If, one day in the future, the UK were to have 10m electric vehicles in use and their owners all decided to put them on charge at the same time, that demand would equate to 80 gigawatts of power – the entire generating capacity available in the country today.
While this may seem an extreme example of the potential challenges posed by the shift to low-carbon technology, the changes occurring in energy consumption and generation have wide-ranging implications.
Microgeneration from devices such as solar panels could at certain times feed so much electricity into the grid that it would raise the network voltage to unacceptable levels, beyond those for which household appliances are designed. To mitigate such voltage rises, costly investment might be necessary – precisely what consumers who install solar panels to reduce their energy bills are anxious to avoid.
Low-carbon technologies are at the heart of the UK government’s target of reducing carbon emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. But the upheaval in the power sector is putting pressure on the “network to customer” model, based on large power stations feeding the grid. This has characterised the UK’s electricity distribution since the 1950s, following the electricity industry’s nationalisation in 1947.
Interest is now focusing on smart grids – modernised electrical infrastructure which makes the most of information and communications technology to improve the efficiency, economy, reliability and sustainability of electrical power supply.
The UK’s largest smart grid project, the £54m Customer-Led Network Revolution, is aiming to understand how the use of low-carbon technologies such as solar panels, electric vehicles and heat pumps affects the existing grid. Part-funded by Ofgem’s Low Carbon Networks Fund, it has been working with around 13,000 residential, commercial and industry electricity customers in northeast England and Yorkshire to identify practical and cost-effective solutions to meet future energy challenges and reduce, or avoid, the need for expensive network reinforcement.
Aspects of the project range from analysis of customers’ behaviour, including their reaction to smart meters with in-home displays showing “red zone” high usage peaks, through to the installation, in a mixture of rural and urban locations, of six giant batteries that can store energy through the day and release it when there are spikes in demand.
One important feature of the CLNR project is that the series of trials it is conducting are taking place on real networks with real customers, to ensure authentic findings that can be shared with the industry.
One intriguing observation is that participants with solar panels have been among the most engaged and informed, with the greatest awareness of how the grid works and the role they can play.
“For those with solar panels it’s as if a switch has been flicked in their brain; they have heightened interest,” says Jim Cardwell, head of regulation and strategy at Northern Powergrid, one of the project’s partners, together with Centrica unit British Gas, EA Technology and Durham and Newcastle universities.
Preliminary findings show very good response to time-of-use tariffs. These enable customers to save money by shifting the timing of household chores and offer network operators a cost-effective way to reduce network demand at peak times. Customers in trials used around 10 per cent less electricity during the more expensive peak period than those in a control group. The combination of smart meters and in-home displays with ToU tariffs or solar panels was especially effective.
Alongside the consumer research, some of which has involved university social scientists, have been highly technical network technology trials. These include trials of real-time thermal rating devices, which allow network operators to realise the maximum capacity from the existing installed network of overhead lines, transformers and underground cables.
All these data will feed into a complex control system being developed for the project, called Gus or Grand Unified System. In contrast to past “fit and forget” arrangements, Gus allows new technologies to be used in a co-ordinated manner.
With network operators expecting to find savings of more than £300m from 2015 to 2023, CLNR’s findings will be crucial in showing how these may be achieved by greater efficiency and economy.