panels, and storing it for use later, which is becoming increasingly viable at a smaller-scale.

At the same time, she said, others were adjusting how they use their appliances to take advantage of cheaper power at certain times of day, with some providers already offering tariffs that help them do this.

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Shaw told the BBC: “All of that is a real revolution, a smart energy revolution that’s changing the way we think about energy across the country.”

In the future, IoT sensors could potentially run a dishwasher based on how sunny or windy it is outside, or switch off some appliances – such as fridge freezers – for a few minutes at a time when other devices were using more power.

Tech companies have already been exploring similar scenarios, with IBM proposing contractual agreements between appliances whereby a washing machine delaying its spin cycle until after the hours of peak consumption could be effectively compensated for turning itself off using blockchain-generated tokens.

Best case scenarios

In its recent Future Energy Scenarios report, the National Grid said time-of-use tariffs (Touts) and smart metering could reduce peak consumption among residential users by over 1.5 Gigawatts by 2035 in the best case scenario. 

This was dubbed Consumer Power, which assumes a market-driven world with limited government intervention, in which prosperity remains high, enabling more innovation, and consumers desires are put above and beyond the – now extremely urgent – need to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

The second best scenario, Gone Green, which assumes major, lasting and effective government intervention in cutting greenhouse gas emissions, achieved reductions in peak consumption faster, but the drop in consumption was not as pronounced.

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