Smart power

Decarbonisation, decentralisation, digitisation: the changing energy landscape

The energy landscape in the UK is currently undergoing a major transformation, presenting both opportunities and challenges for organisations working on the frontline of clean energy.  Add to that the fact that the erstwhile Department for Energy and Climate Change has now been subsumed by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy – whither climate change? – and we could be on the verge of a brave new world, one that hopefully encourages closer links between energy and cleantech innovation, and the chance to develop a thoughtful strategy for the future of low-carbon energy in this country.


This year’s crop of Ashden Award winners is well placed to respond to the ever-shifting sands.  The joint winners of our Sustainable Communities Award – Low Carbon Hub and Repowering London – have already proved themselves resilient in the face of an onslaught of policy changes over the past 18 months.  

Low Carbon Hub has launched its own manifesto, setting out why community energy is a fundamentally important part of the UK’s national energy transition.  Their ambition is for the whole of Oxfordshire to be powered by an interconnected series of smart micro-grids centred around multiple small-scale, community-controlled renewable energy schemes.  

As well as supporting communities to install and manage solar panels on housing blocks and communal buildings in Brixton and Hackney, Repowering London have recently joined forces with Transport for London.  They now have permission to create 50 energy gardens across London’s Overground stations.  The organisation has also been appointed as a community energy provider by Lambeth Council and is working with them to bring solar energy to Electric Avenue and the Brixton Market area. 

Social businesses like Low Carbon Hub and Repowering London are decentralising ownership of energy resources and reinvesting surpluses in community-benefit activities, like fuel poverty alleviation and energy efficiency projects. They have a critical role to play in ensuring that the UK’s energy transition does not recreate ‘business as usual’.   


Making the UK’s big cities more energy efficient, and sourcing more of their heat and power from decentralised energy sources, will not only reduce carbon emissions, but will also help to create energy stability, when we are having to rely increasingly on fuel imports and our existing energy infrastructure is ageing.

As part of his London mayoral manifesto, Sadiq Khan pledged to learn from existing initiatives in Nottingham and Copenhagen among others, where municipal owned, not-for-profit energy companies are offering citizens greater control over managing their own energy needs.

With this in mind, he announced the launch of Energy for Londoners – a not-for-profit clean and green energy company - to support communities that want to set up their own clean energy generation schemes. It will assist the roll out of projects like the Bunhill Energy Centre in Islington that takes waste heat from the tube to warm over 1000 homes in the capital.  At present, London only accounts for around 2.5% of solar installations nationwide and is in dire need of a dedicated solar strategy - which has been promised for next year - if the capital is to have any chance of becoming a zero carbon city by 2050.  At Ashden, we are currently working with the Greater London Authority to look at how London can become more energy smart, drawing on the experience and expertise of some of our Award winners.


In the last budget, the Treasury accepted the recommendations of a report by the National Infrastructure Commission on how to support the development of a “smart power” system that could save consumers up to £8 billion a year.

The changing patterns in both the demand and supply of electricity are putting the power grid under ever increasing stress. This makes it more challenging to allow for peaks and troughs in demand, manage intermittent and dispersed forms of generation, and ensure that there is sufficient flexibility in the system to keep the lights on. As more and more coal generation drops away, the need to innovate is becoming more urgent.

Smart energy companies, like 2016 Ashden Award winners Tempus Energy and Open Energi, are transforming the way businesses buy and use electricity through flexible demand technology.  They work with commercial customers to identify electrical equipment, which does not need to run continuously or does not need to run at a particular time, and then install their technology to turn that equipment on or off, and therefore their electricity demand up or down, in response to wholesale prices, network charges and conditions on the national grid.  This is an approach which, as it is scaled up, will reduce the need to keep inefficient and polluting reserve power stations running, and means fewer new power stations may need to be built in the future to keep the lights on. 

UK coal plants are due to be phased out by 2025. But, although the National Grid has plans in place to preserve security of supply and is supportive of the kind of ‘disruption’ being shown by Tempus and Open Energi, we are still lacking robust, stable policies from government in order to both speed up the transition to cleaner energy.  Given the lack of national leadership, it’s to be hoped that devolved governance to ‘metro mayors’ in Manchester, Sheffield, Liverpool and other cities in 2017 will give greater space to business innovation and transformative change when it comes to embracing low carbon energy.     

Mike Snowden is a UK Programme Officer at Ashden, a charity that champions and supports leaders in sustainable energy to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon world

Photo by Andy Aitchison/Ashden: The National Grid control room at the their headquarters in Wokingham

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.

Smart meters: powering the new economy

As a nation we are becoming more and more reliant on electricity to power our lives.

Whether this is through the expanding range of gadgets in our homes or the predicted rise of electric cars – our energy demands are set to rise. 

This week we published a piece of research conducted by the Centre for Economics and Business Research on Powering Future Cities, which details the rise in demand that UK cities will face over the next twenty years.  

Keeping up with these new demands will be a big challenge, but also presents some important opportunities. 

Smart meters and smart technology could help us as a nation meet these demands, ensuring the long term security of our energy infrastructure and helping us better-integrate renewables into our energy mix.

Policy makers are already thinking about new ways to manage Britain's energy demand. From the National Infrastructure Commission’s vision of Smart Power to the development of smaller-scale energy generation in local areas, the advent of a smart meter in every home is creating newly integrated energy communities, using new energy data as a platform for innovation.

Smart meters are here 

By 2020, every home and microbusiness in Britain will have been offered a smart meter by their energy supplier, at no additional cost. By establishing a digital connection between the home and the energy supplier, these new meters are bringing an end to estimated bills and showing us in pounds and pence what we’re spending on gas and electricity. They’re replacing traditional energy meters ticking away under the stairs in a language of kilowatt hours that few understand - one of the things holding us back from behaving as fully empowered consumers in this market.

Change is coming, and the national rollout is well underway, with over 3.5 million smart meters already installed. 

Our Smart energy outlook, an independent piece of research into the experiences of over 10,000 people conducted by Populus twice each year, has found that 80% of smart meter users are taking steps to use less energy, and 76% are more conscious about the energy they use. Nearly four in five smart meter users say they would recommend one to others.

The benefits of smart meters are even wider than the way they’re transforming individual experiences. Smart meters are digitising Britain’s last analogue industry, and will deliver both energy savings and system efficiencies of £6billion to the economy while saving 32.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide.  

The smart energy grid

For the first time, we will have data on our energy use. Our energy networks will use this data, aggregated to postcode level, to better understand peaks in energy demand, and to identify power cuts more easily. 

Better data on how we’re using energy is essential as more of our energy starts to come from renewables – which by their nature are intermittent, generating when the wind blows or the sun shines. 

More sophisticated ‘time of use’ pricing will then empower households to play an active role in managing demand, via tariffs which offer cheaper energy when demand is lower or supply from intermittent renewable sources more plentiful.

Other countries are embracing this. In Texas, for example, to use up the surplus of wind energy at night time, a new tariff was introduced offering free energy to customers at night.

Smart grids mean a cheaper and more reliable energy supply. In its report, Smart Power, the National Infrastructure Commission said that moving to a smart grid could save consumers £8bn per year. 

Driving forward the low carbon economy

Operating a smart grid will allow Britain to fully benefit from low carbon technology like electric vehicles.

The electrification of transport will be a big driver of energy demand in coming years, but also essential in helping to tackle air pollution in cities. 

But the take up of electric vehicles will needs to go hand in hand with the development of a smarter energy grid. Cars will need to charge ‘smartly’ to avoid unmanageable pressure on the grid at peak times such as the end of the working day.

Electric cars are just one part of the broader smart home. Smart appliances like washing machines, freezers and dishwashers may also in the future make decisions about when to use energy – communicating the smart meter and drawing energy when it is cheapest.

Cities like Groningen in the Netherlands are already trialling this sort of approach with great success. Households are empowered to choose the sources of energy they use, including buying it from their neighbours who may have solar panels, and also selling excess energy back to the grid or to other residents.

Digital opportunities 

The opportunities of smart energy data goes far beyond the energy sector. Smart technology is opening up potential for innovators in every possible field to use new data to develop new services.

The UK's digital economy is the largest and fastest growing in the G20 and already makes up over 10% of our GDP. In the future, we are likely to see a whole host of innovative new services which use energy data. These could include the next generation of price comparison and switching websites using your smart meter to automatically switch consumers onto the best tariff – even hour by hour.

Smart meters could connect to fitness monitors and sleep trackers, turning the thermostat down to a lower temperature when you go to bed.

Data could be used at a local level by a fuel poverty charity to identify households who are regularly self-disconnecting from their energy supply. 

And it’s not just in energy that this data can provide insight and innovation.

Getting a better understanding of people’s energy behaviours could be applied in areas like health – allowing carers, agencies or relatives to keep an eye on those they care for. Changing patterns of energy use can help identify if an elderly relative hasn’t switched their kettle on in the morning as they usually do – prompting a carer to check in on them.   

Smart technology and smart meters will be transformational, and are unlocking exciting new areas for economic growth in the low carbon economy. 

Claire Maugham is Director of Policy and Communications at Smart Energy GB

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.

Releasing the potential of energy storage

Energy storage will play a central role in our future power system. It enables electricity that is generated at times when supply exceeds demand to be stored, and consumed later at peak demand. It’s one of a suite of ‘smart’ technologies that help to balance the grid, which include interconnection and demand-side response.

The benefits of energy storage

Demand for electricity varies significantly throughout the day. At some times, total UK electricity demand can be below 30GW. At other times, it can be just below 60GW. A lot of this variation can be managed through turning up or down power stations, but this can be difficult, particularly with an increasing number of renewables on the grid. Energy storage can help to even out that profile. It obviates the need to build new generating assets in order to meet peak demand. This can save consumers money, because they do not have to pay for expensive new energy infrastructure through their bills.

Energy storage also tackles the intermittent supply of power from renewables, making our energy supply more secure. Because the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine, the supply of electricity from renewables is inconsistent. This makes it hard to ensure that electricity supply and demand are always in balance. There are costs associated with balancing the grid, which can prevent renewables from competing with other forms of ‘baseload’ power generation such as nuclear or gas. Storage, therefore, is an important part of successfully integrating renewables into the electricity grid.

Carbon Trust recently produced a report on energy storage in which they quantified the benefit to consumers of further uptake of storage technologies. They found potential for £2.4 billion per year of savings by 2030, which could translate into a £50 annual reduction in household bills. This fall in energy costs comes from optimising existing generation capacity, and from avoiding building new infrastructure.

Different technologies

There are many different technologies that can provide energy storage. On the one hand, there are mature technologies, such as pumped hydroelectricity, which was first developed in the 1920s. The UK already has 2.8GW of pumped hydroelectricity capacity. It works by pumping water from a lower reservoir to a higher one at times of low demand, and releasing the water through the turbines when demand is high.

On the other hand, there are new technologies, such as lithium-ion batteries, like those found in smart phones. The potential growth of these new storage technologies is significant. Analysis from Citi has found that the price of lithium-ion batteries (per kWh) has fallen from $3,185 in 1995 to $320 in 2011, with further decreases projected.

A number of innovative new schemes have recently been announced that show how companies developing this technology in the UK. Nissan this year launched a new vehicle-to-grid scheme for their pure-electric vehicle, the Nissan Leaf. It will enable owners of a Leaf to sell the electricity that is stored in their car’s battery back to the grid at times of peak demand. Statoil has confirmed that they will build a major storage plant, called ‘Batwind’, next to their planned floating offshore wind farm in Aberdeenshire. It will help to optimise the electricity produced at the site and overcome the problems of intermittency.

Growth in energy storage

The market for storage is growing. Last year, when the National Grid invited expressions of interest for 200MW of grid balancing capacity. Bids from electricity storage alone would have surpassed the quota more than four times over. Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicts that by 2040 there will be a 75% fall in the cost of commercial and residential storage systems and the size of the global market will grow to around $250 billion.

But further measures are needed to unleash the true potential of energy storage. The National Infrastructure Committee recently called for a removal of regulatory barriers to storage to ensure it can compete on a level playing field with electricity generation assets. They identify storage as an area in which the UK can become a global leader. Not only can this be done without subsidies, they claim, but it can have a net positive benefit on consumer bills.

The Energy and Climate Change Committee in the House of Commons today published a report echoing calls for regulatory reform. For instance, energy storage is currently ‘double charged’, once for consuming the energy it stores, and again for supplying that energy back to the grid.

Finally, last year, Bright Blue called for the Government to invest in research and development of new electricity storage technologies. And in our latest report, we call for between 5GW and 6GW of storage capacity to be brought online by 2030 to ensure security of supply during the coal phase-out.

The potential for energy storage is great: government and industry now need to release it.