Communities are driving the smart energy revolution from the grass roots, demanding change via climate emergencies, extinction rebellion and citizens assemblies. However, they risk being left behind if they don’t engage in the technical detail of wider changes and new sources of value in our energy system. To ensure communities can participate and are kept up to speed with fast paced changes in our energy system, we covered a lot of ground in detail at our ‘Communities and the Smart Energy Revolution’ event with Western Power Distribution (WPD) in Bristol a few week ago.

Ky from Regen presented our beginners guide to flexibility services, which includes Distribution System Operators (DSO) such as WPD paying customers who can be flexible and have the ability to change generation and consumption patterns in reaction to an external signal. This is to alleviate pressure on the network and defer costly network upgrades that we all pay for through our energy bills. Ky also talked about some of the issues communities face if they want to get involved, and participants made it clear that they want system operators to demonstrate how flexibility could help them connect more low carbon generation by freeing up network capacity.

The communities, local authorities, energy suppliers, academics and consultants attending the event want to work in partnership with WPD and others to achieve net zero. Community and local energy organisations play a key role here, as many hold the trust and local reach required to help domestic customers understand the need to participate, and have devices in their home such as electric car chargers, heat pumps and batteries automatically controlled when not in use. Householders will need to trust the organisation they sign a contract with, such as an aggregator, or a community energy aggregator service like the one being developed by Carbon Co-op. Some community energy organisations such as Carbon Co-op are already doing retrofit in peoples’ homes, so the cost of multiple home visits and contracting can be bundled into one, stacking flexibility services into the mix to reduce the cost of energy service activities overall.

Helen from WPD talked about the requirements of their flexibility services and gave examples of the sort of thing WPD are looking for. She talked about the 42 specific zones or areas that are open now, and the payments available between £1,500 – £6000 per MW per year. All zones have different needs, and so location and requirements are assessed on a case by case basis. These can be accessd using the Flexible Power website interactive map and postcode checker and you can also estimate potential revenue, using WPD’s value calculator and forecast up to five years ahead.

Pete Capener from Bath and West Community Energy (BWCE) talked about how his organisation want to integrate and optimise generation at a local level with demand, to avoid high connection and reinforcement charges. By taking part in the OpenLV trial they have a better understanding of the carbon intensity of the electricity being used at a local level and have found that by switching usage to the middle of the day, they can reduce carbon emissions by up to 50% in their area.

BWCE are now working on their Flex Community project with WPD, hoping to get funding soon for space heating, heat pumps, PV, and EV charging, to test flexibility in their members’ homes. They already have 25-30 houses signed up to their hot water trial. The plan now is to simulate demand side response (DSR) requests from WPD, to test what flexibility can be achieved and better understand the sort of revenue that could be generated. They are working with a university based commercial aggregator who have developed a platform that integrates weather data, and learns household behaviour, which is being adapted for the UK market.

Pete shared some of the challenges including the poor wiring in homes, and even though BWCE have lots of enthusiastic members with PV, this enthusiasm has tailed off. He also talked about the opportunities and shared his belief that community energy will play a key role in engaging people in flexibility, empowerment and making sure the householder still has control.

The Flex Community project is ultimately working towards peer to peer trading and local supply. It’s about whole system integration and demonstrating BWCE and partners can achieve domestic flexibility on a technical level, despite not actually operating in one of the WPD zones. In doing so BWCE are learning and sharing what the issues are and establishing the value of a closer relationship between local generation and demand in the local community and working towards a sustainable financial model. Pete’s message to other community energy organisations was clear ‘We can’t rely in our business model on the sale of electricity but should look to access the value of being flexible and smart, and trust that this value will grow in future.’

Matt from WPD, who designed much of the Flexible Power process shared his views on this fast-moving sector. He talked about how WPD are continually trying different ideas and changing the Flexible Power offer as they gather feedback and learning. WPD have also been running a second-generation flexibility markets project called Future Flex looking at market design for smaller scale participation and domestic customers, trying to understand the barriers in the process, and looking to widen the pool of potential providers. So far, they have hosted two workshops on barriers and solutions, many of which were echoed in the workshop session at the event in Bristol. ‘Stop being tech agnostic’ was a key ask from those in attendance, so that low carbon generation can be prioritised.

Flexibility is just one area where WPD are delivering innovation. Their innovation strategy and forward plan has three priority areas:

  • transport – e.g. facilitating EVs and on street charging
  • heat – e.g. hydrogen and heat pumps
  • and data – how can WPD be more open and get people to use the data?

This is great to see because in such uncertain times on our path to net zero, we will need to think more holistically about the energy system across electricity, heat and transport, and it’s only in having the data and the detail that we will be able to achieve decarbonisation. Ultimately the more energy we use, the more flexible we will have to be. This has significant societal implications as collective action is essential, and social and cultural change is unavoidable.

You can read more about the OpenLV rollout and register interest here, find out about WPD’s other innovation projects here, and see the presentations from the Bristol event on our website.

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