Comment: We need to unlock the power of people in the future … – Reuters

A home smart meter showing energy use is seen in the kitchen of a home in Manchester, Britain, January 23, 2023. REUTERS/Phil Noble Acquire Licensing Rights
July 10 – Picture the future energy system. What comes to mind? Maybe you’re imagining rural landscapes populated by giant wind turbines, or urban rooftops covered in solar panels. The dominant narrative about the energy transition is largely focused on generation; how we need to rapidly switch from a system that has relied on fossil fuels for several decades, to one powered by clean, green sources of energy.
Yet an overlooked and undervalued element of the paradigm shift ahead of us is the role of consumers, and how we use energy. The golden rule is that the electricity system must be kept in balance; supply and demand need to be matched 24/7. In the past, if we needed more energy to meet the needs of a community or population, we would simply fire up a coal or gas-fired power station – at huge cost to the environment and to the overall system.
As we switch to powering ourselves with renewables, we need to be more intelligent about demand. In short, we need to make it more flexible to meet supply, rather than vice versa. Renewables are intermittent; there are times when the sun or wind isn’t readily available. Fortunately, there is a host of tools we can use during these periods, such as storage, but how we as consumers use energy will become increasingly important.
This isn’t just a nice idea. Last winter, more than one million UK households took part in an innovation trial run by National Grid ESO, called the Demand Flexibility Service (DFS). In one of the greatest reimaginings of the grid’s relationship with consumers, households were called upon to shift their energy consumption outside of peak periods, in exchange for payment. The trial successfully proved the appetite and reliability of consumers to support the grid when it was under strain and there was a chance of blackouts during cold snaps.
Analysis of the National Grid's trial demand flexibility system found that it delivered nearly 3 gigawatt hours (GWh) of reduction from the grid. REUTERS/Toby Melville Acquire Licensing Rights
The challenge ahead is to rapidly scale this up and get many more millions of households engaged and delivering flexibility. In order to do so, we need to leverage behavioural insights about those who have already participated. What was the impact of price, weather or notice period on people’s willingness to flex their energy use?
Centre for Net Zero is an impact-driven research unit, founded by Octopus Energy. Our core focus is the active role of people in the future energy system. Access to the global Octopus Energy dataset provides us with a unique view of how households are currently using energy, including early adopters with electric vehicles and heat pumps. As these low-carbon technologies improve, along with increased consumer familiarity and much wider adoption, we want to understand what this means for the design of a people-centred future energy system.
We undertook detailed analysis of the Demand Flexibility Service and found that it delivered system-level impacts: nearly 3 gigawatt hours (GWh) were reduced from the grid, equivalent to the amount of electricity required to make every person in Great Britain a cup of tea. More than 680 tonnes of carbon emissions were saved, comparable to taking 450 cars off the road for a year.
For the 700,000 Octopus Energy customers who took part in the DFS, we found that altering price signals, notice periods and communication techniques influenced the amount of flexibility that came from households. Cold weather didn’t deter people from turning down their energy use, and consumers were willing to provide flexibility even at short notice.
One important finding was that 75% of participants delivered flexibility manually. This was achieved by switching off "big ticket" energy items, such as washing machines, during one- or two-hour time windows. To scale up the amount of flexibility we can source from households, this system needs to become automated and enabled by smart, low-carbon technologies.
In 2022, the UK spent 215 million pounds turning wind farms off. REUTERS/Andrew Boyers Acquire Licensing Rights
Designing this tech-driven, automated system in a way that works with and for people, rather than as something that happens to them, is incredibly important. For the journey to net zero to succeed, we need to engender trust between people and the energy system and ensure we’re delivering value to both.
The potential rewards are significant; a fully flexible energy system could cut the cost of reaching net zero by up to 16.7 billion pounds a year in 2050. Even households that aren't directly participating in flexibility would benefit from reduced energy bills, because of the overall reduction in system operating costs and avoided grid reinforcements.
It might surprise you to hear that we currently waste a huge amount of wind power in the UK. Last year, the UK spent 215 million pounds on turning wind farms off, and then another 717 million pounds turning on gas power plants to replace the lost wind power. In the process, we emitted an extra 1.5 million tonnes of CO2. Building more infrastructure and transmission capabilities is key to overcoming this challenge. But this takes time. We can use the right price and carbon signals, right now, to encourage households to turn up their energy use when there’s plentiful, cheap wind energy, rather than wasting it. Flexibility is not just about turning down consumption; it’s about harnessing intelligent demand.
We’re on the cusp of profound and significant transformation to our energy system. In the next few years, you’ll likely see more of those big wind turbines and solar panels you originally pictured. But harder-to-see technologies, and automation in people’s homes, are going to become increasingly important if we’re to effectively leverage renewable power. Flexibility can help decarbonise our energy system and bring down everyone’s energy bills – a combination that we believe is worth fighting for.
Izzy Woolgar is director of external affairs at Octopus Energy’s Centre for Net Zero, a research unit leading pioneering research to make the future energy system a reality. She specialises in strategic communications and spent several years advising major global blue chips, including Centrica, BP and Vodafone, and mission-driven tech organisations. She holds a degree from the University of Cambridge.
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