How Large Energy Users Can Enable The Big Shift Towards Renewables

Flexible demand will help drive the take up of renewable energy, writes Will Dawson, associate director at Forum for the Future

There’s a new kid on the energy block, and its name is Demand Flexibility.

Mind you, it didn’t move in last week. Back in 2015 UK energy regulator Ofgem highlighted demand flexibility as an innovation area of highest priority. But despite top-level government attention, it hasn’t yet fulfilled its massive potential.

What is flexible demand? It simply means shifting the time that we use electricity: consuming more when supply peaks, and consuming less when supply is low or market demand exceeds supply.

What enables this is the advent of smart digital technology solutions, which allow energy consumers to take full control of their energy consumption, doing so at times that are most convenient for the electricity grid.

Adoption of these technologies at scale by large energy-consuming entities, such as retail park networks, utility companies or manufacturing businesses, would help balance out the entire national grid to smooth out peak demand and avert black-out risks.

This is significant considering the nature of renewables. Solar and wind energy are abundant but intermittent in nature, and in order to move at scale to these sources we need a grid that can adapt efficiently to ebbs and flow in supply. Indeed, without flexibility it will be challenging to get beyond around a quarter of power from such intermittent renewables.

Solar and wind energy are abundant but intermittent in nature, and in order to move at scale to these sources we need a grid that can adapt efficiently to ebbs and flow in supply

While we can’t control when the sun shines or the wind blows, we can control – much more than we realise – when we use electricity.

According to the IEA, 11 billion internet-connected energy-using devices could be providing 185GW of flexible power globally by 2040, giving rise to savings of over US$270 billion. Together that can make up to half our electricity demand time-flexible, making a 100% renewable energy system possible.

Our belief in this as a key way to overcome what has been seen as the major problem of renewable power’s intermittent nature, has led us to the formation of the Living Grid, a movement of large, corporate energy users and smart technology providers that aims to showcase how we can accelerate the shift towards renewable sources by increasing productive use of electricity already in the system. Marks and Spencer is the latest member and, in its Plan A strategy, has committed to delivering 50% of its UK property estate’s peak demand flexibly by 2025.

It’s time to take control

Markets are springing up to reward those that are flexible, led by National Grid but increasing at the regional distribution grid level. To join them, we are helping large energy users to realise that they can shift from being passive consumers, able only to negotiate prices or switch energy providers, to active players who can help shape the future of the energy system through taking control of their usage, directing it towards times when energy is abundant.

Take for example Tarmac, another member of the Living Grid, which has rolled out intelligent demand response technology across 70 of its asphalt plants and over 200 bitumen tanks across the UK. These assets don’t need to consume electricity 100 per cent of the time to remain at full functionality.

When electricity demand peaks, for example, when kettles are turned on in households around the UK for a cup of tea ahead of ITV’s Bake Off final, these connected assets can switch off electricity usage momentarily to free up power supply in the grid. And when demand is low, or there is a flux of solar or wind power into the system, these appliances can ramp up consumption to stay at peak performance.

By adapting usage to ebbs and flows within the grid, they are helping to bring it in line with the characteristics of renewable energy, making it ready for large-scale use of renewable sources.

This is an especially urgent task when we consider other emerging solutions, such as the introduction of electric vehicles (EVs), which have the potential to rapidly decarbonise transportation by being renewably powered. Yet a 100% renewable energy system to charge them will need flexibility. Indeed, the widespread adoption of electric vehicles could increase grid flexibility by intelligently charging and discharging to the local power grid – thus serving as mobile battery storage devices.

It’s certainly a complicated field to navigate. As Forum for the Future’s Wise Minds report found, governments as well as the energy sector itself have been caught off-guard by the pace and scale of the energy transition. Projections and estimates of the scale and potential impact of demand flexibility have not kept pace with the rapidly evolving solutions in the market.

It is all too tempting for businesses and other large energy users to passively wait to see what happens, before plunging into demand-side management. But the energy transition won’t wait, and the benefits of demand flexibility will only grow in the long term.

Rich rewards lie in store for far-sighted organisations who begin to take control of how and when they consume electricity, for the benefit of the entire system. So, if you are interested in being an active player to make a 100% renewable energy system possible, we would love to hear from you.

Will Dawson is the associate director of climate and energy at leading international sustainability non-profit Forum for the Future. To find out more about the Living Grid or how you can play an active part in transforming your energy system, get in touch at [email protected] 


  • S R Roy

    May 17, 2018 at 5:13 pm

    Very thought provoking article. The change to renewable dominant grid is inevitable and as rightly highlighted large energy users need to rise to the occasion.


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