The Living Grid: A new frontier in energy demand response

Shutterstockcarlos castilla

A trio of British businesses — giant retailer Sainsbury’s, water management organization United Utilities and manufacturer Aggregate Industries — are teaming up to demonstrate the power of intelligent demand response technology, a potential foundation for a more flexible electric grid.

They’re the founding members of a new program called the Living Grid that was catalyzed by the U.K. non-profit Forum for the Future. The goal is to help the country’s National Grid balance peaks and troughs in electricity demand through software that automatically adjusts how much power its equipment uses based on overall demand.

Over time, the group hopes to sign up 20 members, representing more than 200 megawatts of "flexible capacity" that can be used to balance the grid by 2020, according to the Forum.

The founding members represent about 39 megawatts of that amount, estimated Giles Bristow, director of programs for the organization. That’s roughly the amount of power used by 100,000 of those electric kettles that many Britons use to boil water for their evening tea. 

What’s the benefit for the companies involved? In the short term, they could save on their electricity bills — by shifting demand to period when rates are lower. 

"Demand-side management just makes sense," said Donna Hunt, head of sustainability at Aggregate Industries, in a statement. "We reduce our energy consumption and costs, we generate additional revenue and we will save at least 50,000 tonnes of carbon emissions over the next five years."

Over the long term, corporate cooperation in making the grid smarter could make it simpler to integrate and manage new, clean sources of power in a distributed fashion, the forum believes.

"As we add more renewable generation to the system with an increased level of intermittency, the peaks and troughs must be balanced better," Bristow said. "This brings us closer to that."

The Forum’s initial members have completed pilot tests of energy management technology from British tech company Open Energi, a Living Grid founding tech partner, and are in the process of rolling out the system across their operations. Collectively, Sainsbury, United Utilities and Aggregate Industries estimate that this investment could cut their carbon emissions by a combined 88,764 tonnes.

Open Energi works with about 40 companies already, managing equipment at more than 330 sites. It won’t be the only technology partner that the Forum engages; over the first year, the focus will be on sharing corporate best practices from various intelligent demand programs so that other businesses can embrace them more quickly, Bristow said.

New demand for demand response

Demand response technology has been around for years, with one of the primary applications being to help mitigate the potential impact of system overloads, often associated with extreme heat or cold. But interest is growing rapidly as companies seek to manage their end-to-end power consumption more thoughtfully.

Worldwide revenue for services that fine-tune electricity consumption using sensors and smart management software should reach $1.2 billion by 2025, compared with just $39.8 million in 2016, according to forecasts from Navigant Research

"Traditionally, energy efficiency and demand response have been siloed within utilities, with misaligned goals and barriers to transferring funds between programs," said Navigant Research analyst Brett Feldman in a statement. "Yet the integration of [demand-side management] programs has becoming increasingly popular, especially in places like California, where the combination of these programs has been used as a fundamental part of the state’s energy planning and strategy."

While the initial focus of the Living Grid program is the U.K., the forum hopes to expand the concept to other regions, Bristow said.

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