Close at hand but out of reach

Rural communities are often the least likely to benefit from renewable energy that is generated on their doorstep. But smart meters are about to change all that, says Fflur Lawton.

It’s a paradox of rural life that the sources of renewable energy – wind, hydro and solar – are close at hand, but often they are out of reach.

When discussion turns to community energy projects, the focus is on cities where community groups have come together to produce and consume locally generated electricity. The challenges presented by network constraints and a dispersed population mean rural projects rarely get a mention.

This is about to change.

Why? Because of smart technology that will increasingly help communities overcome barriers that prevent them harnessing local sources of energy.

In a Smart Energy GB paper, A smart energy future for rural areas, we identified five motivating factors that drive rural energy projects forward. We concluded that, to be successful, projects must address at least one of the following: a reduction in overall energy consumption, improved stability and security of local energy supply, lower consumer costs that help tackle fuel poverty, an increase in renewable generation, and increased use of energy that is produced locally.

Challenges remain, however, not least as a result of the limitations of local distribution network infrastructure, which typically constrain the amount of energy that can be produced or the number of new connections to renewable sources. The result? Harnessing local renewables is technically demanding and can be financially unattractive.

While the intermittency and volatility of renewables present a particular challenge on both the supply and demand side, the irony of local solar, hydro and wind-based energy sources being beyond the reach of the local community should be lost on nobody.

But smart meters can overcome technical and economic barriers by providing the foundation for a smart grid. And by allowing renewables integration, they form a vital part of efforts to decarbonise our energy system.

In practical terms, smart meters and smart grids can help prevent network overload when demand is low but supply is high by identifying and detecting likely oversupply. Meanwhile, the provision of real-time and trend data allows for longer-term strategic planning to rebalance energy supply and production away from fossil fuels and towards renewables.

Elsewhere, there’s the potential for projects that focus on load shifting through the use of advanced storage heaters and boilers.

There are other projects, too, that make use of excess energy to provide for the needs of rural communities. “Welcome to our Woods”, a not for profit social venture in the upper Rhondda valley, is one project designed to do just that. The company plans to build a micro hydro plant to produce electricity for local community buildings and low-income households that will reduce fuel poverty locally. Project staff have identified the potential to install smart meters in community buildings and social housing to operate alongside the hydro plant.

“Welcome to our Woods” hopes that smart meters will enable them to monitor energy use and effectively charge people for the energy they use. Smart data will also be used on the supply side to help manage generation.

Alongside other smart technologies, smart meters have the potential to play an important role in changing behaviour, reducing consumption and increasing the efficiency and security of the local energy supply.

Smart meters not only help users better manage their energy consumption, they also help suppliers understand optimum energy provision. On the demand side, smart meters facilitate time-of-use tariffs and local renewable energy schemes that can encourage customers to change their energy use.

We know, however, that incentives alone are not enough. Consumption changes little without a smart meter with an in-home display (IHD) to direct users to real-time, demonstrable savings. Meanwhile, suppliers have a role to play in encouraging energy-efficient behaviour. To maximise the influence these devices have on changing energy demand patterns, smart meter deployment must be accompanied by further information and prompts, particularly in the form of support and advice from installers.

The barriers and constraints in rural areas are real, but they are not insurmountable. Rural projects need local buy-in and, often, community participation, demanding significant investment in time from local communities, project managers, energy suppliers and other partners. This is where small, cohesive communities have a potential advantage because they can fuel a sense of collective purpose around a local energy project.

Moreover, geographic proximity to renewable energy assets can be turned into a potential benefit in rural areas. Renewable energy sources are often more visible to rural populations, and this in itself can generate a stronger sense of community ownership.

No longer close at hand but out of reach. Instead, rural energy projects can become close at hand and in reach – with a little help from smart technologies.