NEWS Practice

Let’s take stock and evaluate our energy usage to benefit the future

As we continue to navigate our way through the changes imposed on us as a result of Covid-19, we take a look at the impact the current lockdown is having on the UK power networks and explore what can be done to hold on to the positives we’re seeing beyond the pandemic.

Unsurprisingly, with so many of us working from home, British households are using more electricity (and gas) than usual. However, with schools, offices, factories, and restaurants closed, overall power demand is far lower than normal. We are also seeing a shift in traditional usage peaks, with the usual morning peak now slightly later in the day – which could be down to people not getting up to commute or to drop off children at school – and the usual evening peak slightly earlier. This is reducing pressure on the grid where there were the traditional peaks, resulting in lower carbon emissions from fossil fuel generators that are typically used to meet peak demand.

Looking ahead, we may see a more permanent change in working patterns once restrictions have been lifted, due to improved set ups at home and facilitated communication platforms. The technology that enables us to work outside of the office is reasonably mature with Virtual Private Networks (VPN) and good quality video conferencing platforms having existed for a number of years. The lockdown has forced a majority of businesses to adopt these pretty much overnight. Presuming that most employees and employers will now be reasonably comfortable with working from home, we may see domestic electricity and gas demand increase during the day and peak demand coming down by a permanent fraction.

With this in mind, and looking longer term, we’re also likely to see a shift in commercial office demand. With companies looking at ways to accommodate the changing working patterns, demand for agile working and hot-desking spaces is likely to increase. Automation and finer grain controls would enable office to partially turn down energy use during such events. Companies will require less space and, therefore, use less gas and electricity overall.

Conversely however, this lower peak demand has also been seen to have an adverse effect at times of low demand. Day demand over the recent Easter weekend fell to a record low of 15.2GW, more than 2GW below what National Grid had previously forecast. With nuclear set up to cover the baseload, generating around 5.5GW (this cannot be turned down quickly), the total amount of additional energy being generated by renewables was way in excess of the extra capacity required, so wind was turned down in great numbers – a missed opportunity for generating renewable energy.

An obvious solution to this would seem to be to store the extra energy for future periods when it is required, and to an extent we already do this with pumped hydro and some battery storage. However, much more storage is needed. Are more large scale batteries the answer? Should the UK start to invest in innovative power storage systems such as Compressed Air Energy Storage (CAES)? Well in part, yes, but as with all large scale infrastructure projects, they require large up-front investment and some surety on ROI. Will the economic cost of Covid-19 inform investment priorities of the future?

In addition to, and in conjunction with, these potential changes we need to consider the smart technology-driven alternatives available, and how we manage energy usage to maintain lower levels and contribute positively to the acceleration of the decarbonisation of the UK. According to Smart Energy GB it is possible for the UK to achieve a significant 11% of its 2050 carbon emissions target just by using household energy efficiency measures. Here are a some examples:

  • Smart meters, enabling home owners to get a better understanding of actual energy usage and therefore more accurate bills. This is an important step to helping the UK conserve energy.
  • Demand Side Response (DSR), allowing businesses and consumers to turn up, turn down, or shift demand in real-time which can help soften peaks in demand and fill in the troughs, especially at times when power is more abundant, affordable and clean.
  • Vehicle 2G storage capabilities, which can enable electric vehicles to store and discharge electricity generated from renewable energy sources such as solar and wind, with output that fluctuates depending on weather and time of day – see below.
  • Energy as a service, allowing users to buy hours of heat and hot water, rather than buying gas/electricity in arrears through a bill with no real understanding of what kWh actually are in their normal busy lives – we do this with phone data!

It’s also now possible to link hundreds of batteries together to form a virtual power station. Furthermore, with the growth of electric vehicles, a household could potentially have a much larger battery sitting on the driveway*. Vehicle to Grid (V2G) technology is relatively new and only a few EVs on the market are capable of this but surely now is the time to develop this and bring it to maturity. A couple of simple scenarios are shown below:

Scenario 1: Householder wakes up to 100% charged EV – drives to work and plugs it in whilst there. Using already existing technology, the power in the battery could be flowing backwards and forwards during the day, as required, autonomously, and generating revenue for the driver (or car park manager, depending on charging regime for the at-work charging point) – with an agreement to ensure it’s 100% charged when the driver needs to leave work. Returning home from the average commute, there will still be plenty of charge in the battery to feed back into the home during the evening peak demand period. Later, after the household have gone to bed, the EV will recharge to 100% overnight using cheap electricity, ready for the commute the next morning.

Scenario 2: Householder commutes to work using public transport and leaves EV at home. Power in the EV battery can be used to run the household in the morning before leaving. During the day, power can flow both ways either from solar PVs on the roof, or from the grid, when (as mentioned above) renewables are generating more than the grid requires. The EV is then fully charged to run the house, or even sell back into the grid during the evening peak

*Typical household battery could be 10-15kWh whereas a Tesla Model S battery can be 100kWh.

If there was ever a time for us to re-evaluate our energy usage, it’s now. We have the opportunity to emerge from this unique situation with a new and holistic view on the impact of our home and businesses on energy usage and climate change mitigation. It’s time for change.

Steve Ormrod is Associate Director Hilson Moran 

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