Bright sparks responding quickly to power needs
Using electricity more efficiently ensures that it’s there when you need it, writes Alastair Martin
What’s a smart kettle? Recently, two friends of mine – doctors, not engineers, with no particular reason to know a watt from a whatnot – decided to find out.
First, the paediatrician. After an eight-hour battle between web, phone and kettle, this internet-of-things pioneer finally achieved a cup of smart tea somewhere around midnight. It tasted like ordinary tea, except he didn’t want it any more, and only drank it out of spite.
The A&E consultant fared better. His kettle just had a temperature setting. Proper tea needs to be brewed pretty hot, but herbal infusions and coffee like it a little cooler. A boiling kettle has gone beyond even tea’s ideal temperature, and is throwing energy into the air in the form of vapour which is never going to make it into your mug. The temperaturecontrolled kettle produced the goods straight out of the box: a nice cuppa, but cheaper.
Sometimes smart is really quite simple. I find it especially easy to forget that at work. Flexitricity runs quite a complex smart grid operation, controlled secondby-second from Edinburgh. Our customers are corporate energy managers; we spend our time working out ways of making their businesses respond quickly to the needs of the electricity system.
If it’s windy, get your electricity now. If a large power station fails somewhere, turn off some consumption or turn on some generation.
But for these energy managers, Flexitricity is no more than 5 per cent of their jobs. The rest of their time is spent on less funky things, like changing light bulbs. In commerce, that can be quite a task – one customer has 20,000 of them. But the benefit is astonishing. When Flexitricity began, electricity demand across Scotland, England and Wales could peak at over 60 gigawatts. Now it barely gets past 50. Varying weather has been a big factor, but LED light bulbs have contributed at least as much.
There’s no need for cynicism in energy efficiency, just critical appraisal. Some things work well, some don’t, and some deliver the goods in indirect or unexpected ways. LED light bulbs work. In retrospect, diesel cars were a dead end. Toyota’s revolutionary Prius hybrid car doesn’t actually save much fuel – except perhaps as a taxi – but what it did is crack open the electric car market.
If everyone plugs in an electric car the moment they get home from work, the lights will go out. We’d need four times the amount of copper under our streets to transmit this energy. But if they have the right information, these cars will soak up cheap electricity on windy nights or sunny days, and stop charging in times of shortfall. That’s what the internet of things is for – smartening up electricity consumption when it’s large in total but distributed, like cars.
And yet, if we all decided to make tea in the same minute, our kettles alone would max out the entire electricity industry. That’s been true for decades, yet it’s never happened. Perhaps we’re already a lot smarter than we think. l Dr Alastair Martin is founder and chief strategy officer of Flexitricity, Edinburgh