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Power to (and from) the people

09 June 2020

By Simon Gentry, Managing Partner

We wrote some weeks ago about how, on an average day, around 60% of the UK’s electricity was now generated by zero-carbon technologies – wind, solar and nuclear with biomass and a bit of hydropower.  This ‘new normal’ was, we argued, significant and marked a permanent change.  Renewables were and would remain the dominant method of electricity generation in the UK going forward.

Today we reach another milestone.  It is two months since coal was burnt to generate electricity in the United Kingdom. That quite a stunning achievement in a relatively short space of time. We have had a dash for gas which has helped but most impressive is the permanent role that wind and solar now play.  It’s even more of an achievement when you consider that Germany, with its reputation for being green, is still using coal to generate 40% of its electricity. The end of carbon-dense coal as a means of electricity generation should be celebrated

In what seems to be the way of these things, there is another dramatic change in our electricity system happening ever so quietly.  It started where I live in May 2017.  The council decided to replace out old sodium streetlamps with (very ugly) new super bright LED ones.  Like my neighbours I didn’t like the new lamps and I still don’t like them.  We were told however, that the new lamps would cut electricity consumption, save the council a fortune and cut carbon emissions, so we reluctantly accepted the change.

The most surprising thing however, was when a few months later I first noticed that a car had been plugged into one of the new lamps.  It turns out that many of the new streetlamps doubled up as electric car charging points.  Since then there has been a steady increase in the number of electric cars in our part of West London.  I thought it was clever and was a very smart way of making electric cars more viable in places where people don’t have driveways or garages. 

But that isn’t the cleverest part.  That only becomes apparent when you appreciate that cars are, on average, only driven for about 5% of the time.  95% of the time they are just parked, doing nothing.  Or in the case of electric cars just parked there storing electricity.  And that’s the really clever part.  Obviously solar power is only generated during the day and although we live on windy islands it’s not windy all the time.  So we need to find some way of storing the electricity for when its dark and/or calm.  Massive battery farms are an option and there are various other models for storage being promoted, but the obvious answer is likely to be just outside our homes.  Thousands, then hundreds of thousands and eventually millions of batteries on wheels, absorbing power when it’s plentiful and cheap and providing it back to the grid when its scarce.  A bit far-fetched? A bit futuristic?  Maybe, but it’s already happening on my street.