How ‘smart’ homes have left us hostage to electricity

According to research by Aviva, the average UK household now has 10.3 internet-connected devices, which equates to more than 286 million nationwide. There are 2.22 million smart homes in the UK, with a central hub linked to at least two devices. What do we need to do to keep our homes running when the electricity is unreliable? Residents across the country, those hardest hit by storm-induced power outages in recent months, have started lighting wood-burning stoves for warmth. Those who have oil stoves for cooking, heating and hot water felt especially grateful for this archaic, but reliable device.

Those with diesel generators also feel a little smug, you think. But in urban areas, while solar panels can pay for themselves for many years, unless they cover a large part of the roof, are facing the right way, and aren’t distressed shadows, they won’t keep much of the house energized.

A more radical solution are household batteries. You can run your home there and give your home, business and vehicles complete energy security without any reliance on the national grid – if you have £75,000 to spend, plus plenty of solar panels or a wind turbine.

One of the leaders in the field is Elon Musk. Its Tesla Powerwall will capture and store energy from a huge array of solar panels. An installation in a large house in Surrey can store half a megawatt, which would power 200 small houses for weeks.

For society as a whole, however, the solutions to our overreliance on electricity are more complex and less likely to be implemented.

Former Cambridge scholar Dr John Constable is an energy consultant for clients including the Japanese government and director of the Renewable Energy Foundation, a think tank that has predicted today’s problems for nearly 20 years. Unexpectedly, the foundation does not see renewable energy as the way to solve our electricity problems.

Dr Constable argues that wind and solar are half measures because they are little more than emotional responses to our needs – liked by politicians and campaigners, but not very good.

Nuclear energy and, in the future, infinitely abundant and safe fusion energy, that is what is needed. But, says Dr Constable, it is only in Asia, where the culture is more scientific, that countries are seriously interested in nuclear and fusion.

“It’s ironic, but our passion here for renewables could, I believe, end up dragging us back to gas, or even coal. What we need to do is improve our gas production to enable us to continue while we go to nuclear. What we are really doing is working tirelessly to correct the deficiencies of renewable sources.

And aren’t even household batteries a neat and wonderfully clean solution?

“Not really,” said Dr. Constable. “Lithium-ion batteries are dangerous. They cause fires. That’s why airlines are wary of them and why you can’t take these little electric scooters on the London Underground.

“And anyway, making them just means exporting pollution to China.”

About Hannah Schaeffer

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