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Blog Post 4 February 2020 Updated 30 October 2020

Balancing the grid with smart meters

by Tom Shearman

With UK renewables setting new supply records, balancing the national grid with this fluctuating energy source is a pressing issue with a simple solution – smart meters.

On 8 December 2019, an unprecedented 45% of UK power was generated by windfarms. At times the blustery weather created more power than was needed. This energy surplus meant some people with smart meters in their homes were paid to use electricity.

The national grid has to take advantage of these renewable supply booms so that excess energy isn’t wasted. Consumers, too, can benefit with lower bills and smart meters are at the heart of the answer.

UK’s renewables record

On that windy December day, renewables contributed a record 16 gigawatts (GW) to the grid. A gigawatt is equivalent to one million kilowatt hours of electricity, enough to power around one million homes for an hour.

The third quarter of 2019 saw 40% of UK electricity generation come from renewables: 20% from wind, 12% from biomass and six per cent from solar. In contrast, the UK generated 6.9% of all of its electricity via renewables in 2010.

This is thanks in part to more capacity as offshore windfarms open – Hornsea One (1,200 megawatt (MW)) came online in October, following Beatrice (588 MW) earlier in 2019.  Dogger Bank (5GW), Royal Crown seabed sites and a series of Scottish projects – on land and offshore – will be online before 2030, adding a further 8GW.

These developments will help the UK achieve its goal to create a third of its electricity through windfarms by 2030.

The projects also take advantage of bigger, cheaper and easier to install windfarms, all of which helps to lower prices.

By 2050, the Committee on Climate Change wants the UK to produce 75GW through wind power alone.

Benefits of change to renewable energy sources

The national grid used to be supplied by around 80 enormous power stations. It’s now powered by around a million small and local grid suppliers using wind turbines, hydro and solar. When the electricity supply to the grid is more consistent, fewer fossil fuels are used at power stations, cutting carbon emissions, vital to fighting climate change.

Renewable energy sources are not consistent, however, creating supply and demand issues.

Smart meters and the Smart Export Guarantee (SEG) are key to making sure the national grid remains balanced during times of excess renewable energy creation.

Smart meters and the Smart Export Guarantee

Across the UK, whenever more electricity is generated than consumed, energy prices fall. Smart meters constantly monitor electricity prices. Buying and storing electricity at cheaper prices and then exporting back into the grid when prices are higher is a vital cog in levelling out supply and demand.

The new Smart Export Guarantee (SEG) plan means customers are paid to export to the grid during peak periods. If there is a massive excess – such as December’s windy night – prices can drop below zero, meaning suppliers are effectively paid to take energy off the grid.

Yet only 35% of UK homes (14.3 million) have a smart meter with 34.3 million still to come online.

Octopus’s Agile is an example of a smart meter working alongside a flexible tariff to best use renewable energy booms. It helps shift your electricity use to when it’s cheapest. Other providers are likely to offer more of these agile tariffs as increasing numbers of people switch over to smart metered energy.

Smart meters display the best time to use power, so consumers can use a timer to turn on appliances like dishwashers during times of cheaper electricity prices.

Combining smart meters with storage is the next big step to balance the national grid.

Ways to balance the grid via storage

There is a big future for storing then releasing energy for homeowners using smart meters and the SEG.

Options include:

Batteries: Charged during times of electricity excess and low prices, the energy is released back to the grid at peak times, reducing bills and potentially earning the householder money.

Electric cars: Essentially a large, mobile battery. Electric cars offer a two-way movement of energy with a vehicle-to-grid (V2G) system. Charge the car when electricity is at its cheapest, and then energy stored in the car battery can be sold back to grid at times of peak demand.

Thermal stores: Heat energy is stored in a non-toxic chemical solution, which can provide mains pressure heated water to homes and other buildings.

Get the right smart meter

People who want a smart meter should contact their electricity supplier about instalment.

Anyone with a pre-March 2019 meter should check it’s a second-generation ‘switchable’ meter, also known as SMETS2, so you can switch suppliers and not lose any functionality.

Combining a smart meter with a beneficial price plan offers consumers a way to bring bills down while helping to balance the national grid and help make the most of the UK’s burgeoning renewable energy potential.

More on this…

Last updated: 30 October 2020