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In early 1980 I managed a project on behalf of a major European Power Generation Equipment Manufacturer to sell its coal fired technology know-how into the USA. This was some 9 months after Unit 1 Nuclear Reactor at Three Mile Island suffered a partial meltdown which rated 5 on the INES scale.

Of the 104 reactors now operating in the U.S., ground was broken on all of them in 1974 or earlier and no new nuclear plants have since been granted planning permission. This marked the renaissance of coal fired power utilities and I could hardly believe that this old and empirical based technology was in such demand. At that time only 2 companies remained in business in the US that could supply coal ash and fly ash systems and it took only a matter of weeks before a lucrative licence was signed up.

Just when it looked certain that Nuclear Power would make a return the most devastating accident, since Chernobyl in 1986 occurred at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan. It is now into its 4th week and the crippled plant is still not yet stabilized. A new analysis prepared for Greenpeace Germany by nuclear safety expert Dr Helmut Hirsch shows that by March 23 2011, Japan’s nuclear crisis has already released enough radioactivity to be ranked at Level 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES). This is the scale’s highest level, and equal to the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. This will be the demise of nuclear power for at least another 10 years.

This time it’s a racing certaintity that gas will be the favoured alternative to generate base load electricity through Combined Heat Gas Turbines. A relatively abundant, cheap and clean source of energy, natural gas is becoming an increasingly essential part of Europe’s energy mix, winning supporters for a variety of uses and particularly power generation, and domestic heating. But this policy has major political implications making Europe over dependent on Russia and the Middle East for its source of supply.

Renewables will also get a shot in the arm but they cannot make up for gap left by nuclear power unless a fully comprehensive Smart Grid is put in place. Similarly many energy conservation systems cannot be maximised without being interfaced to a smart grid. Whilst it would be churlish not to recognise the advances that have been made in developing and installing smart grid systems in the last 3 years it’s the low hanging fruit that has been grabbed first and we are pitifully short on fully joined up systems that embrace the heart of the system, communications and demand management of the transmission and distribution system. This requires a massive investment.

Memoori’s Executive Brief over the last 6 months has identified a strong emerging trend to press on and develop new products and systems for achieving a fully integrated smart grid and whilst it has the backing and support of the governments and the low carbon energy industry around the world it needs a colossal investment that cannot come solely from the operators of the electrical grid.

The political will to quickly enact measures to ensure that the barriers to investment are swept away have yet to overcome the inertia – let us hope that Fukushima galvanizes action here. Recent announcements by The Global Smart Grid Federation (GSGF) and the International Energy Agency(IEA) have identified the need for the private and public sector to work together and for governments to provide financial support and review outdated regulations that will make long term investment considerations a viable option.

A report by The World Economic Forum has resolutely confirmed that Smart Grid is a key enabler of a worldwide low-carbon economy. However they are concerned that utilities are struggling to create the business case for Smart Grids as regulatory incentives often fail to provide the right incentives and reflect the low-carbon agenda.

The balance between renewable power and its transmission needs to be finely tuned but smart grid looks like it will be left behind. We would then lose the only upside to this terrible disaster which is the inertia to redouble our efforts to produce clean and safe electrical power and reliable robust delivery.