Making progress

According to Andrew Thompson, increased patent filing activity suggests Smart Grids are a step closer

An upturn in innovation activity in the area of Smart Grid technology in Europe is signalling a positive development in energy generation and distribution. This activity is helping to establish the infrastructure necessary to support some major scale energy projects and a growing number of localised energy producers.

Desk research conducted by European intellectual property firm, Withers & Rogers, has revealed that over 450 patent applications for Smart Grid technologies were filed at the European Patent Office (EPO), based on the latest year of complete data1. This number has more than doubled in the space of three years and suggests a strong increase in research and development investment.

Smart Grid technology is an umbrella term for interrelated technologies with the common aim of improving existing energy networks. It covers more efficient and flexible energy generation, storage and distribution, as well as allowing consumers to better control their consumption (through the use of smart meters, for example). A Smart Grid has the ability to manage a diverse input of energy sources, including wind, solar, and hydropower, as well as more conventional fuel. Furthermore, an increased interconnectivity and efficient energy storage allows Smart Grids to better utilise distributed power generation, easing the pressure on central providers.

As well as the focus on meeting targets for renewable energy production, there is growing interest in wind and solar energy projects as the technology becomes more accessible and cheaper to install. In addition, there are generous payback schemes, which allow consumers and other small-scale producers to sell back surplus energy to the grid and reward them with discounts on their energy costs for doing so. Such incentives have inspired some exciting one-off energy generation projects. For example, work is nearing completion on what will soon be Europe’s largest floating solar power farm in Walton-on-Thames on the outskirts of London. With others also under construction, renewable energy projects on this scale are becoming an increasingly reliable source of energy.

However, the growing prevalence of localised energy generation is putting pressure on an ageing national grid, which is in urgent need of modernisation. Supply from renewable energy projects is often erratic by nature – solar panels won’t produce energy at night and wind turbines don’t turn if there is no wind. This could lead to supply shortfalls if the situation is left unmanaged.

Clearly there is a need to create an energy distribution infrastructure that is capable of taking energy from many different sources, storing it efficiently and effectively, and providing it as and when it is needed, where it is needed. It is only by casting the net as wide as possible to optimise smarter energy consumption that the grid can really become effective.

Of course, in order for each individual energy initiative to fulfil its potential, supply side innovation needs to keep pace with that linked to the distribution and consumption of energy. For example, without establishing solid communication lines between homes and power stations, consumers do not have the ability to share usage data. Here, smart meters can play a role by providing accurate realtime data to power companies in such a way that demand is never overestimated. Similarly, by making customers aware of the real-time cost of energy, lower energy use is encouraged, especially at times of high demand and cost. Smart meters can also tie in closely with day-to-day activity by actively managing power use in the home, automatically switching off certain devices at times of peak energy demand, or making the most of cheaper energy at night. As well as improving efficiency, smart meters could also help reduce energy theft through highlighting the misreporting of usage data. The worldwide cost of energy theft is estimated to top $200bn a year, so even a small percentage reduction can lead to significant benefits.

In the race to establish essential standards for smart meter technology in the UK, a number of key players have emerged including Honeywell, Hive (owned by British Gas) and Nest (owned by Google). However, as yet there is no clear frontrunner. As standards become established, the importance of intellectual property protection comes to the fore, as this could allow companies to benefit from lucrative licensing deals in the future.

While energy storage is principally a supply side problem, some innovators have realised that one-off producers could also benefit from solutions in this area and have made some significant headway. Tesla, for example, has invented a lowcost home battery pack called Powerwall, which is small enough to be housed in customers’ basements, garages or lofts. These packs use lithium-ion batteries that are designed to capture and store up to 10kWh of energy from wind or solar panels. Power reserves can be drawn upon when needed, for example when energy generation is not possible.

A recent government white paper on smart energy investment provides a map showing investment levels in Smart Grids throughout Europe. Although general Smart Grid activity in the UK is currently the highest in Europe, it is clear that there needs to be a more even split between investment in one-off demonstration projects and long-term R&D initiatives that aim to optimise the grid for the benefit of all future users.

Of course, a move to a more integrated energy market is likely to add complexity and make it even more important that the UK’s national grid is able to cope. It is therefore essential that Government legislation does not hinder its development. Certainly in terms of a smart meter roll out, the government is committed to encouraging take up in millions of homes by 2020. However, measures must be taken to ensure that the grid continues to develop in a cohesive manner.

When it comes to establishing smart grids in the UK, progress is being made. Many of the individual components that are required to establish an efficient and sustainable energy network are already in place and, as patent filing activity shows, investment in innovation is growing at a pace. While there is still some way to go until there is mass consumer buy-in and a solid infrastructure through which to administer home energy distribution and storage solutions, the race to establish essential standards for these new technologies is helping to fuel investment.

1 Due to the time it takes for an application to be published and to become public, the research is based on the latest complete data available.

Withers & Rogers
Andrew Thompson is a patent attorney and clean tech energy specialist at European intellectual property firm Withers & Rogers. Established in 1884, Withers & Rogers LLP is a leading European intellectual property (IP) firm providing expert advice on the protection and enforcement of IP rights particularly for inventions, designs and trade marks. Reflecting the firm’s distinctive entrepreneurial personality, its patent and trademark attorneys come with a depth of specialist understanding and pride themselves on helping businesses to commercialise their IP.

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