Paul Reeve, Director of Business and External Affairs at the Electrical Contractors’ Association, predicts the 2017 climate for the electrical energy industry.
The production, distribution and use of electrical energy has always invited technological change, and, occasionally, commercial disruption. 2017 is likely to see further changes, with developments linked to, big data (massive information storage, with improved processing capacity), the Internet of Things (smart, communicating and actuated devices), mobile telecommunication, electric (and even automated) vehicles, energy storage and smarter supply and user demand response.
The UK is still committed to challenging decarbonisation targets, pointing to the generation of increasingly ‘low-to-no emission’ electricity. While this might suggest renewable energy, in practice it means an ongoing and huge commitment to gas-fired electricity, increasingly supported by renewables. The UK will continue to face the problem of providing a reliable UK base load for years to come, which means relying on gas-fired electricity.
Renewables are sufficiently well established that the key question is no longer how to generate enough low carbon electricity - it is how to distribute, store and use it. Battery storage is expected to develop further in 2017 but, despite considerable commercial hype, its present contribution to electrical energy storage is still minuscule. 2017 may move us towards, but it is not expected to deliver, a much vaunted ― and highly disruptive ― tipping point. This will be when the cost of storing electricity matches the cost of grid distribution, at which point a many new things become possible, such as steadily replacing gas-fired capacity. However, further technology breakthroughs in energy storage may be needed to achieve the tipping point, and to help us get there, significant government support for battery and other storage R&D is required.
The ECA asked the government for this in 2016 and their recent Green Paper on Industrial Strategy, issued in January 2017, has promised to deliver just that. One of 10 headline themes in the proposed strategy is ‘delivering affordable energy and clean growth’, where the government aims to secure the economic benefits of the transition to a low-carbon economy’.
So, while 2017 may not be the year of massive disruption in the delivery of electrical energy, we should be able to move further along the road to a functional smart grid, improved energy storage, the large-scale rollout of electric vehicles, and much smarter UK energy use.
Paul Reeve is Director of Business and External Affairs at the Electrical Contractors’ Association, and a chartered fellow of the Institute of Environmental Management.