The generation of electrical energy has always been ripe for technology-driven change, to which nowadays we can add the prospect of commercial disruption. In this context, within building and infrastructure engineering, 2017 is likely to see further practical advances in a number of areas which could lead to smarter energy generation, production and use, namely:
- 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
Many commentators now believe that the global market in 2017 will underpin the further growth of renewables, irrespective of much publicised political developments in the USA. The UK has set itself highly challenging decarbonisation targets, and they point to using increasingly low-to-no emission electricity. While we can expect plenty more excitement about the role of renewables and batteries in 2017, the UK will continue with its very significant reliance on gas-fired electricity until affordable new answers come along.
Yet generating renewable electricity is no longer the question in search of an answer. Renewables are now so well established that the main technical challenge is how to distribute, store and use the electricity they produce. Battery storage is expected to develop further in 2017 but its present contribution to energy storage is relatively minuscule. Despite considerable commercial hype, it is unlikely to become cheap enough to achieve the much vaunted ─ and highly disruptive ─ tipping point when the cost of storing electricity matches the cost of grid distribution. Further technology breakthroughs in energy storage may even be needed to seal that particular deal, and to help get us there, and allow the UK to be a major player, significant government support for battery and other storage R&D is required.
The ECA asked the government for this in 2016 and their new Green Paper on Industrial Strategy, issued in January 2017, 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'. Looking beyond 2017, research and innovation in energy storage and smart technologies could hasten the eventual arrival of a functional smart grid, a large-scale rollout of electric vehicles, and truly smart meters and energy use for homes and commercial premises.
Even as Britain heads towards an EU exit, European policy and regulation on energy in the built environment should still be welcome in our sector. The EU’s energy in buildings requirements seem safe enough in the UK for now, but deregulators may still run the rule over the regulations before we leave. Yet if the UK does not manage to achieve an energy efficient existing building stock it will have wasted a remarkably cost-effective opportunity to reduce national carbon emissions, and potentially consign even more domestic consumers to fuel poverty. If only 10 per cent of energy efficiency measures were taken up, it would cut emissions by a further three per cent. We will find out in 2017 if Peter Bonfield's 'Every Home Counts' review can really help to get the UK moving towards genuine domestic energy efficiency...
Whatever the policy and fiscal environment in 2017, we’ll be looking for government to provide stable conditions for commercial investment in renewable energy, smart grids, energy efficiency, storage and other energy solutions. And if financial help is not available, we will respectfully ask the government to ensure that its fiscal rules and measures do not stand in the way of progress towards a low carbon, smart electrical future.
If this has caught your attention and you want to know more, Paul can be found tweeting @ECApaulreeve - get in touch!