Blown Fuse - We need power before brains


Surprised not to have stirred up a hornet's nest when he first ranted about smart metering, our resident cantankerous commentator has another go, arguing smart grids are great - but we still need more power first if we are to meet our future power needs

A while back I had a slightly tongue in cheek, albeit opinionated, outburst about the concept of smart metering. I implied that electricity companies would welcome smart meters in homes because it benefits them to a far greater extent than it would consumers. While I still hold this to be largely true, I was surprised not to have been pilloried and castigated - among the more polite descriptions - for my somewhat outlandish comments. Maybe I was actually on the button.

More surprisingly, I didn't get a lambasting from those involved in smartening up the grid, because I hadn't specifically drawn a distinction between home metering and intelligent distribution metering.

What has prompted this month's diatribe was a conversation I had recently with one the people who sits on Beama's smart grid committee. He is a very practical chap and heads up what is probably the UK's sole remaining (albeit highly successful) manufacturer of switchgear and protection relays for power stations, DNOs and others.

He, like me, sees no future for Britain's power generation that does not include a large nuclear component, so we had much in common to begin with. Still, with Chris Huhne's latest u-turn, we may yet see an advance in our build programme.

We drifted onto the subject of smart metering and while I had felt that the earliest investment should come in reducing transmission and, more significantly, distribution losses, it seems that smart metering on the grid can at least alleviate or mitigate for some of those losses through greater efficiency. As we chatted it became clear that we shared a concern as to how all this might be implemented.

One of my great concerns relates to our privatised electricity sector. Nobody can ever accuse me of being a left winger, but I remain bothered about the incentive for private providers to invest in what is, in the main, a truly crumbling infrastructure. Naturally, the laws of physics dictate that there be losses in the transmission of power - especially in places where lengthy cable runs exist. But that doesn't excuse or explain subsequent losses in the distribution networks. It has long been held that for every 1kW of electricity used by consumers, as much as 3kW must be generated.

Dr Howard Porter, chief operating officer of Beama stated earlier this year that: "Crucially to make the ‘smart revolution' happen and realise the potential smart technology opportunities open to us, the energy and electrical sectors must ensure the right pan-industry skills are in place. We must be on the pulse of - and harness - convergence and the rapid developments in telephony, which will have a major role in network and smart grid solutions". I say hear hear to that. But, while the technology, expertise and cooperation may be able to be put in place, that does nothing to address any potential lack of will.

I see quite clearly how a smart grid would benefit control of energy consumption. I remain unconvinced that in isolation - without massive investment in generation (nuclear) and infrastructure renewal (from substations to cabling and transformers to switchgear) - such control delivers long term solutions to energy requirements.
The question is what is our priority? Part of me says we must champion the implementation of new smart grid technology. Another says that state of the art control of wholly inadequate power generation is less desirable than an archaic but plentiful supply.

For the nation's health, what's needed first, a state of the art kitchen with computer controlled appliances, or a ready supply of fresh ingredients?