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Understanding the Smart Grid

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Smart grids are the topic of the second animation in the Institute’s ESB “Power to the People” series for 2014. This video explores what makes a grid smart and which benefits it brings to the consumer. While the smart grid constitutes a central part of national and EU-level energy policy, it remains an unclear concept for many.

The need for an updated grid is largely a result of the emergence of new technologies, which provide alternative methods of generating energy. The imperatives of climate change demand a move away from traditional carbon-based sources of energy and switch to alternatives like wind and solar energy. Yet these technologies are by their nature intermittent and increase the challenge for electric utilities of matching supply with demand. To fully integrate renewables, without relying on fossil fuel plants as back-up, utilities need increased information about consumers’ energy use to ensure the most efficient, reliable and clean delivery of electricity. The smart grid two-way communication between the consumer and the utility.

The possibility of new technology on the grid also allows consumers increased control over how they use energy. For example, a smart meter in the home provides up-to-date details on energy use and costs, which allows the consumer to adjust their usage in real time. Smart grids also allow the consumer to play an active role in balancing the electricity system, as they will be able to feed stored or micro-generated energy back into the grid.

At EU level, the Smart Grid Task Force, set up by the European Commission in 2009, brings together relevant stakeholders, and attempts to reach a consensus on policy directions for the deployment of smart grids. In its Third Energy Package, the Commission also set out a timeline for the implementation of smart metering in the EU. Smart metering is often considered the first building block of the smart grid. By 2020 it is expected that almost 72% of European consumers will have a smart meter for electricity.

Ireland is currently completing the design phase of its roll out of smart meters. Consumer behaviour trials in Ireland demonstrated that smart meters, combined with time-of-use tariffs and demand side management stimuli, reduce overall electricity usage by 2.5% and peak usage by 8.8%.

New technology and innovations like the smart grid are an enabler for the more efficient use of electricity. Ultimately, however, it will be the consumer connected to the grid who decides just how smart we are about energy use.

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