Having just run a series of three participatory events for community and local energy folk entitled ‘flexibility markets for beginners’, plus a community energy feast and site visit, I’ve come away with some insight into how community and local energy organisations view flexibility, why it’s relevant, and some useful tips for getting involved.
Firstly, it is absolutely clear that communities care deeply about climate change, and while the focus for many is still primarily reducing consumption or building renewable generation, the ability of flexibility to release capacity on the network and enable more low carbon generation to connect is the most important motivation. This positive driver is far more important to community energy groups than the messaging from Distribution Network Operators (DNOs) that this is about avoiding costly network upgrades which we all pay for through our energy bills.
Secondly, communities want to collaborate more with DNOs on innovation projects but also to have a more constructive conversation at the project planning stage to use the knowledge and skills of network engineers to help plan projects that will work and be able to connect now, and in future these projects might also support network balancing.
Third, and most importantly, there is still a massive desire to trade energy locally, peer to peer (P2P) among community and local energy actors, so the link between flexibility and P2P is essential if we want people to engage in these new markets, and lobby for regulatory changes that could allow this take place.
Top tips for how you can get involved in flexibility
Inspired by the speakers and conversations at our event in Nottingham, Birmingham and Cardiff over the past two weeks here’s a few ideas:
- Get to know your DNO – this market is still emerging and the mandate from Ofgem is that the shift to Distribution System Operators (DSOs) must ensure there is a level playing field to make sure there are no barriers to participation. Communities at the events we just ran all wanted to get involved but identified a number of potential barriers including their own resource and capacity to engage in a pretty technical and complex new area. Regulatory barriers to P2P trading that could help engage people in flexibility from the bottom up are also viewed as a major blocker preventing a true energy revolution. Communities don’t have the resource to lobby Ofgem and BEIS which is where intermediaries like Community Energy England and Regen can help, but DNOs also have significant influence, they just need the evidence from communities about what’s needed so they can add their efforts to the cause. There are multiple ways to engage with your DNO, most run events, some have a community energy contact person and there is often lots of information on their websites.
- Get clued up – make use of the free training and guides, animations, and podcasts available to learn more and get involved. Take part in site visits like the one we have just done to project SCENe in Nottingham, a new housing development incorporating the world’s largest community owned battery, PV and some pretty smart household user interfaces to help residents use energy more efficiently.
- Get ready and set – by learning about flexibility you will be more prepared to get involved as flexibility is rolled out in more areas across the UK. If it’s all too boggling for you then talk to your peers about what they are up to. Carbon Co-op Regen and Community Energy Scotland are currently working on a feasibility study for an Energy Community Aggregator Service – a federated community aggregator, owned and controlled by community energy groups, using flexibility from multiple households with electric vehicles, heat pumps and other smaller sources of flexibility. Working collectively with organisations like Carbon co-op who have the technical expertise, professionalism to manage bigger contracts, software and administrative capability to manage multiple sourced of flexibility from smaller community energy organisations could be a way of retaining more of the value locally.
- Keep an eye out for new funding and innovation pilots – One way to get really involved is to get some funding to trial a new technology, for example the BEIS DSR competition and Network Innovation funding. The Open LV project involves working with seven community energy organisations who are developing apps using WPD low voltage substation data, one village is showing demand and supply on the app to see how to enable local balancing, another block of residents is using the app to help people use energy more wisely to save money on their bills.
- Work with universities and ‘hack labs’ find out if there is one near you and if they are interested in collaborating with your community energy organisation. Carbon Co-op hold monthly hack labs, and Nottingham’s project SCENe has multiple partners including the University of Nottingham who have been able to bring expertise, funding and significant research clout. Their aim is to develop a business model template for community energy through a revenue stacking approach, which includes selling flexibility from their urban solar farm and battery to the National Grid through the aggregator Limejump. This scale allows participation in grid services that generates income that is distributed to the community. Phase 3 of the housing will include a district heat network, which can be used as a thermal store and electric vehicle charging that will be used to test vehicle to grid flexibility.
No one ever said transforming our energy system would be easy, but making it more democratic is essential if we are to see real energy justice.