Energy Shift: Reinventing the UK Electricity Grid

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The UK electricity grid is under stress, and at peak times, it's forced to use the oldest, most-pollutant and expensive power stations to meet the demand.

Graham Oakes founded Upside Energy after successful participation in the Nesta Dynamic Demand Challenge. With his team, Graham has built a cloud service that coordinates thousands of batteries and thermal energy stores on domestic and small business sites to smooth the flow of energy across the grid. 

At the Reinventing Energy Summit in London, Graham will share expertise on integration of smart grids. I spoke to him ahead of the summit on 25 November to learn more.

What started your work in renewable energy?
Back in 2013, Nesta ran a challenge prize called Dynamic Demand Challenge, sponsored by National Grid. That asked the question: how do we encourage domestic and small business energy consumers to shift their load from peak to off-peak times? If we can do that, we create tremendous benefits for the grid — it doesn’t need to run so many expensive, dirty power stations at peak times; it can run existing power stations more efficiently at normal times; and it makes it easier to integrate renewable generation. So it saves money, reduces greenhouse gasses, and improves the resilience of the energy system. That's a win for everyone.

I submitted a wild & crazy idea to the challenge: why don't we use existing batteries in people’s backup power supplies to help shift the load? That idea was filtered down from 79 entries into the final 5. It then won £10,000 to write a business plan. From there we won entry to the EU’s Climate KIC acceleration program. We then started to win further grant funding. Now we’ve raised our first tranche of equity funding and are a company of 11 people. That wild & crazy idea has taken over my life.

Can you provide an overview of your work at Upside Energy?
We’re building a cloud platform that coordinates hundreds of thousands of small energy storage systems — in devices like backup power supplies, home battery systems attached to solar PV arrays, electric vehicles, hot water tanks, and so on. By carefully managing the way they charge and discharge, we can smooth out the peaks and troughs in the energy flows across the grid. That relieves stress on the system, reducing costs and environmental impacts of traditional generation.

We’re calling it a Virtual Energy Store. It provides a new dimension of flexibility to the grid. This flexibility helps compensate for the lack of flexibility in renewable generation such as solar and wind, which also makes it a lot easier to integrate larger proportions of renewable generation into the system. People talk about the traditional energy system and the new, greener system that’s emerging — we add value to both systems, and help smooth the transition between them.

What are the key factors that have enabled recent advancements in renewables?
Public demand. All other things being equal, many people would much rather use renewable energy than fossil fuels. That demand is creating tremendous pull for innovation to level the playing field — cheaper storage, more efficient renewable generation, smarter grids, new business models. This is all bringing renewables into parity with traditional (and often heavily subsidised) energy. 

What transformative technologies will increase renewable energy usage?
Storage is the key one. Renewables aren’t always generating at the time when we want to use energy, so we need an economic way to store the energy. And we need several different kinds of storage — large stores that can capture energy from the wind when it’s blowing and deliver it to people when they need it over the following hours; smaller, more distributed stores that can smooth out rapid fluctuations in supply and demand and hence allow the system to operate efficiently. So this is going to drive innovation in different types of battery chemistry, and in other storage mechanisms: compressed air, pumped hydro, thermal, etc.

But storage is just one way of delivering the flexibility we need to operate a new energy system. There’s a huge amount going on with software — in smart grid controls, in IoT protocols to capture data and coordinate equipment, in big data and analytics. This is all making it easier for us to manage demand and open up the flexibility inherent within much of the equipment we all use.

And we shouldn’t forget energy efficiency. That’s still huge scope to improve the insulation of our homes, the performance of our appliances, and so on. This is all good no matter where the energy comes from.

What are the key challenges in long-term energy storage?
Reducing the cost of storage. It’s economic in some applications now, but there’s still a lot of places where it’d be useful if we could just make the economics a little more favourable.

Closely related to that is maximising the revenue we earn from storage. Storage often creates benefits that are spread across the system — the grid and the energy companies and consumers all get a little bit of the overall benefit. That makes it hard for any one party to invest in storage: they don’t get enough return to justify the investment. So we need to find ways to capture those benefits and concentrate them in the right place.

What areas of renewable energy will see the biggest investment in the next 5 years?
I think the key thing here is that this is a systemic change. It’s going to take investment across a range of areas to bring it about. So we’re going to see a lot of investment in lowering the cost and improving the performance of storage; in optimising the performance of turbines, solar panels, etc; in better delivery of heat via heat pumps, heat networks, etc; in software to monitor and coordinate equipment, buildings, etc.

I think the really strategic investment is going to be in systems integration — in orchestrating all the individual components so as to maximise the benefits they bring. There’s a genuine win-win here: cheaper, cleaner, more resilient energy. It’s developing the models and systems that make that happen that we should be investing in.

Learn more about emerging technologies are impacting the future of energy at the Reinventing Energy Summit, on 25 November in London. Other speakers include Mustafa Suleyman, Co-Founder, DeepMind; Molly Webb, Founder of Energy Unlocked; Neal Coady, Head of Innovation, British Gas; Howard Porter, CEO, BEAMA;  and Chris Goodall, Author of The Switch.

We've teamed up with New Scientist for the Reinventing Energy Summit, to explore the opportunities of applying AI and machine learning to efficiently manage energy generation and consumption; smart grid management and operations; weather forecasting and predicting energy supply; intelligent control of energy storage; next-generation batteries; and much more.

For more information and to register, visit the event website here.

Energy Renewable Energy Energy Storage Smart Grid Photovoltaic Systems Cloud Computing Sustainability Energy Meters Reinventing Energy Summit


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