The deeper you delve into the proposed vision of a smart, clean-energy grid — much less a supergrid — the more daunting the task...

The deeper you delve into the proposed vision of a smart, clean-energy grid — much less a supergrid — the more daunting the task appears. Looking into the future is like working your way through a set of matryoshka dolls, never quite sure where it will all end.

Still, as the Chinese proverb says, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. And there are some good steps forward being taken in the smart-grid space these days.

Some energy companies, for example, seem well on their way to meeting smart-metering and energy-management targets. In the UK, electricity supplier Opus Energy recently announced it had installed a total of 12,000 smart meters and expects to outfit 20 per cent of its customers with the meters this spring. The company says that puts its well ahead of the government’s 2014 deadline for smart-metering maximum-demand users.

Meanwhile, a group of 10 countries — the UK, Ireland, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, France, Norway and Belgium — is backing plans for a North Seas supergrid that would link renewable energy sources across a wide swath. The idea behind the plan is to eliminate some of the problems with intermittent clean-energy sources by broadening the offshore electricity grid’s reach. In theory, if British winds are producing lots of energy when local demand is low, the surplus electricity could be transmitted all the way to Norway, where it could be used to pump water at hydropower plants. That stored hydropower energy could then be sent back to the UK when local demand goes up but the wind isn’t blowing.

It’s still early in the process, of course. For now, the supergrid organisation’s goals are primarily to identify policy considerations, scenarios and cost assessments. The actual work of building the supergrid remains farther out.

There’s no question that just maintaining the grid we have, never mind building new transmission lines and smart interconnections, will be a costly, time-consuming proposition. Will it be worth it, though? Undoubtedly yes … not only in terms of greater amounts of usable renewables but in more resilience of the system overall. Besides, there are a lot of efficiencies we can wring out of the grid we have today, if we only choose to. As Nick Milne-Home, president of 1E Inc., put it, “The smart grid exists today in very small islands. The challenge is to link them.”

Or to lift out those ever-smaller matryoshkas, one doll at a time.


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