Being paid to turn off your power
The collision of an energy crisis arising from Russia's invasion of Ukraine, decommissioning of our ageing fossil fuel-powered fleet of power stations, lofty net zero goals, and some very cold snaps with very little wind this winter has seen the ability of the National Grid to maintain electricity supplies reach near breaking point at times. This has prompted blackout warnings, a surge in enquiries for backup battery installations, and now initiatives to pay a million UK customers to turn off their washing machines and other luxury appliances at peak times to unload the supply. So how does this work, and is it the first step towards centralised digital control of our energy consumption, which, after dropping for years as technology improved efficiency, now looks set to climb again as more of us switch to electric vehicles, and home heat pumps? I put these points to Simon Harrison, who is group head of strategy at engineering company Mott MacDondald and chaired the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy Electricity Engineering Standards Review in 2019...
Simon - In a market that is a little short of electricity, it's not a crisis point. There is a choice between running expensive power stations to cover demand peaks or reducing the demand. And National Grid is, I think, really experimenting with reducing the demand and testing the appetite of that amongst people like you and me.
Chris - Previously, they'd have just done that by whacking the price up. The price has gone up, but they're going further.
Simon - Yes. And domestic consumers would not normally see a change in the value price or the special arrangements that National Grid has to manage demand peaks that consumer tariffs normally flat across time. What's changed? Natural grid is looking to the future where there are even more renewables than now. And also where demand potentially has much greater components of things like electric vehicle charging in it. It's foreseeing situations where covering the demand peaks with additional power generation starts to become much more expensive. And so the opportunity to try consumers reducing their demands in accordance to, if you like, system signals is potentially really interesting. And it's what National Grid is experimenting with, I think.
Chris - Are you saying then that we're in a position where we're actually potentially gonna see bigger surges because of changing patterns of use with people plugging in energy hungry cars? And if they avoid doing that all at once? That's what we're striving for here, because overall our energy use has gone down, hasn't it? As we've embraced more efficient technologies.
Simon - Energy use has gone down over time, but we're expecting that to go up as more and more gets electrified from other sources of energy. Especially electric vehicles, but also potentially electric heat pumps for heating. So overall the demand, if it was uncontrolled, could get a lot more peaky, which then starts to become a lot more expensive to service.
Chris - In the past in order to anticipate everyone getting home for work in the evening, putting the oven on, putting the lights on, et cetera. They've revved up more power stations, so what's different this time?
Simon - So that could still be done. And there are a number of coal fired power stations being held in warm reserves as I understand right now, in case they're needed. But this is really to explore alternatives to that which should be rather lower cost, which is to persuade people to use less electricity at critical times.
Chris - How are they doing that?
Simon - It's being done by smart meters in people's homes where, if people give permission, National Grid can see half value data from the smart meter and can therefore determine whether consumption has been reduced.
Chris - The problem is if everyone turns things off, because it's a window period of time, they're asking people to cut their usage by a significant amount over that time, isn't it? Does that not mean that loads of stuff comes back on after that downtime is off and that's gonna create a massive surge on the grid and then they've traded one problem for another?
Simon - Well, the grid is designed to cope with moderate levels of surge like that. And I think the size of this experiment has been contained so that this is manageable essentially,
Chris - What have been the outcomes? Is it working?
Simon - I'm not sure the data's out there actually at the moment, but I think what's really interesting is, going forward into the future, I think a lot more of this is likely to be automated. So it's not going to be so much a matter of individuals going around switching things off, but it's going to be about people contracting for their electricity in different ways. That means that this happens seamlessly at certain times. Perhaps people will get notices on their mobile phones, will be invited to opt in or opt out, and they won't themselves then have to take action with things like turning off their electric vehicle charger.
Chris - Is there going to be almost like a priority pecking order in the home where your fridge freezer might get first dibs on a certain residual supply of energy, but then there are certain luxury items, certain types of lighting, hot water heater for example, where it's not life or death if they're suspended for a while and your electricity company might have the ability to switch some of those things down temporarily just just to smooth out supplies. So rather than managing supplies, which we've done in the past, now we're managing demand.
Simon - So as we get to a much more digitized system, those kinds of things become possible. And you might be able to sign up for contracts that do that. I think actually your fridge freezer would be amongst the easiest things to switch off for a period of time as that wouldn't really affect very much at all. But you might not want your TV to be switched off, so there would be some sort of implied pecking order within a much more digital home.