This winter, the UK is expecting high demand for electricity supply and an increase in costs. Renewable power sources are starting to fill the gap left behind by closing coal power stations, but they generate more when the sun shines or the wind blows and are not necessarily available when people turn on their televisions in the evenings.
National Grid pays gas and coal plants and diesel farms to turn up or down their supply whenever there’s an increase or decrease in demand for electricity. This winter alone, keeping power plants going for peak demand is forecast to cost consumers £122 million, while an estimated £800 million in subsidies may be awarded to diesel projects under the Government’s Capacity Market. This is expensive, slow and not very green. Energy prices and security of supply are top political priorities, but when it takes four years and a lot of money to build a power station, there needs to be a more efficient solution.
The good news is that Great Britain has a thriving energy technology sector with a vast portfolio of innovations that can step up to this immediate challenge. Open Energi, a dynamic UK tech firm, uses technology to link together more than 3,000 machines - like air conditioners in your local supermarket or the pumps moving our water - and switches these machines on or off during the day to make power available when it’s needed by consumers, or to store electricity after a big gust of wind. This technology is already installed at over 350 industrial and commercial sites across the UK including Sainsbury’s, Tarmac, Aggregate Industries, United Utilities and University of East Anglia. Developed right here in Britain, this is powerful technology. On cold winter evenings, it can function just like an entire nuclear plant. Demand flexibility is the first line of defence in an energy security crisis, which is characterised by successive power plant failures rather than a lack of supply.
But this ‘demand-side’ energy tech faces major barriers in UK energy markets. Companies like Open Energi cannot prequalify for the government Capacity Market and cannot compete directly against gas plants in the balancing mechanism. The fast, flexible power they provide is instead only accessible via monthly tenders and procurements. Faced with a national energy security crunch on one hand and with the tech needed to solve it bound only by markets that aren’t fit for purpose, there is an immediate opportunity to unleash competition. Unlike other energy projects, demand flexibility requires no state subsidy at all. All that we ask at Open Energi is that the regulations are updated to ensure ‘demand side’ (when we turn demand up and down) is given the same treatment as ‘supply side’ (when new power is generated) in the existing energy markets.
Deploying demand flexibility and storage at speed to solve an energy crunch at scale is a proven path. In 2015, Californian policymakers were faced with a shutdown at the state’s biggest gas storage facility, threatening peak shortages and blackouts. To solve this immediate challenge with an immediately available solution, policy-makers fast-tracked 64.5MW of electricity storage and approved $11.5 million for demand response and dynamic pricing. Energy storage projects were constructed in less than four months, compared to a previous average of three and a half years.
Applying the same market mechanisms in the UK could dramatically change the game for energy security on the GB grid as early as next winter. With over 1GW of energy storage prequalified for National Grid’s recent Enhanced Frequency Response tender, of which only 200MW was purchased, it’s clear we have the appetite from investors to bring innovation to market. The challenge now rests with policy makers to make regulation fit for purpose in a modern age of energy technology innovation.
Lucy Symons is the Director of Public Policy for @openenergi and recently travelled to California as part of a delegation of female founders leading some of the UK’s fastest growing tech firms.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.