The 4th industrial revolution: a smart power revolution?

On the 8th September, James Heappey, Conservative MP for Wells took part in a House of Commons debate on the 4th Industrial Revolution.

In his speech he talked about the “smart energy revolution” that is underway in the UK today, and highlighted the pioneering work of two of Open Energi’s customers, Sainsbury’s and Aggregate Industries. Here’s what he had to say:

Speaking twice in 25 hours is a record for me, and I am grateful for the opportunity. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Mak, who has secured a worthwhile debate and opened it brilliantly. I apologise for being late, but I was working on the Energy and Climate Change Committee’s paper on renewable heat and transport targets, which will be released this evening. I commend it to the House: it is probably one of the most insightful Select Committee reports that Members will read all year. Indeed, all of our Committee’s reports are insightful.

In summing up yesterday’s debate, the Minister used some fantastic theatrical references, which I hope will become a tradition of his summing-up speeches. He has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the theatre, so we look forward to that. Today, I present, to use my own theatrical reference, the second part of my play in two parts, in which I will talk about the energy opportunities provided by the collision of emerging technologies and our existing energy infrastructure.

There is some dispute over whether this is the third or fourth industrial revolution. A book by Professor Jeremy Rifkin has become a bit of a bible for me, as I have sought to develop my thinking on how energy policy might evolve. He thinks that this is the third industrial revolution, but none the less it is an excellent read that very much pulls in the same direction as those who are advocating the fourth industrial revolution.

Ministers will already have looked in great detail at the National Infrastructure Commission’s “Smart Power” report, which is a fantastic publication setting out how we can harness all these wonderful technologies as we digitise the energy system. The reality, as the report observes, is that we could save £8 billion a year for the UK economy if we digitise our energy system and harness those technologies. That figure represents not just immediate savings on our energy bills, but gains in productivity.

Nicola Shaw, the head of National Grid, told the BBC “Today” programme last week that we are seeing

“a smart energy revolution across the country with consumption adjustments reflecting when energy is cheapest”.

The idea that we have to change our consumption habits to meet a changing energy market sounds like a nightmare to most people, but the reality is that we already have many of the technologies in our homes. Most major white goods manufacturers are producing smart appliances already: they are in our shops and, probably unknowingly, we already have them in our homes. Through the internet of things, they will all start to speak to one another to make sure that they operate at the most efficient and cost-effective time. They also report faults, so people will not have to carry on for years with a fridge that uses more power than it should, because it will already have flagged up its fault to whoever manufactured it. These are exciting times and the technologies already exist. It is not, in my view, going to be a case of opting into them, because manufacturers are building them as standard and they will increasingly do so.

The Government face a challenge in preparing our homes, businesses and society for the internet of things from an energy perspective, so I will give my thoughts on our system preparedness before moving on to examples of where we are already seeing the huge economic advantages.

As Ministers know only too well, the smart meter programme is the keystone in achieving the digitisation of our energy system, and I know that they will be keen to push on with that roll-out at best speed. Everything that we seek to do in bringing technological innovation into the energy space depends on those smart meters being in place to digitise the system. Similarly, on the way in which our grid is put together, we want all our generational capacity—from the smallest to the largest—to be able to speak in real time about what it is producing, so that we can have a more dynamic generation system. We also need to sort out the regulatory framework for storage, because at the moment people have, in effect, to pay for their energy twice: first when it is generated, and secondly when it is released from storage. Surely, that cannot continue for much longer.

We also have to make sure that our distribution networks—the substations in our communities—are capable of dealing with more dynamic demand and clustered demand, particularly overnight, when people might be taking advantage of cheap energy to charge cars, run the washing machine and tumble dryer, and heat immersion tanks. None of that will happen automatically without the Government paving the way. Thereafter, however, I am sure that these technologies will find their place in the market by themselves. They will make life better, and people will buy them as a result. The Government do not need to encourage people every year or so to change their mobile phone, because people just want to have the latest technology at their disposal. I am sure that that will be the case in this area if the Government create the right regulatory framework with energy policy.

I turn to storage. The price of storage has already come down from $3,000 per kWh to about $200 today, and it will come down even more quickly still. We saw over the summer reports about the Tesla Panasonic factory in Colorado, the construction of which is being accelerated quite rapidly given the increase in demand. These are exciting times, because storage is the key to flattening the energy supply curve and unlocking the real potential of renewables.

The real technological wizardry, however, is demand-side response. That may be a combination of words that many in the Chamber have not heard before, but it needs to be at the forefront of the way in which we discuss energy. Flattening the supply curve through the availability of storage deals with only half the problem; flattening the demand curve through demand-side management is equally important.

I have been hugely impressed as I have become enthused about DSR, and as I have gone around various companies that are delivering it, by the scale of the savings that it is bringing to businesses. Marriott hotels have signed up to a DSR contract that saves them hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Workers at Aggregate Industries’ bitumen plants used to just turn up in the morning and fire up the boilers to get the bitumen tanks up to heat. They would operate over the course of the day, and then they would be switched off. Aggregate Industries now employs technologies that allow it to say, “Our tolerance is that we need to keep these tanks at a certain temperature, and provided that they are at that temperature, we can release energy back to the grid.” It does so, and it gets money for nothing as a result. By employing those technologies, it can sell back energy that it does not need, which it would otherwise just have paid for and wasted. That creates a huge saving.

Similarly, refrigeration is a massive cost for supermarkets and the food industry in general. Sainsbury’s has employed demand-side response, and the store in my constituency in Street, Somerset has released 20 kW of capacity back to the grid simply from DSR. That is extraordinary.

The other area that I want to touch on was the electrification of the transport system. I had to check very carefully with the Clerk of the Energy and Climate Change Committee about when I would find myself in contempt of Parliament, but I understand that if I draw on the evidence rather than on the report itself, it is fine. This is a hugely exciting opportunity for us to employ electric cars and electric haulage systems in the UK. The problem is that I am not sure that we yet have the infrastructure in place to support them, and I am not sure that we have the right fiscal structure to support them either.

I tried to buy an electric car over the summer, and sadly I found that their range was probably not quite enough to allow me to do my duties around my rural Somerset constituency. They are getting there, however, and we just need to incentivise the acceleration of the technology, so that we get beyond the 100-mile range to a range of 200 or 300 miles. If that happens, I think that people will, all of a sudden, go for electric cars quite quickly. All the incentives that the Government have in place—the £4,500 that they contribute towards the car and the contribution they make towards a charging point at the buyer’s home—are fantastic. The Government’s emphasis on establishing a charging infrastructure at motorway service stations and on main roads is also fantastic, but we really need to grow the infrastructure much more if people are to buy the cars and make the saving that we hope they will. The argument is that electric cars will make us more productive as well, particularly when we go beyond merely electric cars to electric autonomous cars, and we find that we can move around our towns and cities much more freely.

Interestingly, in the United States, Coca-Cola has employed hydrogen-electric hybrid vehicles for its entire fleet, and it has made a 20% reduction on its fuel costs. It made that huge saving by employing those technologies and electrifying its transport fleet, which is very exciting. We should look across at that and realise that this is not just something that people do if they are green and they want to be environmentally sensitive. It is something that an individual or a business can do if they want to reduce their operating costs—technology colliding with energy generation and energy consumption to make us more efficient and more cost-effective, and to make all our operating costs that bit cheaper.

Mr Deputy Speaker, you encouraged us to keep within 10 minutes, so I will summarise, rather than go into the many more examples that I am itching to provide. The bottom line is that, while we will focus very much on our digital infrastructure with broadband and 5G mobile phones and we will worry very much about the preparedness of our airports and air routes, as well as of our roads and rail, the energy infrastructure is just as important. In my view, alongside the broadband and mobile phone networks, the three sets of infrastructure of telecoms, broadband and energy will drive the fourth—or third—industrial revolution and allow us to harness all these fantastic technologies. We should seek to do so not just because we are seeking to arrest climate change, but because it is cost-effective, makes business sense, will increase productivity and, ultimately, will be great for our economy.

Access the full debate here.

Recommended Posts

Leave a Comment