Jane Hunt is the MP for Loughborough. Lord Ravensdale is an engineer and a crossbench member of the House of Lords.
It is no secret that our society has undergone significant changes in the last few years. COVID-19 and the consequences of the war in Ukraine have sparked collective discussion of how best to co-exist and collaborate amongst ourselves in the UK, with neighbours near and far, and with our natural environment and the climate.
Recently, national and global politics has been dominating headlines. However, beneath this lies steadier, more relentless forces of change. Our world is getting hotter. Our economic and industrial needs demand constant modernisation in pursuit of growth. The power of new digital technologies is transforming how information and data shape our lives.
This is why we need to get smart with our solutions – quite literally, according to the most recent research from the Midlands Engine partnership and supported by Siemens, the University of Birmingham, and the Energy Research Accelerator. It was immensely encouraging to read their recent findings on how smart energy systems can utilise the power of digital to facilitate significant domestic energy savings, boost employment, and provide the infrastructure necessary for the continued rollout of renewable energy sources. There are three outcomes the UK desperately needs.
For those less acquainted with smart energy systems, they can be as simple as the smart meters found in many homes and which enable people to use energy-intensive appliances at times of low demand (and therefore low prices). They can also be as large and complex as applying artificial intelligence to entire power grids – constantly using data to manage the supply and demand of electricity to its optimum level.
The Midlands Engine report highlighted that this capability should be useful as we transition to renewable energy sources. This is because ti can help to manage fluctuations in supply caused by a lack – or excess – of sun for solar power, or of wind for turbines. It also predicts that the thousands of electric cars which are appearing with increasing frequency on British driveways could be used to interact with the National Grid, or smaller ‘micro-grids’, by automatically charging when electricity is cheap, or even by selling power back to the grid in times of very low supply.
If we can continue to seize on these opportunities – and we’re confident that we can – then they could be worth over £70 billion for our economy over the coming decades. That is both through the industries supported and in terms of energy saved. Just as excitingly, they could position both the Midlands and the UK as world-leaders in this rapidly growing industry of the future, keeping us ahead of our international competitors.
It’s fantastic to see regional economies leading the way in promoting inventive, win-win solutions such as these. In particular, it comes as little surprise that the Midlands should be advancing its cause as the natural testbed for the UK’s first smart energy region. Not only does our region boast a proud history of powering the UK, but our world-class research base, coupled with our existing advanced industrial capability, make the Midlands a natural home for innovation.
More than this, we are a region that, as we know from the privilege of being able to represent its people in both Houses of Parliament, is increasingly geared towards connectivity. Not only in terms of energy or digital, but more deeply as a place that inherently recognises the value of partnership, collaboration, and shared endeavour. After Jane’s election as Co-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Midlands Engine earlier this year, this is something we hope to work in tandem to encourage and facilitate over the coming months and years.
With all this said, it’s fitting that not only has the region taken the lead on smart energy, but it’s already driving the first stages of its implementation. The University of Birmingham’s plans to build the UK’s first ‘smart campus’, demonstrating that talk of striving for improvement can be backed by action. The Midlands Engine region also significantly outperforms the English average in terms of smart meter installation, data from which is being used by academics in Loughborough to better inform the National Grid’s Smart Meter Innovations & Test Network.
We should be clear in our understanding that in no way are these technologies, and the others outlined in the Midlands Engine’s Smart Energy report, to act as a solve-all for the challenges that face the Midlands, the wider UK, and our planet. Now-familiar structural issues caused by factors including an over-reliance on foreign fossil fuels mean there is no one solution. We do believe, however, that in constantly reaching for innovation, intelligence, and collaboration as our response to the shifting sands on which we find ourselves, we may begin to ensure that we pull ourselves clear of our current issues, and turn change into opportunity.
It is these opportunities which are hardest for policy makers to ignore. The opportunity for growth through an emerging sector; the opportunity to drive down emissions, both here at home and globally; the opportunity to export our smart solutions around the world. What we need now are smart interventions, which address the scale of the challenges we face. We need smart solutions.