It seems that the UK is headed for an energy crisis. National consumption is catching up on available supply, increasing the risk of blackouts and leaving us poorly equipped to handle sudden spikes in demand. According to Ofgem’s latest Electricity Capacity Assessment Report, the available capacity margin is expected to drop to just over 2% by the winter of 2015-16, compared with 14% two years ago. This is set to be the lowest figure for a generation, with National Grid placing its ‘last resort’ measures on standby in the event of an emergency.

These problems are frequently attributed to a steady surge in demand. In a recent statement to The Sunday Times, for example, the mayor of London Boris Johnson warned that the city’s power stations were already working at full capacity, and would struggle to cope with the projected rise in population.

Yet according to Ofgem, this past year has actually seen a sharp reduction in energy demand, an improvement brought on by a combination of energy efficiency measures. These changes, however, were unfortunately not enough to offset the even greater reduction in available electricity supply. With one–fifth of UK power stations due to close by 2020, we need to find still better and more effective ways of managing national demand, avoiding the nightmare scenario of nation-wide blackouts.

Dynamic Demand

Energy consumption is hugely variable. It undergoes periodic cycles that span across days, weeks and even seasons, with certain periods seeing tremendous peaks in demand. The half-time surge during England’s group stage match against Uruguay at the 2014 World Cup, for instance, was predicted to be in excess of 1.3 gigawatts. That is the equivalent of 520,000 kettles being turned on nationwide, and would have burned right through a national capacity margin of 2%.

Ensuring enough energy is on tap at these moments of peak demand is one of the key problems of energy management. Renewable energy sources, which are becoming increasingly popular in the UK, bring further complications in that the energy generated may not be continuously available at peak usage times. Wind turbines and solar panels, for instance, are almost entirely reliant on the vagaries of the weather.

It is therefore crucially important that we develop techniques shifting energy usage away from peak times and lessening the strain on the grid, a process known as Dynamic Demand. In order to encourage innovation in this field, Nesta’s Centre for Challenge Prizes ran the Dynamic Demand Challenge, a competition worth £50,000 to support and fund new technologies that address this problem. The challenge was run in partnership with the National Physical Laboratory’s (NPL’s) Centre for Carbon Measurement, National Grid, Climate-KIC and Imperial College London.

Dynamic Demand

The Dynamic Demand Challenge finalists were chosen from a field of 75 entries from across Europe, all of whom participated in a 36 hour Hackathon at Imperial College London to help fine-tune their ideas. The five chosen finalists then received funding and expert guidance from the NPL, the UK’s National Measurement Institute, to model the potential of their devices to reduce emissions and shift demand.

After a rigorous judging process, the £50,000 prize was awarded to a team from Exergy Devices for their smart controller Hestia. Intended for domestic use, Hestia could provide a peak demand shifting capacity of 1.7GW if rolled out across the country, saving homeowners £200 each in the process. The device works by modulating electricity demand according to the needs of electricity suppliers and National Grid, all the while prioritising the comfort of the consumer.

By contrast, runners-up UPSide pioneered a cloud-based service to merge the energy needs of multiple devices into what they call a ‘virtual energy store’, making it easier for the grid to balance supply and demand. They have since been awarded a place on the Climate-KIC accelerator, which gives companies the opportunities and practical tools to transform their ideas into commercial successes, with a prize of 25,000 Euros and continued business mentoring.

Finalists Kudos developed a system which allowed households to manually shift their own energy demand and compete to win rewards for their local community.

Rival team thEnergy, for their part, combined domestic heat pumps with Thermal Accumulators in such a way that each household could be decoupled from the grid when no further electricity was called for. Powervault, the fifth of the finalists, designed a product capable of prioritising user consumption according to the needs of the grid. Like all the others listed above, it has significant potential to reduce carbon emissions while lowering consumers’ heating bills.

Further progress

Dynamic Demand will be a key tool in helping us better manage our dwindling supplies of energy. There is tremendous potential for growth in this field, and much more needs to be done to encourage those with exciting ideas to take them through to the marketplace. Governments must provide suitable incentives, energy companies should proactively adopt new technologies, and end users need to be shown the key role they have to play in the process.

Whether by buying and implementing dynamic demand technologies in the home, or selecting energy suppliers who have proven their commitment to the issue, consumers must understand that they are not powerless – until the power finally runs out.