There’s an expectation when you flick the light switch on or plug something into a power point – it just works. Wherever and however the power is generated, it simply makes its way to us. The presumption for most people is that’s how simply the grid has been built and how simply it works today.
But scratch just below the surface and you soon realise the grid is far more clever than that.
That’s what I discovered when I went along to a CSIRO and Energy Network Association (ENA) workshop on the Electricity Network Transformation Roadmap.
This traditional view of the delivery of services as we know it is changing.
And in the next 20 years it will change more than it has in the last 100 years.
This is being seen as the biggest shift since the time of Thomas Edison, the father of electricity.
But just as were seeing the evolution of the energy network, the needs of the customer are changing.
One major change that’s easy to see is the type and number of electronic devices we’re using in our homes including flatscreen TVs, computers, modems, laptops and mobile devices like smartphones and tablets.
That’s on top of items we’ve been using for decades including the fridge, the washing machine, the oven, the toaster, the kettle and our lights.
Innovation and energy are not mutually exclusive. They can sit side by side thanks to what’s being called the “disruption generation”.
The way we find and buy our music, movies and books have changed. So has the way we can hail a taxi, book your overseas trip and rent a holiday apartment.
So why shouldn’t energy follow the same path? Well the good new is that it already has.
Through deregulation and innovation, the energy sector is creating scenarios to deliver better outcomes for customers with lower bills along with cleaner and renewable energy.
The Smart Grid can not only provide your power but also track and monitor consumption and optimise our energy loads.
Taking that even further – solar panels will play a huge part to generate power, with advanced batteries allowing customers to store that power on the premises and even make money by directing energy back to the grid.
We are now living in an age where our homes are smarter than ever before. Devices connected to each other and the internet so it‘s fitting the same smarts are applied to our energy use to create a more streamlined and efficient system.
Smart metering makes it possible for energy companies to establish a home’s consumption, analyse that data, enable remote maintenance and adapt to their evolving needs.
Saving energy inside the smart home is one of the many of the benefits of this. Switching off lights when no one is in the room, running the air conditioner only when needed and opening the blinds automatically at sunrise, for example.
But the Smart Grid isn’t a one size fits all solution. The gradual evolution will amount to a revolution for everyone.
Customer are becoming savvier and energy options are more varied and flexible. The outcome will be a product that works for everyone and that meets their needs. It even saves them money.
But the grid is still our best chance of achieving these outcomes.
And it isn’t by running on the spot by any means.
The Australian electricity landscape is already hard at work transforming, with the Future Grid Forum – made up of 120 experts from the electricity industry – looking ahead as far as 2050 to try and predict the changing demands of consumers in the decades ahead.
One opinion is that more customers will adopt on-site generation with roof-top solar panels used in combination with on-site storage to come up with a sophisticated way of managing their household demands.
And while electricity may not get any cheaper, that’s not to say bills can’t be significantly reduced with the adoption of smarter ways to use energy.
Another predicted scenario is “set and forget” where customers trust the utilities to provide them with the best solutions and schemes.
In this forecast, a household’s share of income spent on electricity would decrease from 2.5 per cent in 2013 to 2.4 per cent in 2050.
The “Prosumer” customer would take a more involved approach to design and customise their service to suit their needs, but household bills may be higher because customers spend more on generating their own energy than they need to.
Another prediction takes a look at the effect, by 2050, of nearly a third of customers completely disconnecting from the grid altogether, using solar panels, gas generation, energy efficiency and on-site battery storage and a diesel generator for back up.
So which is the most accurate and most likely to happen?
Battery costs are, like all new technology after a few years, predicted to fall dramatically in the decades ahead and while it could make it economically viable to go off the grid, it is likely customers will be better off staying connected to the grid so they can sell power back to the grid.
Power storage will obviously play a massive role in our energy futures but the batteries won’t just be in our homes but also located in our cars and at an even larger scale in shared batteries that will be part of the grid and located in our communities.
The energy being stored outside the customers’ home and provided through the grid of the future will come from an increasing level of renewable energy sources like wind turbines, solar panels and wave power.
Storing this energy helps to smooth out the usually intermittent supply of power from these renewables to meet peak electricity demand.
Now while all of these scenarios are being pondered, there needs to be a great deal of preparation which is why these discussions are taking place right now.
The future of energy is not something that’s locked in stone – it is something that will unfold dynamically. And the customer will be at the centre of this future grid.
It is this approach that starts with the customer, and not the product, that’s going to redefine the ecosystem before redefining the whole industry.
The grid is an essential component for the energy sector but not the only component.
It has always been a community utility with benefits for everyone and it will continue to be.
But with innovation and efficiency it will mean the grid will be not only working harder but also a lot smarter to meet and exceed the demands of the customer.
Now when you flick that switch and see the light turn– you can really appreciate the work that’s gone in to bringing it to your home.