The UK’s power sovereignty problem: re-asserting control over energy consumption with smart grids

Demand for electrical power is rising at a phenomenal rate and will continue to do so as demand for the likes of electric vehicles and smart cities grows in the pursuit of decarbonisation goals

As a result, soon the national grid, which was developed in the sixties, simply won’t be able bear this extensive load with headroom currently at minimal levels, especially in the winter months.  

Unfortunately, the UK is in somewhat of a tricky situation. A few years ago, we became heavily reliant on other countries for most of our gas supplies, including the likes of Russia, as many of our coal-fired power stations were decommissioned and replaced with gas or biomass plants. Traditionally offshore gas platforms have made up for this capacity shortfall, but fewer platforms are now being commissioned as the country continues its pursuit of net-zero targets, alongside increasing resistance to other forms of gas production like shale gas.  

This has led to what some have labelled a ‘power hold’; a situation in which the UK has little control over its power supply and is very much reliant on other countries to provide it for us. This scenario, paired with urgent need for less dependency on fossil fuels, is creating an energy crisis.  

To overcome it, the UK ultimately needs to reassert the strength and resilience of its wider energy market.  

Cutting corners can create cyber risks  

As with any commodity, when demand rises, the ability to acquire that commodity cheaply becomes a critical differentiator. It’s the same case with the energy market and leads to a wider use of “commercial off the shelf” products. 

While this often helps enable more instantaneous supply and can therefore help to satisfy immediate needs, it also brings elevated risk of a cyber-attack, as this supply is typically more vulnerable. This is a risk we can ultimately not afford to take when it comes to the UK’s energy supplies, especially as state sponsored attacks are already consistently probing power networks. As such, any risk to the UK must be minimised as much as possible – the consequences otherwise could be dire and leave large parts of the country powerless for prolonged periods of time.  

Beyond the immediate and perhaps more obvious risks associated with a cyber-attack on the UK’s power networks, are some broader potential repercussions for government. The disruption caused to the public by a cyber-attack can quickly create political dissent – largely because the government is inherently involved in energy supply and always easy to blame.  

Taking back power sovereignty 

Power sovereignty is all about knowing when you need power and being able to act to meet that demand – it’s what the UK needs to be able to supply the energy our country needs without taking shortcuts and putting our networks at risk of attack. To have power sovereignty requires the means to either reduce power consumption or find alternative ways of producing or storing it en-masse. 

We know the former isn’t going to happen any time soon. Thankfully, our country is a leader in offshore wind having been engaged in it for 10-15 years, making it a viable solution for the future. Successive governments have invested in renewable energy through the change for difference (CfD) subsidies and more recently focused the investment in areas where significant production can occur rather than small production, though this has allowed companies to “Green Wash” rather than making a significant contribution. However, in the immediate term, what we can produce from wind farms is not yet enough to solve the challenge at hand and alone cannot cure the issues without innovate storage to balance the troughs in weather affecting offshore production. Nuclear is an alternative solution but as has been demonstrated by the time to build Hinkley “C” and another planned build in Sizewell, it’s clear these major infrastructure projects can only be considered in the very long term. However, plans for smaller nuclear sites are underway and without a doubt will be capable of providing energy much sooner, providing they can be built in a safe and secure way.  

Creating a smart grid to keep up with demand 

Smart meters, and edge to core technologies like meteorological systems which monitor weather patterns, are vital for re-asserting power sovereignty in the short-term, by helping to provide insights into what is driving power demand. While their benefits for consumers when it comes to managing costs are well known, it is this ability to show how we use power that offers true value.  

That’s because these data and insights are sent back to utility companies to help build a clearer picture of the UK’s energy use, which is crucial to help them cope with peaks and troughs in demand. This growing number of smart devices, like smart meters, that are contributing to our ability to monitor the UKs energy demand, make up what is known as the smart grid; ultimately a communications network between consumers and utility companies.  

We now live in a time when our lives are much less predictable and uniform now than they were just 50 years ago; we don’t all rush to put the kettle on at the end of Eastenders because we don’t watch live TV, and many people consume highlights of football games rather than dashing for a cuppa at half-time. This has helped to balance out the system by removing those peaks in demand but means that real time demand side monitoring is critical. This means we need a more informed picture of how and when we use power, and how we adapt our energy infrastructure to meet that need.  

The smart grid is key for doing so and will be critical for re-asserting control over the UK’s energy consumption.  


About the Author

Michael Grimshaw is Head of Critical National Infrastructure at Vysiion. Part of the Exponential-e Group, Vysiion provides innovative edge to core IT and telecommunications product and solutions, supported by an agile, proactive, and responsive technical service capability. Customers include System Integrators, companies and organisations within the CNI sector – Utilities, Transport, Blue Light, Defence, and Public Sector.

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