In the UK, data has been transmitted over the national electrical grid for the first time ever. Electrical wires have been used to transmit information within homes and local network before by sending very high frequency data alongside the standard 50 Hz signal. (Hz is an abbreviation for “hertz” or cycles per second. In the UK and much of the world, alternating current fluctuates 50 times each second. The standard in the US is 60 cycles per second.)

The trick is sending data through sub-station transformers, which have an air gap inside which the high frequency data cannot cross. Instead, engineers at Reactive Technology used technology developed by Nokia to embed digital information as tiny changes to the 50 Hz signal. That allows the information to translate across the air gap. Messages were sent from various locations in the UK to receivers scattered around the country. All were received correctly.

Okay. That’s wonderful news. What does it mean? In short, it means that any electrical device plugged in to the grid can talk to any other device and to the grid itself without using the internet. The new technology could be a significant step forward in the creation of virtual power stations. Thousands of homes and businesses could combine to manage electricity use more efficiently. It could lead to lower energy bills for consumers who allow small variations in the amount of energy their appliances consume, such as water heaters or freezers.

Want more good news? The flexibility the system provides could reduce peaks in energy use and thereby eliminate the need for new power stations that are only brought online to cover peaks in grid demand. A more flexible grid could also optimize the use of renewable energy across the grid. In other words, it could be a significant factor in lowering the carbon footprint of energy generation. In England the National Infrastructure Commission estimates the new technology could save electrical customers more than $9 billion a year by 2030 while helping the country meet its climate goals.

“The old mindset would be, we need to build more power stations,” said Jens Madrian, of Reactive Technology.“We disagree with that. There are other ways of managing electricity, one of which is carrying knowledge from the telecommunications and software engineering side into the energy sector.”

Marc Borrett, CEO of Reactive Technology adds, “What is better? Building a [large power plant], which if it goes down you have lost 7% of the national electricity generation, or building up capacity from many hundreds of thousands of smaller devices around the UK? It needs quite a cultural shift: smaller is better, distributed is better.”

When the supply of electricity goes up or down, the system broadcasts a message through the grid which is received by every connected appliances. One advantage of the system over the internet and mobile phone networks is that the grid already reaches all electrical devices, even those in remote locations. Reactive Technology expects to have its first commercial customers for the grid-based management system within 18 months.

Many people tout the internet of things, but there are finite limits to how many connected devices can be managed wirelessly. The new grid-based technology will make it possible for any appliance properly enabled to be controlled remotely independently of the internet. Anything that promotes the use of more renewable energy is a welcome advance on the road to a zero emissions electrical grid.