Grid operator and consumers creating a smarter grid, together

The UK’s electricity grid is more flexible thanks to data exchanges with thousands of smart appliances.
Published: Tue 11 Oct 2016

The UK power sector has just taken a major leap forward towards creating virtual power stations with the help of consumers’ smart appliances and a new data system created by Reactive Technologies.   

This is the first time that data, from smart appliances, has been transmitted across the country’s national grid. The combination of these appliances is creating a much needed flexibility on the grid which will reduce peaks in energy consumption and even eliminate the need for new gas or nuclear power stations or polluting diesel generator farms which are often built to generate more power during times of short supply.

Because of the flexibility that the new data system creates, the integration of renewable energy will be better supported. Consumers, who agree to small variations in consumption of their smart appliances such as freezers and water heaters, could even look forward to receiving lower energy bills.

Another plus is that the new data system, unlike the smart meter, avoids concerns around privacy. It is anonymous with no data on consumption being collected.

Smarter energy management at work

But how does it work? The data system uses new technology to transmit messages through national electricity cables to any appliances with a smart plug connected to the mains, asking it to adjust its energy use. In the home, this could mean allowing the temperature of a freezer to increase by 0.5oC to cut demand or using spare renewable energy to increase the temperature of a water heater during off peak times.

When electricity demand needs to be ramped up or down, the system broadcasts a message through the grid which is received by connected appliances. One advantage of the system over the internet and mobile phone networks is that the grid already reaches all electrical devices, even those in remote locations.

To test the new technology, RT set up a few electrical devices - truck-sized resistors - across the UK to generate the messages and then installed 20 listening receivers in other places, connected only via the national grid. When the messages were sent out, they were successfully received.

Electricity wires have previously been used to transmit information within homes and local networks, such as rows of street lights, by sending very high frequency data alongside the standard 50Hz signal. But sending messages across the country means going through substation transformers, which contain an air gap that cannot pass on the high frequency data. Instead, using technology developed by former Nokia engineers in Finland, the RT system inserts the data as small changes in the 50Hz signal itself, which does jump the air gap.

To begin with, the technology will be rolled out in the commercial sector where big energy savings can be made especially when it comes to air conditioning and water pumps.  

The move to cleaner and smarter energy use

This development forms part of a mass movement towards decentralised renewable energy and smart grids and away from large, centralised fossil-fuel power stations. The UK government’s National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), the National Grid and industry group Energy UK have all labelled the transition as an energy “revolution” which calls for a reliable, secure, cheaper and faster to build low-carbon system.  

The NIC recently estimated that UK consumers could save £8 billion a year by 2030 by adopting smart power technology, while also helping the country meet its climate change goals. The idea of building more power stations has become outdated. The industry is quickly learning that there are other more innovative means of managing electricity on the grid and many lessons are being drawn from the telecommunications and software sectors especially.


“Small, distributed is better”


Marc Borrett, RT’s CEO, says that a cultural shift is needed: “Smaller is better, distributed is better.”

Cordi O’Hara, at National Grid, said: “We are keen to support innovative products like this one that can bring a real benefit for customers. It represents another step forward in the development of the smart grid technologies that are going to play an increasingly important role in the energy systems of the future.”

A spokesman for big six energy company SSE, which was also involved in the trial, said: “Innovation milestones, such as this, will help keep the lights on and offer significant cost savings.”

RT already runs an internet-based demand management system. It expects to have its first commercial customers for the grid-based system within 18 months.

Catherine Mitchell, professor of energy policy at the University of Exeter, said the system will allow customers to choose which appliances are used to manage demand. “This implies that more people would be content to join [such] programmes – a very good thing.” She also added that government policy will have to keep up with the energy revolution by providing a transparent way to pay consumers for the service they provide.

The industry faces transformational changes unseen in more than 100 years. Players are under pressure and need to move forward. New actors come from various other industries to take a piece of the shrinking cake. Digital Transformation represents a fantastic opportunity for utilities to renew themselves by inventing new operating and business models; and improve significantly their performance in any direction. Join our webinar, Utilities Digital Transformation, it’s time to accelerate now!, for a deeper insight.

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