The lockdown period has served to bring out two aspects of energy in the UK. First the good news, these unusually sunny and windy weeks have highlighted the success the UK has had in greening the grid over the last decade or so. And second, yes there's work still to do, but also potential for its users, us, to be the building blocks in moving further in the direction of net-zero.
May was the UK's greenest ever month in energy terms. The average carbon intensity of the electricity network came in at 143gCO2/kWh, with the lowest ever carbon intensity of 46gCO2/kWh recorded on 24 May. A 68-day run of coal-free generation was broken just briefly in June.
But all this unrequested renewable energy at a time of lower demand comes at a price. National Grid ESO forecasts that an additional £500 million between May and August will be spent due to COVID-19. Challenges to balancing the grid have come about due to the low demand caused by the pandemic, alongside high levels of renewable energy from wind and solar.
This has led to National Grid ESO employing several new methods of balancing, including a new act of reducing embedded generation. However, the solution to balancing the system of the future does not have to lie in curtailing renewables or indeed spending billions building out more central power generation as back up.
Last week it was announced that up to £133 million could have been saved in grid balancing costs during the UK’s lockdown if smart electric vehicle (EV) charging and smart tech adoption had been more wide scale. For the most part, savings will have to wait, due to a lack of large numbers of electric vehicles on the roads combined with limited opportunities for residential flexibility.
But there are innovators showing us a glimpse of how it will work in practice. Octopus Energy introduced the public to the idea of demand side reduction over the bank holiday weekends with its 'Big Switch On'. Offering smart meter customers small money inducements, up to around 10 pence per unit, to use energy at home. These actions "show that the grid is ready to move quicker than many thought possible," Jess Ralston, analyst at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit said.
Greg Jackson, CEO of Octopus Energy, said: “The bank holiday weekends have been a wake up call. With a flexible, digital grid, cheap renewable power would have saved households money. Without it, they will be forced to pay billions in infrastructure upgrades and compensation payments. We need to fix this, fast.”
The Flexibility First Forum, led by Ovo Energy, says that electric vehicles could support the grid through smart charging, taking electricity from the grid during periods of low demand and carbon intensity and helping to therefore create a “more resilient, lower cost system”.
In May, Kaluza - a company that optimises the behaviour of electric vehicle chargers, smart heaters and domestic battery storage systems - published research detailing how vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technologies supported the grid during lockdown. V2G chargers exported almost 50% more in the first week of lockdown than the previous week, a rate which continued throughout April.
People power might sound cheesy, but consumer power is a much underrated commodity. Slavery might have built economic prosperity in the UK by the 1790s, but a campaign of pamphlets and posters led to a drop in slave-grown sugar purchases of over a third in several parts of the country over just a few months. This is impressive even by the viral possibilities in today's social media landscape.
Today we see a parallel in the power of people to help in the next stage of moving the electricity grid towards net-zero. Consumers haven't yet been introduced to the idea of energy as a dynamically-priced commodity. But the time is ripe.