The timetable for the UK's energy grid will be driven by a combination of political, regulatory, technical, economic and market factors, but it will be the electricity infrastructure that will serve the UK for at least the next century.
Much as the internet has, it will spark new technologies and present new business opportunities for those involved. In addition, the smart grid promises to deliver a fundamental positive impact on the environment. These are exciting times, but they are not without substantial challenges.
The energy grid will integrate renewable sources from the high end, such as Scottish wind farms, to the low end, like individual solar panels. It will need to be able to deal with volatile and weather-dependent energy. It will also need to be able to facilitate the storage of excess electricity generated during off-peak times to meet peak demand. The grid must therefore be integrated with communication systems to combine, co-ordinate and control the myriad of systems that are attached to it.
Smart grid, smart generation and smart metering all have their own set of output requirements but despite this they must work in complete harmony to deliver on the smart grid promise. As with all major developments of the 21st century, the transformation to smarts will entail the adoption of IT - it simply can't work without it.
Added to that, with the advent of the smart grid comes sophisticated smart metering, which has the potential to mimic the retail customer experience we are accustomed to. For example, when we are at the checkout in the supermarket we know exactly how much our shopping will cost. We don't get an estimated bill a few months later. Smart metering means customers are no longer kept in the dark about their electricity charges, which is not just good news for them, as the end of estimated bills will allow utility companies to manage their finances even more closely.
Applications are also key to giving the smart grid intelligence, much in the same way that they have invigorated the internet and mobile data industry. Two main types of applications will help the grid become smarter; applications within the core of the energy network, focused on efficient management of energy production, and applications that will allow consumers to make voluntary or automated decisions to control energy demand in their home.
Applications within the core of the energy network will allow better visualisation, analytics, and automation of the management of power production, and its distribution around the network. This will make the UK more efficient by minimising the over-production of energy needed to deal with peaks in demand. Ultimately the consumer will benefit from a more efficient cost base for energy producers and distributors with better tariffs.
At the other end of the scale there are applications, web-based or otherwise, that will allow consumers to make decisions about the energy usage in their home. An example is deferring washing machine cycles to the middle of the night when energy use is low and therefore cheaper, or allowing them to control individual devices.
A parallel development associated with the smart grid will further help with control and efficiency of energy usage. As the smart grid emerges, we expect to see many more communications chips embedded in all sorts of devices such as cars, public transport, vending machines, parking meters, consumer appliances, and so on.
These chips will allow everything to communicate with everything and will ultimately help form an important building block for the "internet of things".
The complex processing, and applications needed to manage and make sense of all of that data is a third important application set related to the Smart Grid.
These applications, by sharing location-based information and details on the state of the device or any other useful parameters, will make a range of products more efficient, and this will allow the more intelligent management of power.
For example, one of the key goals of the smart grid is to facilitate the use of electric vehicles. Applications within vehicles, communicating through the smart grid cars and roads could allow better traffic management. This will give drivers and traffic controllers the opportunity for real-time decision making such as creating diversions to improve traffic flow.
In a world where there is a proliferation of electric vehicles, better traffic management means more efficient use of battery power and smarter use of power - as well as less stressed consumers.
The ball is definitely rolling as far as grid is concerned. Ofgem recently launched a new framework designed to stimulate the investment needed to roll out smart grid technologies. The UK's electricity delivery system or "grid" was built when energy was relatively inexpensive and, while minor upgrades have been made to meet increasing demand, the grid still operates the way it did almost 100 years ago. It is not well suited to distributed, renewable solar and wind energy sources, and investment is essential in order to unlock the cost and fuel savings that cleantech and smart grid technologies can offer.
While increased investment in rolling out smart grid is obviously essential, what is equally important is to ensure collaboration between the energy and telecommunications industries and between the different parts of the energy industry itself if we are to reap the rewards that the smart grid promises.
Amy Cooke is strategic business development director at Cable & Wireless Worldwide