Octopus is making quantum leaps
For years now, informative packaging has allowed us to find out where our food was made, or grown, and who it was grown by. This way, people have been able to work out whether they are buying organic crops and supporting animal welfare.
When it comes to the energy we use, however, it’s a very different story. The UK’s electricity mix is like a ‘pool’ of clean and dirty energy. Around 50% of that mix comes from renewable sources, and 50% comes from fossil fuels. When you pay a renewable energy company, you’re supporting efforts to pump more clean, green, energy into that ‘pool’, or ‘energy mix’. A lot of us would like to guarantee that the very electrons we are using were generated by renewable generators, but the only way to know that for sure has been to go off grid, installing your own solar panels and home energy storage systems...
How can I find out where my electricity actually comes from?
We address this in the blog. If you pay money into the bank, it’s still your money when you take it out. Not the same notes/coins but still yours. They’re not earmarked through the system but accounted for in and out. Same with electrons in the grid— Greg Jackson (@g__j) January 26, 2020
In January, someone asked our CEO, Greg, how Octopus customers could be certain that renewable generated energy was reaching their homes. Greg replied with an analogy. If I deposit the £20 note in my wallet (with serial number JB75 192924) in the bank, the probability of getting that specific £20 note back later from another cash machine is 0.00000000249198903%, and yet, in a way, if I get out £20 I can still call it ‘mine’. In the same way we can say the electrons that power your home were generated by a renewable source and put in the grid - an ‘electricity-bank’ - and when a customer uses electrons from the ‘electricity-bank’ we account for those electrons as ‘theirs’.
‘That’s all well and good’, you might say, ‘but what I really want to do is find out whether my home is really running on real, renewably-generated electrons’.
Well… Here at Octopus we’ve always been up for a challenge.
How does electricity actually work?
First of all we have to understand a little about electricity. Electricity isn’t just a matter of individual electrons moving down a wire. Electrons hop from one atom to another, but they actually move relatively slowly. What we call the electric current - the way a chain of electrons affect one another - travels very fast.
It might help to think of it like this. A marathon is 42,195 meters. I might normally run that in about 5 hours, but imagine if there were 42,195 versions of me, all standing a meter apart with our fingers touching. If, with amazing coordination, we all took a step forward at precisely the same time, then it would appear that ‘I’ had completed the marathon almost instantaneously.
Now, let’s say there were 100 different parallel lines, with each of those lines being made up of 42,195 identical versions of 100 different people. And, what if each ‘line’ starts at the same place, let’s say, a wind farm, but then peels off to cross a different finish line - say, a different customers’ home. Hopefully, you can see the analogy I’m trying to draw here... In this case, we’d like to be able to trace which ‘chain’ has run from a specific renewable source into your home.
Applying this analogy to electrons in the grid does eventually get slightly trickier, especially when you consider each square mm of wire contains around 4,000,000,000,000 atoms - that’s a lot of lines of identical people with their arms outstretched. What’s more, these lines tend to shift and ‘self-organise’ according to electrical ‘congestion’. And that’s not all. The cables that run to our homes are several mm in diameter, and the cables in the national grid’s distribution network are considerably larger...
What we really need then is a way to track electrons.
Tracking Electrons with Cutting Edge Physics?
We know that atoms can be analysed and even split - with their resulting components measured. This has been happening for years at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. One promising way to track electrons in the grid could be to use the bleeding edge science of quantum mechanics, making use of a spooky phenomenon called ‘quantum entanglement’.
Quantum entanglement happens after particles like electrons interact with each other and then stay mysteriously connected, even once there are large distances between them. Let’s imagine that each electron has a property called ‘colour’ - they can be either red, or blue, and that they also have a property called ‘shape’ - they can be either square or circle. Strangely, once two electrons have become ‘quantum entangled’, whenever you check either electron, you’ll find that one set of their properties will match up, even if you check long after they’ve interacted. So if we find that one is red, and later measure the color of the other, we’ll discover that it too is red, and the same goes for shape.
Strangely, the choice of measurement in one place appears to affect the state of the system in another. Using this “spooky action at a distance,” as Einstein called it, we have a reliable method to transmit information about electrons over long distances.
Introducing the Quantum OctoMeter
For several years now, our awesome R&D Future Technologies team has been attempting to use quantum entanglement to track individual electrons through the electrical grid.
Finally, after years of hard work, we’re delighted to announce the release of our groundbreaking new Quantum OctoMeter! Now that Octopus Energy has acquired Octopus Renewables (Europe’s Largest investor in solar energy), OctoMeters will be installed at wind farms and solar plants up and down the country. These meters can then be linked up to individual Quantum OctoMeters in customers’ homes. From there, they’ll check for entangled electrons, and tell you exactly where the energy that is powering your house came from!
It’s important to remember that this is still only an alpha product - our answer to UKRI’s call for quantum technology development - but we can guarantee that the meters are perfectly safe. As you read this, our installation engineers are being given a crash-course in quantum mechanics to ensure they are correctly installed!
To begin with we’ll only have a few hundred OctoMeters available, so you'd better hurry. Click here to sign up for this cutting edge new service – applications open on April 1st 😉
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