Author Mark Richards

Big changes are coming in digital technology and energy storage which are going to change all our lives. There is the potential for consumers to save a lot of money – or to come home and find their bank account empty…

Do you remember when you were a teenager? Do you remember your dad following you around the house, switching lights off after you and muttering under his breath? “Electricity isn’t free, you know. You’ll do the same when you’ve got a house…”

Except that very shortly we will not be doing the same. Technology is about to make dads irrelevant…

Changes are coming

The changes in question are rapid improvements in digital technology and battery storage, which are set to irreversibly alter the way we store and use energy.

The UK Government is poised to invest nearly £250m in battery technology that it says will be essential to funding its future industrial strategy, as it looks to set up a ‘battery Institute’ to award hundreds of millions of pounds to companies on the brink of major research and development breakthroughs.

The UK Government has been criticised for being slow to recognise and support the ‘battery revolution,’ allowing countries like China, Japan and South Korea to take the lead. And we need to put that figure of £250m in perspective – the cost of the Crossrail project is put at £31bn, or 124 times the investment in battery technology.

What will ‘The Battery Revolution’ bring?

Batteries will power the automotive industry – France has already announced a ban on the sale of petrol and diesel cars by the year 2040 and now it looks like the UK will follow suit – but the developments will not stop there. With the cost of battery power rapidly falling, there is the chance for the UK to radically re-shape the way it uses renewable energy by storing excess wind and solar energy for times when the wind drops or the sun does not shine – and for smoothing out the energy demand. Batteries will play a key role in balancing the electricity system.

“We are at a moment of real change in the energy industry,”

said Nicola Shaw, executive director of the National Grid.

“From a historical perspective, we created energy in big generating organisations that sent power to homes and businesses. Now we are producing energy in those places – mostly with solar power.”

It is the technological change that will allow the solar power to be stored and distributed when it is needed that will affect all our lives.

…And it is good news for consumers

All this sounds like great news: consumers in the UK could – according to government figures – save billions of pounds thanks to big changes in the way electricity is generated and stored. Ofgen put the savings at between £17bn and £40bn by the year 2050. The first to benefit will be people with solar panels, with new rules making it easier to sell the power generated to the National Grid.

The first to benefit from the battery revolution will be people with solar panels

But the real savings will come with technology as the internet increasingly controls devices within our home. Among examples quoted by the Government are turning on the washing machine in the afternoon, to use cheap solar power if the sun is shining: having the freezer turned off for a few minutes to smooth demand at peak times, and companies who allow their air conditioning to be briefly turned down (or off) to smooth out peaks in demand.

Sounds like science fiction? Not really. Anyone with an Amazon Echo will know that it can already work with devices like a Nest thermostat to control the heating in your home. And this is technology that is in the very early stages of development: think that you will be able to ask ‘Alexa’ to do five years from now.

Or is it such good news?

Sadly, there are real fears that as our homes get ‘smarter’ they are also more open to attack. Simply put, the more the energy industry embraces the digital age, the more vulnerable it becomes to hacking.

Last week we wrote about the Taylor Report and the Government’s desire to make far more transactions cashless. After all, what can be tracked can be taxed. Half-jokingly in that article, we said that the great advantage of cash was that it could not be hacked. Having the internet turn off your freezer to save money sounds like a great idea: who would not want a device in their home that could turn down the heating if the sun came out? But there are real fears that this new frontier could leave us all vulnerable to hacking. There is no point saving a pound on your heating if you come home to find that your bank account has been emptied.

We have all been involved in a car crash at some point in our lives. Many of us have been burgled – or know someone who has been burgled. Sadly, ‘the internet of things’ may move us closer to the days when we have all been hacked at least once.

From a security point of view, it may be far more sensible to write a note which says, ‘milk’ – rather than have your fridge send a message to your phone.

But there is a solution – at least if you live in the Chinese city of Jinan, where a new ‘unhackable’ internet network is about to be launched. The technology behind it is something known as quantum cryptography: do not even ask me to explain it, but it does appear to be another area where China is taking the lead as the West hesitates to invest. So in Jinan, 200 users from the military, government, finance and electricity sectors will be sending messages, safe in the knowledge that they are the only ones reading them. Or they think they are. An ‘unhackable network?’ You can just see hackers all over the world sitting down at their computers, pushing the discarded pizza boxes to one side and muttering, ‘Let’s see, shall we…’