Smart technologies have played a critical role in the UK energy industry’s response to the pandemic and in doing so, have given us an insight into what the sector might look like in the future and how technology can help us support customers better and manage energy usage and generation in the most efficient way.
The industry’s first priority in any crisis is to protect vulnerable customers and keep the lights on. During the lockdown, smart technologies like smart meters (see below) have played an important part in helping customers in vulnerable circumstances – with a greater number of households than usual put into this position by the outbreak.
As the country has adapted to the current restrictions, smart technologies have been helping energy companies manage the corresponding changes in usage – with rises in domestic consumption more than offset by falls in the commercial and business sectors - and make most efficient use of the abundance of wind and solar power available in the spring and summer.
The closure of factories, offices and shops across the country has led to something like a 10 per cent drop in daily electricity demand. As National Grid has pointed out, having surplus power on the system can be just as challenging to manage as a shortage with the challenge of balancing significantly reduced demand during weather conditions that have led to a plentiful supply of renewables.
So the COVID-19 outbreak has again highlighted the existing adaptability and resilience of the GB energy system. Keeping the power going during disruptions is second nature to an essential service and despite unprecedented social and economic upheaval, the lights have stayed on. While social distancing requirements and workforce disruptions have impacted the energy sector like any other, well-practised contingency planning and swift adaptation to the circumstances from National Grid, network operators, generators and suppliers have kept the energy flowing to customers without interruption.
In addition to helping manage the demands of a changing energy system, smart meters have also proved their worth in helping customers observe the lockdown and limit the spread of the virus. Crucially, the ability of customers with smart pre-payment meters to top up (or be topped up by their supplier) from their homes, removes the need for anyone to visit the property or for the customer to make a trip out in order to stay on supply.
In recognition of this, many companies proactively engaged with customers on traditional pre-payment meters as soon as the consequences of the pandemic became clear. Installing smart pre-payment meters has helped customers, especially those needing to self-isolate, to stay in the comfort and safety of their own homes.
Smart prepayment meters have another vital benefit in helping suppliers monitor where vulnerable customers may be at risk of self-disconnection through not topping-up. This has been a long-running concern for the industry as it is very difficult for suppliers to quickly identify when this might be happening for those with traditional prepayment meters. Suppliers are continually looking to improve their processes for identifying and supporting vulnerable customers and their response to the outbreak could provide valuable pointers for the future.
And of course, with households using more energy during the lockdown, smart meters have another advantage in helping households keep an eye on consumption so they can adapt their habits (especially where they might be unwittingly wasteful) save money and help the wider system. And lockdown or not, with smart meters automatically sending accurate data to their supplier, there is never any need for a visit from the meter reader.
The Shape of Things to Come
As we’ve touched upon, while the pandemic has been unprecedented, it has also provided an insight into the realities of managing a far more diverse and flexible low-carbon energy system – one very different from the one we have known.
On 20 April, Great Britain set a record by meeting nearly 30 per cent of UK electricity demand from solar energy and at the time of writing, the longest run of coal free energy generation in this country since the industrial era is now over a month and counting. This is another welcome demonstration of our success in cutting emissions in the power sector but it also points to the shape of things to come.
While the current drop in energy use has brought it into focus, the challenge of balancing the system has already been changing significantly and will only continue – requiring a smarter management system. We can already see how this might work with fast acting, digitally controlled solutions like energy storage and demand side response being called on in near time, offering greater flexibility from many sources. An increasing numbers of smart assets such as these will allow the system operator to respond quickly to changing patterns of demand like those seen recently.
Smart and flexible technologies across the energy system enable us the make the most efficient use of our resources with the potential consumer savings estimated at £8 billion a year by the end of the decade. Earlier this year, we published a report ‘Delivering on the Potential of Flexibility: A smart flexible energy system in the transition to a net-zero economy’ alongside the Association for Decentralised Energy and BEAMA, outlining key actions to unlock this value. The lockdown has highlighted the need for those changes and accelerated progress.
Smart technologies can directly benefit consumers as well as the wider system, giving them the chance to be active participants and enabling heating and electric vehicles to utilise the conditions seen during lockdown. Innovative tariffs enabled by smart meters have recently given consumers a very clear incentive to be flexible by paying them to consume energy when there has been surplus power on the system – something likely to be repeated over the summer.
Even though the current circumstances are exceptional, the patterns of supply and demand seen during the lockdown point towards what could become the norm - as more flexible and energy efficient technologies are installed in homes around the country. It’s quite likely that some of the changes forced by the outbreak may be permanent – when we get back to ‘normal’, it might look quite different. Recent weeks have given an insight into how we can efficiently manage a low carbon future.
While talking about the benefits that it can bring at both macro and micro level, a low carbon and flexible energy system will also of course play a fundamental role in improving our environment, tackling climate change and meeting our Net Zero target. While the pandemic might have temporarily reduced the focus on climate change, it has also arguably created a real opportunity and appetite for the change required. Life has been very different in recent weeks, change and disruption has been forced by circumstances that nobody would have chosen but emerging from the crisis also provides an opening to ‘build back better’, to focus on creating a brighter future and, as part of that, to accelerate the transition to a smart, flexible, and low carbon energy system.