Insights / Electricity flexibility: Making it mainstream

Electricity flexibility: pathways to making it mainstream

As the Electricity System Operator (ESO) continues its Demand Flexibility Service (DFS) into the coming winter, what will it take to make electricity flexibility genuinely mainstream?

Electricity flexibility: pathways to making it mainstream - Hero

Electricity flexibility makes the news

Five years ago, not even the keenest electricity expert would have believed that demand-side flexibility would ever make the News at Ten. Yet last winter, it did. Television and radio stations covered the first deployment of National Grid’s Demand Flexibility Service.

What was behind this unprecedented interest? Money. To be more precise, the rising price of electricity following the energy crisis caused by the war in Ukraine. Huge numbers of people wanted to discover more about a subject they might’ve originally considered of interest only to energy professionals. What they had in common was that they were keen to find out how they could reduce their electricity bills.

Why do we need electricity flexibility?

As we decarbonise energy in our efforts to reach net zero, electricity flexibility is going to play an ever more important role.

Old-style thermal power could be turned on to meet demand whenever it was needed.

But intermittent renewables like wind turbines and solar PV can’t always provide all the power we need when we need it. They can only generate when the wind’s blowing, or the sun’s shining. Flexibility can help us match the demand for electricity with the supply available by shifting when that energy is used.

The Demand Flexibility Service incentivises customers for turning down their electricity use. Last winter this happened on days when demand for power was at a peak. It’s likely that it was the combination of financial savings along with keeping the electricity system stable that grabbed the public’s attention and led to the blizzard of positive news coverage.

Yet the service saved more than 3.3 GWh of electricity in winter 2022/23 – enough to power the equivalent of 10 million homes.

Flexibility is already here – and regularly breaking records

It comes as no surprise then that, according to the Energy Networks Association, 2022 saw records being broken for the amount of flexibility tendered – for the fourth year in a row. There’s a clear and growing need.

With more renewables coming on stream, more flexibility’s going to be needed. And the rise of low-carbon devices such as electric vehicles (EVs) and heat pumps means we’re going to need more electricity in the future. With even more flexibility to go with it.

What will it take to make electricity flexibility mainstream?

There’s an argument to say that flexibility is already becoming mainstream in the domestic energy market. Some domestic suppliers are already offering customers the option of special flexible packages. These might incentivise them to charge their EVs at certain times of night in exchange for discounted rates, or enable them to participate in schemes like the DFS run by the electricity company itself.

Reducing the risk on the customer side

Packages like these mean domestic customers can enjoy the benefits of flexibility without having to take on an increased risk themselves. They’re rewarded for changing the way or the times they use power by discounts in their bills. It’s simple and easy to understand.

It will take similar approaches to make flexibility more accessible for commercial electricity customers.

The easier power suppliers like us can make it for organisations to choose packages that allow them to benefit from electricity flexibility, the more likely they are to choose them. It will help organisations save money and help support electricity system stability. And the higher the degree of flexibility that’s built into that system, the less need there will be for old-style ‘dispatchable’ power that can be turned on when demand peaks.

Changes to the way the electricity distribution network is organised should also make it easier to match demand with supply on a local basis as more distributed generation is added to the grid. This could also enhance the potential for greater flexibility in the near future.

More data is needed

The better we understand how and when organisations use electricity, the simpler we can make it for them to benefit from flexibility. The rise of smart devices will potentially give supplier access to huge amounts of data in almost real time, which will make that process easier. It may even be possible to use that data to target which organisations will be asked to shift their energy usage, on a rapid response basis.

Optimisation can support greater flexibility too

Many organisations have already benefited greatly from optimising their electricity use. For instance, by setting commercial fridges to turn off when they reach a certain temperature, rather than continuing to use energy for unnecessary cooling. If this switch off could be linked to times when demand for power is peaking, optimisation and flexibility could be linked.

Focus on financial savings

Many businesses are already actively looking for ways to cut their carbon emissions. Flexibility can help with this. But it may also be an ‘easier sell’ if the financial advantages are emphasised too. Not every organisation has a senior leader responsible for carbon, but they all have at least one who is focussed on the bottom line. Communicating the savings available for changing the way their organisation uses electricity may prove more successful than talking about the potential to reduce emissions.

Find help with flexibility

Our demand flexibility product ElectriFlex offers cost incentives, all year round, with no upfront commitment or penalties if your plans change. If you’d like to find out how you could help your organisation generate revenue in this way, use the form below.

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