Twenty Years of Change in… Energy

Posted by Matt Brake

The energy sector encompasses a very large market containing some of the biggest companies in the world and it provides something unique – a product that almost every person in the world uses every day: heat, light, power… when was the last time you survived a day without these?

The past twenty years have been an exciting and disruptive time in this sector and new technology has proven itself of great benefit to both the environment and the consumer. CRITICAL Software has been working in the energy sector for many years and we’ve seen some significant changes that have occurred. Let’s consider a couple of the big ones.

Rise of the Renewables

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Twenty years ago, wind and solar power production was expensive, unreliable and specialist. Since then, the safety, stability and lifetime costs of nuclear power generation have been questioned more and more. In addition, concerns over the availability of traditional fossil fuels, like gas, oil and coal, have grown. So too have concerns over the impact of using these for power generation due to ‘global warming’; a term that really started to gain public attention in the mid-90s.

In 1998, carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels and industry processes looked like they would grow towards eight billion tonnes per year. The controversial ‘hockey stick’ graph was published, indicating that the modern-day temperature rise in the northern hemisphere was ‘unusual’ compared with the last 1,000 years. Plus, strong ‘El Nino’ conditions seemed to combine with global warming to produce the warmest year on record. Also at this time, the Kyoto Protocol was produced to encourage developed nations to reduce emissions.

Alternative methods of energy production started to be considered more seriously, invested in and supported by industry and governments alike, bringing down costs and increasing availability, reliability, efficiency and popularity.

Now, a lot of new homes are built with solar panels as standard. Our landscape and seascape is decorated with wind turbines. Hydro-power generation has also grown, especially in under-developed countries.

Interestingly, a new language has developed to reflect this change in energy culture; ‘prosumerism’, ‘cogeneration’ and ‘microgeneration’ are all related to localised production and consumption of energy. The latest technologies are being utilised or considered for these disruptive, alternative, renewable energy producers: blockchain for localised and international trading transactions; battery technologies for home and mobile storage of generated power; and the use of the smart grid for accurate management and data acquisition.

Smart meters are leading the way in IoT

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It has been about twenty years since the earliest models of communicative electric meters were designed, developed and later deployed, and the market for AMI (Advanced Metering Infrastructure) continues to grow across the world. Smart meter programmes are now becoming more prevalent in emerging markets, whilst more developed territories have mature roll-outs in flight.

The global penetration of smart meters is expected to grow to 50% by the end of 2018. Not bad growth for a twenty-year period!

This has made smart-metering the most successful and fastest growing product in the whole IoT domain. With both utility company and government sponsored deployments, and a growing market for replacement and upgrade units, smart meter tech looks set to continue to break new IoT ground in terms of infrastructure, regulations, protocol standards and security.

This speedy development and application has led to some negative headlines about smart meter programmes in the press, but, as we know, any new technology takes time to get right, especially when being deployed on a national scale.

Large-scale smart meter deployments are currently underway across Western Europe, while new deployments continue in a more fragmented fashion in the United States. Following China’s massive smart meter rollout, activity is increasing across Asia Pacific, while Latin America and the Middle East and Africa are also experiencing increased activity after a slow entry into the smart meter market.

So, what is it about smart meters that have put them in this position as the ‘poster-boy’ for smart grid technologies? There are a number of things.

Smart meters are good for the industry because they provide data about what is being used across the grid, where it is being used and by whom. The industry can bill accurately and remotely, they don’t have to rely on readings from consumers or from expensive reading services. They get the data straight away without having to wait months before the next reading. This accurate data enables suppliers to analyse energy use so they can more reliably predict how much power will be needed at any time, saving money and reducing waste. Suppliers also have better information about their individual customers, helping them to improve their service.

Smart meters are good for the environment for a simple reason: the energy industry will not be creating so much energy on the grid when it is not needed. All those millions of tonnes of fossil fuels turned into energy that are never used will be reduced.

Smart meters are good for the consumer too. We get to enjoy highly accurate billing, cheaper power (as there is less waste) and we are able to see our energy usage data like never before, in an understandable format. This can help us understand how we can reduce our energy usage to save money and help the environment. We will also be able to switch energy suppliers more easily than before, making the market more competitive and open.

So, the past twenty years have been an exciting and disruptive time in the energy sector. Technology has proven itself to be able to bring benefit to the environment and the consumer as well as the industry itself. Companies within the industry are much more open than ever before to embracing new technology as a disruptive but positive influence on how energy is produced, stored, distributed and consumed.

At CRITICAL, we have over 120 people now working on energy-related projects and our strength in the market is growing as the market demands more help from technology to solve global energy challenges.

We believe that the energy sector will be a strong part of our global strategy for at least the next twenty years and we can’t wait to see how technology will continue to disrupt and improve things in the future.