We need to draw our future energy from a living system

Future Energy System

Nature may be the most obvious place to look for design principles for future grids, says Giles Bristow, Director of Programmes at Forum for the Future.

We have come to depend on the global energy system for our very survival – keeping populations wherever they are in the world at temperatures that sustain life and feeding them with a carbon-hungry, intensive agricultural production system. But this necessary life-support system is becoming ever more complex and divorced from its negative impacts on individuals, society and the environment – acutely demonstrated through a rapidly changing climate. Quite simply, this manufactured ‘human system’, created to enable modern life, is, by its very operation, directly and massively undermining the health of the planet and future of the people who live on it.

For a while now at Forum for the Future, we have been taking a systems approach to creating change and, in particular, in energy. We recognise that energy systems underpin and drive the global economy, which in turn nests within a social world that cannot be extruded from the environment. In other words, all human systems are part of the larger ecological system.

We have been designing a strategy for multiple interventions in these systems – looking for ways to create or encourage ambitious shifts so that energy generation, transmission and consumption all become more sustainable, quickly! Our vision is a system that is powered by non-polluting renewables, and that provides people at home and in their work with equal and affordable access to the energy they use in a super-efficient manner.

We are increasingly coming across emerging technologies and process innovations that have been inspired by nature: wind turbine blades shaped like humpback whale dorsal fins to keep spinning momentum in lulls; natural ventilation and heating systems inspired by the shape and design of termite mounds; solar photovoltaic cells designed on leaf patterns and mosaics. Product designers, architects and engineers are increasingly adopting innovation methods of biomimicry – the emulation of strategies and design by nature – to come up with incredible solutions.

As architect Michael Pawlyn puts it, “You could look at nature as being like a catalogue of products [which have all] benefited from a 3.8 billion year research and development period. Given that level of investment, it makes sense to use it!”

But what if we move on from thinking about individual solutions inspired by nature to entire energy systems drawing on the principles of living systems to meet human needs? Let’s adopt the seventh UN Sustainable Development Goal, ‘universal affordable clean energy’, as the challenge, and use biomimicry to rethink the system from scratch. This means taking the boundaries of the energy system as ‘the environment’, and then designing within it.

How would such a ‘living energy system’ look and operate? What innovative technologies would be required? What businesses and supply chains would be needed to deliver it? And how would the global economy reconfigure and adjust as a result?

If we take as our starting point the six ‘Life’s Principles’ put forward by leading consultancy Biomimicry 3.8, an energy system should be:

> Adaptable, for instance in the face of climate change and resource scarcity.

> Dynamic and so able to evolve, rather than locked into any one technology (crucial given the rate of technological advancement and the plummeting cost of renewables).

> Locally attuned: responsive and resilient.

> Life-friendly in its chemistry and not polluting.

> Resource efficient in both material and energy needs.

> Self-organising, so that it can develop and grow from the bottom up.

A picture emerges of a system that is radically different. If we assume that the critical outputs needed by humans are still heat, light and power (including for movement) – and now add digital computation – then it is how such a system delivers these vital services and its impacts on the environment and society that must change, to complement or even enhance natural processes.

Going a step further, might it be possible that the very existence of such a ‘living energy system’ will be the impetus for the rebalancing of our relationship with nature? How? Because the values and design principles that the system is based on will, in turn, be reflected in other socio-economic systems: global food production and consumption repurposed to provide sustainable nutrition, industrial ecology driving resource efficiency, property construction and city development to support intensive human habitation nested within (and not designing out) nature, and so on.

Each energy revolution has quite literally powered a paradigm shift in the global economy and has delivered (or perhaps been shaped by) new norms in the way our values are expressed at a global level. We have seen this each time, as we moved from total reliance on biomass, to coke, to coal, to the advent of electricity and liquid fuels …

What might be different this time is that we are under enormous pressure to accelerate the next shift in the energy system for our survival, and while there isn’t a toolkit for this, nature could well be the most appropriate and learned guide.

So, I would like to invite you to join us in this exercise of imagining what an energy system designed on biomimicry principles might look like and how we might usher it in.

We have started with a project at Forum for the Future called The Living Grid. Not wishing to bite off more than we could chew, we are limiting our thinking to just the UK’s electricity transmission system and have decided to focus on taking inspiration from nature to design a more flexible, responsive, low-carbon grid.

We are working with Open Energi’s technology and the physical assets of Sainsbury’s, Aggregate Industries, Tarmac and United Utilities to create a system that very subtly flexes its demand for electricity to help balance the grid. This avoids the need to fire up standby fossil fuel generation when demand and supply are out of step, perhaps because of a lull in offshore wind, or because a riveting episode of East Enders has come to an end. Flexibility and dynamism are key characteristics not valued in our current energy system, but crucial to the security in the dynamic equilibrium achieved by ecosystems.

We want to show that there are new ways of solving system issues, such as balancing demand and providing flexibility (cheaply), but also raise the bigger question that it might be the principles and values upon which the system has been created that need to shift. That perhaps nature – with 3.8 billion years of evolutionary practice and the most complex of all systems – may be the most obvious place to look for system design principles.

This article was first published in The Long View 2016 chapter Living Energy.

www.livinggrid.net

www.forumforthefuture.org

London’s spare gigawatt of power

London spare gigawatt of power

Lucy Symons, Policy Manager at Open Energi, explains how flexible demand could help power a sustainable future for London.

Projected population explosions in cities across the globe present urban planners with huge challenges. Between now and 2050, the number of Londoners alone is expected to increase from 8.6 million to 11.3 million, putting enormous pressure on energy infrastructure and requiring radical new solutions.

To meet the energy needs of 11.3 million Londoners in 2050, the Mayor is planning for a slew of new power plants as part of the enormous £1.3 trillion infrastructure spend earmarked in the London Infrastructure Plan. But there are alternative approaches to our current supply-side model that could deliver better value; we need to be original and also look at the demand-side opportunity.

Indeed, by taking a smarter, no-build approach to managing energy demand, London could shave off an eighth of the power currently used to keep the city’s lights on.

New modelling by Open Energi demonstrates that London has a whole gigawatt of ‘spare’ capacity in its current demand for energy: in-built flexibility that can be cheaply unlocked without the need to lay a single brick.

The challenge of matching supply with demand

London, like all mega cities, is still mostly fossil fuelled and this needs to change, fast. However, the rapid growth of renewable energy generation presents its own challenges, with spikes in electricity production that are often out of sync with times of high energy demand in homes and businesses; on a given day in winter, London’s energy demand peaks at 8GW between 4 and 7pm.

By contrast, at the height of summer, solar power supply follows the natural pattern of insolation- peaking at noon and in sharp decline by the late afternoon. Whatever the season, intermittency will be a persistent problem for balancing the London grid.

At present the generation infrastructure serving London is built to meet maximum possible demand. But with demand exceeding 7 gigawatts only 21% of the time, this is a hugely inefficient use of resources.

As London’s population grows, predicting electricity demand will be increasingly difficult. The GLA has forecast four scenarios, with demand in 2050 deviating from the 2015 baseline by as much as 30%. And this presents a major planning challenge.

Energy production local to demand

One approach is to throw more capacity at the problem, building London’s energy infrastructure for a theoretical peak that could be as much as 60% too high by 2050. Indeed, the Greater London Authority is already planning for local generation to meet 25% of London’s needs by 2025. Estimated total capital costs for this range from £50 billion to £100 billion.

While local generation undoubtedly has an important role to play, building 119MW of co-generation units requires space, which is already at a premium in London, and continues our reliance on carbon-emitting gas in a city struggling with air pollution.

And the challenge of building out clean supply-side alternatives is clear when looking at GLA projections for wind power for 2050, which depend on technological developments that will allow for small, decentralised turbines to be running right across the capital.

Flexibility local to demand

It’s a well reported fact that electricity margins are tighter than they have been for years and, as populations continue to grow, the need to balance energy supply and demand in order to mitigate the risk of power blackouts will be more important than ever. Grid agility and flexibility has traditionally been provided by building new supply assets, but a smarter approach can be found on the demand-side.

Demand response technology is, at its core, an intelligent approach to energy that enables aggregators to harness flexibility in our demand for energy to build a smart, affordable and secure new energy economy. True DSR technology invisibly increases, decreases or shifts users’ electricity consumption, enabling businesses and consumers to save on total energy costs and reduce their carbon footprints while at the same time enabling National Grid to keep capacity margins in check.

Using over 5 years of data from working with businesses and National Grid to deliver demand response from all kinds of equipment –  including heating and ventilation systems, fridges and water pumps – right across the UK, Open Energi has modelled London’s industrial and commercial energy use to reveal an estimated 1040 MW of flexible demand that could be invisibly shifted to provide capacity when it is most needed.

This gigawatt of flexibility is electricity currently being put to use in powering London’s homes and workplaces between 4 and 7pm – with over half used in retail, commerce and light industry.

Harnessing this flexible power – a sizable slice of London’s 8GW winter peak demand – is not a technology problem. Right now, Open Energi’s Dynamic Demand technology is connected to 3000+ machines, invisibly and automatically reducing, increasing or delaying power demand, depending on available supply. Given that the bulk of London’s flexibility comes from non-domestic sites (large commercial buildings, retail and industry), using Dynamic Demand to unlock this 654 MW of flexibility could be the cleanest and most cost effective way to provide the power for London to operate, businesses to grow and its inhabitants to lead healthy lives.

As a direct alternative to building new power plants, Demand side response is an efficient way to optimise the existing generation infrastructure- shifting 1GW out of the peak would save the need to build a new mega power plant, equivalent to the size of Barking Power station.

From where we stand, powering London is a data-driven problem. The answer lies in decrypting patterns of flexible demand.

Analysis conducted by Remi Boulineau, remi.boulineau@openenergi.com

 

Hunting high and low – the search for flexible demand

Open Energi Engineer

Mark Boyce, Commissioning Engineer at Open Energi, talks about the challenges – and rewards – of unlocking flexible demand from some unlikely places.

Our Dynamic Demand technology works by unlocking small amounts of flexible demand that exist in everyday equipment and processes. The amount of flexible demand from any one piece of equipment may be insignificant, but aggregated from thousands of loads UK-wide it becomes extremely powerful, able to intelligently shift MWs of consumption in a matter of seconds.

It’s an Internet of Things approach to energy – powered by data and algorithms instead of coal or gas – which provides the flexible capacity we need to support greater use of renewables without laying a single brick.

With over 40 customers from an ever expanding range of sectors, we’re integrating Dynamic Demand with all kinds of equipment – none of which were designed to do what we are asking them to do – and all of which have an important job to do.

Delivering our service without impacting the performance of the equipment we’re integrating with, whether it’s an air handling unit helping to maintain temperature in a student library, a supermarket fridge keeping dairy products cool, or a bitumen tank storing liquid bitumen at 150 degrees Celsius, is at the core of everything we do.

As an engineer, it’s a fascinating challenge, and the only way for us to overcome it is to understand in detail how a business is using its equipment and the processes it is supporting. This means working closely with our customers and asking lots of questions about how their equipment works, when it is used, what happens if we change its consumption, how quickly it responds, how soon these changes impact its function, and so on.

Every site is different.  Even when we’re doing large scale roll-outs, for example working with Tarmac to equip over 200 bitumen tanks at 70 asphalt plants UK-wide with Dynamic Demand, we find identical tanks will behave differently. The control panel might look the same, but especially with older tanks, wiring may have been updated and modified over time, and we have to work carefully to integrate safely, without affecting what is there.

My role as a commissioning engineer is to work with our customers and installation partners to get sites “live”, which involves setting up 3G communications on site, commissioning our Tridium Jace, ensuring frequency and power meters are working correctly, confirming the safe integration between our control panel and site equipment, and completing frequency injection testing to ensure equipment provides the correct kW response within the prescribed time-frame. The last steps are to train the team on site, complete a final site inspection and get sign off from the business.

We’re usually installing and commissioning on working sites so we have to fit all of this in without disrupting business-as-usual activity. For example, at an asphalt plant there will be regular deliveries of bitumen, lorries collecting asphalt, and diggers moving materials around.  In addition there are stringent health and safety regulations in place, so we need to adopt a very flexible approach and work closely with the team on site.

Site understanding of what we do varies, so it’s very important we build a rapport with site managers and not only demonstrate that their site won’t be affected (and that they will remain in control of their equipment) but also explain the benefits to the site itself.

Whilst the main reasons for installing Dynamic Demand are usually the revenue and sustainability benefits, at a site level we provide detailed visibility of equipment performance, which can help businesses to identify operational efficiencies and reduce costs.  For example, our customer portal enables customers to manage and monitor their equipment in real-time, providing sub-second metering data on every asset which can help site managers to identify maintenance issues, track and compare equipment performance and improve operational usage.

Most businesses are under pressure to identify energy efficiencies and cost reductions, and in multi-site organisations they are often bench-marked against one another to identify and share best practice, so the granular data we provide can prove extremely powerful and be a great way of engaging people with what we’re doing.

It’s very satisfying leaving a site and knowing we’re helping businesses to adopt a smarter approach to energy management, and that each and every piece of equipment we’ve connected to has become part of something much bigger; an intelligent, responsive energy system which is cleaner, cheaper and more secure. But I think the smartest thing of all – which may sounds odd coming from an engineer – is we’re doing all of this without building a single thing.

The Business Case for Flexibility

The Business Case for Flexibility

The move to a low carbon economy coupled with rapid advances in technology and innovation are transforming electricity supply and demand. Grid agility and flexibility are essential as we move away from models of centrally dispatched generation and incorporate more intermittent renewable energy generation onto the system.

This flexibility can be provided in a variety of forms, from demand side response (DSR) and energy storage to new build gas generation. However, there is a clear merit order emerging in terms of both carbon and consumer cost of these offerings, and to enable this merit order to play out requires a technology-agnostic approach to the energy system, free of subsidies and long-term contracts that prevent these solutions from competing on an equal footing.

The National Infrastructure Commission’s Smart Power report signifies the concrete shift in thinking needed to unleash flexibility and shore up energy security for the UK. The conditions are right for innovation, and innovation is about being able to run systems effectively at tighter margins with no impact on reliability or risk through storage and invisible, automated and no-build DSR.

Demand response technology is, at its core, an intelligent approach to energy that enables aggregators to harness flexibility in our demand for energy to build a smart, affordable and secure new energy economy. True DSR technology invisibly increases, decreases or shifts users’ electricity consumption, enabling businesses and consumers to save on total energy costs and reduce their carbon footprints, while at the same time enabling National Grid to keep capacity margins in check. Although in its infancy, the UK’s demand side response market is a reality, delivering flexibility today.

Research by Open Energi, National Grid and Cardiff University published in October 2015 illustrates that smart demand side response technology can already meet the UK’s crucial grid balancing requirements faster than a conventional power station. Added to this, using new build gas to provide flexibility in a renewables-based system is counter-intuitive. DSR technologies are already working for the UK, providing flexibility to the UK grid at a far cheaper cost per MW than both batteries and gas.
This is precisely why National Grid has established its Power Responsive campaign as a framework for turning debate into action with a practical platform to galvanise businesses, suppliers, policy makers and others to seize the opportunity to shape the growth of demand side response collaboratively, and deliver it at scale by 2020.

It’s a well reported fact that electricity margins are tighter than they have been for a number of years, as illustrated by the NISM National Grid issued in late 2015. Knee jerk reactions to this are to incentivise infrastructure investment in power stations with long-term contracts, but this is inefficient and costly.

The £18 billion Hinkley Point project is a case in point. Looking at future demand curves, once the plant is up and running, there will be periods when its supply exceeds demand for power across the whole of the UK. The UK should capitalise on smart options for delivering flexibility which can be delivered faster and more cheaply than traditional infrastructure projects. Behind the meter solutions are much more empowering to consumers.

The conditions are right for innovation, and innovation is about being able to run systems effectively at tighter margins with no impact on reliability or risk. This is possible through storage and DSR. In this ‘year of innovation’, disruptors must be able to implement their solutions on a free-market basis, without guarantees and subsidies for certain technologies that block competition. To achieve flexibility goals, government must be technology agnostic.

US regional transmission organisation PJM provides a useful case study, with its real-time and near-term energy markets that incentivise the best and cheapest technology at any given time. PJM’s approach has seen a proliferation in innovative flexibility solutions accompanied by falling costs for customers. According to ABB, two thirds of the 62MW of storage deployed in the US in 2014 was located in PJM territory . Market intervention is not necessary for energy system innovation to flourish. In fact, PJM shows that the opposite is true.

National Grid is already on the case with its Enhanced Frequency Response auction, which has seen 63 generators, energy storage companies and DSR aggregators pre-qualify to bid for contracts that will make it easier to manage the system. Demand side response is part of a wider energy market picture that must focus on flexibility and achieving the lowest cost for consumers. If just 5 per cent of peak demand was met with flexible power, the response would be equivalent to the generation of a new nuclear power station, without the huge costs to consumers.

Government needs to recognise that gas sits at the bottom of the flexibility merit order. Storage will undoubtedly play an important role, but Rudd’s pledge to explore long term storage incentives to get battery market moving are anti-competitive, not to mention unnecessarily costly for consumers.

DSR technology is already working today – not only to reduce electricity load at peak times, but also to increase load when demand is low and support National Grid’s second-by-second frequency balancing needs. And this is happening at both national and local scales.

2016 must be the year of flexibility and, to achieve this, we need consolidated markets that are technology agnostic. An energy department that styles itself as pro-innovation must send clear signals to innovators that it doesn’t pick winners.

David Hill, Business Development Director, Open Energi

Mapping Britain’s Heat Storage Potential

Bitumen tanks

Chris Kimmett, Commercial Manager, Open Energi

The energy system is undergoing a huge transformation away from centralised generation to small-scale, distributed power. National Grid’s Future Energy Scenarios (FES) models indicate that by 2020, small-scale, distributed generation will represent a third of total capacity in the UK and, as a result, speed of response to changes in energy supply and demand will be more important than ever.

And it is not only the increase in distributed generation that will prove challenging for the UK grid. The coal-fired Ferrybridge, Longannet, Fiddler’s Ferry and Rugeley are all expected to come offline this year, and with gas power stations procured under the Capacity Market now in doubt, the cushion between supply and demand is smaller than ever.

A new source of flexibility is urgently required, and storage to provide this flexibility will be an increasingly essential part of a responsive, secure and sustainable energy future for the UK.

Energy storage is commonly understood to mean batteries and pumped hydro systems. While both are valuable, current costs, installation times, and issues around recycling and decommissioning are all prohibitive to wider deployment. But storage exists in a number of forms, including through demand side response (DSR), which takes advantage of latent heat in energy-intensive equipment and devices to create new flexibility for the grid.
If too much energy is supplied at any given time, it doesn’t have to be stored in a battery: instead, Internet of Things (IOT) based forms of demand response can adjust the consumption of energy-intensive devices to make use of power when it is available. In instances when there is not enough power, demand can be deferred rather than drawing from a battery to supplement supply.

This smart DSR approach is ideally suited to heating and cooling assets that have the characteristics of stored energy devices.  By harnessing existing everyday equipment, from fridges to furnaces, and invisibly switching them on or off for a few minutes at a time, energy demand can be adjusted to meet available supply in real-time, creating a distributed storage technology.

Take the asphalt plants which manage the complete asphalt production process for road construction as an example. Liquid bitumen for road surfacing is stored in large, well-insulated tanks, and a heater maintains the temperature of the bitumen between a low set point (typically 150 degrees C) and a high set point (typically 180 degrees C).

These tanks have “thermal inertia”, meaning the amount of energy they use can be adjusted and the temperature of the bitumen won’t be immediately affected: Bitumen tanks can be switched off for an hour and the temperature may only fall by between 0.5-15 degrees C.

Using demand response technology, bitumen tanks can deliver a full response to National Grid within two seconds (quicker than traditional thermal generation) and for up to 30 minutes, provided they are within their set-points. The average duration of Open Energi’s switch requests to bitumen tanks is just 3.3 minutes.

Cooling systems such as supermarket refrigeration also provide a distributed storage network that can help to balance UK-wide electricity supply and demand in real-time.

Open Energi estimates that if Dynamic Demand was deployed in the commercial refrigeration assets of the five largest retailers in the UK, it could meet approximately 6% of the UK’s total 1.8GW requirement for Frequency Response, roughly equivalent to 100 MW. This would generate revenues of up to £10 million a year for the asset owners and reduce UK CO2 emissions by around 227,600 tonnes a year.

Other latent heat storage assets include: heating, ventilation, air conditioning, and hot water boilers in commercial property; electric induction furnaces, ovens and melting pots in foundries and metal processing sites; and heaters and aerators at water processing sites.

Because these devices have already been built, it is possible to aggregate the stored thermal energy they contain and build a virtual power station at a fraction of the cost of building a grid scale battery or new generation capacity. The capital cost of building a new peaking power station can be up to £5 million per MW and battery systems in the region of £0.5 million-£1.8 million per MW. A MW of demand response, on the other hand, costs around £200,000 to aggregate.

DSR, coupled with on-site generation and energy storage technologies means that the energy market is no longer a linear value chain driven by fossil fuel production but is becoming decentralised and bi-directional; creating a new energy economy where energy consumers can both take and provide service back to the grid and generate revenue.

To realise the full potential of DSR technology we now need to further understand where the potential for flexibility, including latent heat, lies across the UK’s entire electricity network: assessing both regions and sectors.

In the same way that traditional energy commodities like oil, gas and coal are mapped by geologists to identify resource rich areas, a flexibility mapping process will enable demand response aggregators to identify the DSR ‘hot spots’. This in turn will give business, industry and policy makers the confidence to invest in DSR technology ahead of building additional spinning reserve, and the certainty they need to plan for a future where flexible Demand Response plays an integral role in delivering a secure and resilient energy system.

By using land data from regional authorities, for instance the GLA for London, the industry can develop a better understanding of where the flexibility potential lies, whether that be in heavy industry, commercial buildings or residential areas.

Open Energi is working to map flexible demand in the UK from the bottom up, asset by asset, sector by sector, to model the capacity in the market and demonstrate how much generation can be displaced.

Increasing flexibility on the grid has historically meant building more generation, but latent heat in energy intensive equipment presents a hugely valuable opportunity. And through mapping, this opportunity can be realised at scale for the UK.