Vital to a low carbon future, smart energy systems also form a central pillar of most smart city visions. But there is a yawning gap between the rhetoric and current practice that needs to be bridged if all the promised markets (for smart technologies, data analytics, control algorithms, demand response services) are to emerge and thrive.

The Bristol Smart Energy City Collaboration is building that bridge, exploring the technical, regulatory, commercial and socio-cultural challenges involved and mapping the steps needed to create the conditions in which smart energy works. Simon Roberts, Chief Executive of the Centre for Sustainable Energy, set up the project in 2015 to help create places where smart energy can thrive.

Simon will share his expertise on smart energy systems at the Reinventing Energy Summit on 25 November; I asked him a few questions to learn more.

What started your work in sustainable energy?

I started work in sustainable energy more than 30 years ago – as a volunteer with what was then the Urban Centre for Appropriate Technology (the charity which is now called the Centre for Sustainable Energy).  It was the mid-1980s and, with interesting (or any!) jobs difficult to come by and refusing to succumb to the lure of London, I decided to see what voluntary opportunities were on offer in Bristol to put into practice beliefs I’d been exploring since my late teenage years.  I’d grown up in Somerset and got involved with the local branch of the Ecology party at the age of 16, having wondered why we were building nuclear power stations at Hinkley Point rather than saving energy and looking at what was then called ‘alternative energy’ options.  That feels like a thread that has run right through my career so far!  

What are the aims of the Bristol Smart Energy City Collaboration?

We identified a yawning gulf between Bristol’s aspirations (alongside many other cities) to be a ‘smart energy city’ and the very limited and patchy activities which characterise current practice. So we established a cross-sector, multi-partner collaboration to explore the challenges involved and to map out the steps required to bridge that gulf.  We were particularly interested in ‘walking right round’ the issue, by which I mean we wanted to explore not just the technical and IT/data aspects (which tend to dominate smart energy discourse), but also commercial, regulatory and socio-cultural aspects. And we embraced the uncertainty inherent in such socio-technical revolutions – by refusing to plot detailed plans more than a few years out (as if we knew all the answers).  The report we produced at the end of the first year (2015) laid out a clear set of actions for this year and next which we’re now working individually and together to realise – focusing on how to ready the city to use smart energy data to reduce energy demand, enhance the value of renewable energy and improve the situation of those in fuel poverty.      

What are the key factors that have enabled recent advancements in smart energy systems?

I’d identify two key factors.  The first is the recognition that tackling climate change effectively means we need to stop using fossil fuels. That puts renewables and demand side measures in the box seat and making these work in a coherent, reliable way requires much, much smarter system management. The second is the advent of high resolution data capture and associated ‘big data’ analytics which provide some of the tools needed to secure that smarter approach.  

What are the main transformative technologies that will increase renewable energy usage?

Digital platforms which enable services which aggregate demand side response across many consumers and improved energy storage technologies. My concern (see below) is that storage will tend to dominate (because it is asset-based, so fits existing business and financing models better than service-based approaches.

What are the key challenges for a low carbon future?

Getting the regulatory and commercial drivers right so that investment in services which reduce demand are as valued by ‘the system’ as investment in supply-side options – so that the playing field is at least levelled. We also need to find ways to secure meaningful public consent and engagement for the system transition which is taking place – because people have to host it (in their buildings or landscapes), pay for it (through their bills and/or taxes) and engage with it (because there is no smart system without people accepting and using the services involved).  I believe the latter means a focus on local initiatives – with cities offering a potentially ideal organising scale.  But there are huge regulatory and policy changes required to make that work in an energy system still designed for and dominated by centralised technology and big utility business models.  And, if these challenges weren’t enough, decarbonising heat presents an enormous challenge for the UK.      

What areas of smart energy will see the biggest investment in the next 5 years?

Aside from the rollout of smart meters, my suspicion is that it will be storage, even though it should be in systems and services to improve demand side management. We have a tendency in the UK (and most other places) to establish market rules and regulations which favour financing of assets – i.e. hardware – over software (mainly people and processes), even though the latter have greater economic, environmental and social value. We have to find ways to change this – which requires some thoughtful and disruptive work to transform mainstream approaches to financing and business development in the energy sector.    

Learn more about emerging technologies that are impacting the future of energy via our Video Library here.

We teamed up with New Scientist for the Reinventing Energy Summit, to explore the opportunities of applying AI and machine learning to efficiently manage energy generation and consumption; smart grid management and operations; weather forecasting and predicting energy supply; intelligent control of energy storage; next-generation batteries; and much more.

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