Our national grid is creaking at the seams, we need a new one and it would be nice if it was smart – but what does that mean and who wants to foot the bill for making it so?

These and other thought-provoking questions were tackled at an event hosted by the Westminster Energy, Environment & Transport Forum this week.

Opening the event former Shell chairman and scientific advisor to Government, Lord Oxburgh, said: “The word ‘smartgrid’ appears in every discussion of electricity supply I can think of as the magic black box that’s going to cure all of our problems of grid balancing and bringing renewables online and all sorts of wonderful things.”

But, he added, there is often a sneaking suspicion that many of those who are quite liberal with the use of the terminology don’t actually know what it means.

Professor Graham Ault, and academic specialising in this area, agreed that said there is an awful lot of froth surrounding this and acknowledged that a real, full scale, operational smart grid remained a mythical beast.

But he said that there are a number of agreed points on what would be needed.

“Networks are changing, the climate change agenda, ageing assets, the notion that customers should have more than just choice but also greater participation – all this means that grids are going to have to change,” he said.

“The power networks must change to deliver sustainable secure and efficient supplies.”

He said the goals are efficiency, sustainability, energy security and delivering economic benefits and the dream smart grid would see customer empowerment, facilities to link in renewable much more easily and an ability to ‘self heal’ in the case of outages by re-routing electricity.

IT has moved on by a mind-boggling degree since the national grid was born and there is now an opportunity to have a system that provides far more real-time data about what energy is being used and where – which can in turn enable better planning and greater efficiency.

But there is also a need for new infrastructure and public engagement – and question marks remain over how this would all be funded as under the current system, those responsible for making sure the grid is ticking over as it should be are not the ones who would reap the most obvious financial benefits through investment in improvements.

Finally, the meeting stressed that it is important not to lose sight of the fact that while benefits may appear clear, there is still a need to ensure that the public have an appetite for a smart grid too.

In Belgium, it warned, the public perception of a smart meter was that it was a spy in the home feeding back information about people’s private habits while in Australia there is a growing campaign misguidedly encouraging people to chain their existing meters to their homes so that they cannot be replaced.

Sam Bond

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