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Academics launch five-year plan for smart energy grid the size of a small town

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Keele University secures £15m in funding to turn its campus into a 'living laboratory' where the latest developments in renewable microgeneration and battery storage can be trialled, tested and refined

A £15m experiment to create the largest smart grid ‘test bed’ of its kind anywhere in Europe will officially kick off later this year.

The five-year project to build a functioning smart energy grid covering an area the size of a small town is intended to help academics answer questions about the environmental sustainability and technical feasibility of new, more flexible types of electricity, gas and heat networks.

Smart grids use digital communications technologies to detect and react to changes in local utilities usage, and they could make it easier for small-scale generators of energy to sell surplus power through feed-in tariffs.

They are widely viewed as integral to making cities more environmentally friendly because they would enable increased microgeneration and peer-to-peer exchanging of renewable energy, like that which is generated from solar. However, computer security experts say they could make integral national infrastructure more vulnerable to hackers.

Professor Zhong Fan, the man in charge of the smart grid project at Keele University in Staffordshire, UK, told E&T the university would also press ahead with investigating whether smart metering and associated developments like automated substations “make sense from an economic point of view”.

The campus will become a “living laboratory” where new energy-efficient and low-carbon technologies can be researched, developed and tested in a real-world environment, the university claims.

Unusually, all electricity, gas, heat, telecommunications and water facilities on the Keele campus – including 18km of electrical cables and 12 sub-stations – are owned and operated by the university, making it uniquely placed to manage a project of this size.

Meanwhile, Britain’s own smart metering programme – intended to be a step towards creating a nationwide smart energy grid – appears to be floundering.

It recently came under fire from the influential Institute of Directors, which called for the roll-out of smart meters in Britain to be immediately paused and reviewed to try and get a grip on rising costs.

There has even been speculation the £11bn roll-out could be ditched or watered down after the Conservatives acknowledged in their general election manifesto that it was not compulsory for households to accept one of the devices, merely stating that smart meters would be “offered” rather than installed throughout the country.

Tim Erlin, a smart meter expert from IT firm Tripwire, warned at a cyber security conference last week that the devices should be thought of not as an electric meter but as a networked endpoint.You’re deploying networked endpoints to millions of locations that are all largely physically accessible to anyone. So there’s this physical security aspect to it which doesn’t exist with traditional meters.

He added: The other end of that compromise is all that infrastructure that’s in place to support those meters. They all have to connect back to something – those systems and devices, they are networks, and they present an attack surface somewhere. That capability to affect how power is distributed, obviously, whether it’s turned on or off, that has a material impact on people’s lives and safety, so the risk is higher than it might be for other types of attacks.

Academics at the University of Waterloo in Canada last month released the results of a study showing that the introduction of smart meters and time-of-use electricity pricing had only modestly reduced residential energy demand during the most expensive peak periods. Some critics have argued that projected savings for customers with smart meters are too reliant on assumptions about behavioural change.

Enthusiasts for the technology counter that it can help shift demand away from peak periods to cut maximum capacity requirements and reduce the amount of money that would have to be spent on infrastructure.

Dave Openshaw, a member of the IET’s Energy Policy Panel, has said there remains a “very positive business case” for the smart meter roll-out.

The Keele University project, known as the Smart Energy Network Demonstrator, is funded by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the European Regional Development Fund and Keele University itself.

Future projects associated with the experimental smart grid could include investigating how electricity might, at off-peak times, be stored in electric vehicles for use at a later point.

Professor Fan said there would be implications for households on time-of-use tariffs, adding: “With a large number of electric vehicles, each with batteries, you can use this as a kind of dynamic storage network. You can somehow send back the energy stored in the vehicle. At the later stage of the project we want to have that capability.”

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