Many energy markets creating more efficiency

Local mini-grid in Cornwall will be able to generate, store and sell its own power.
Published: Thu 15 Dec 2016

Mini-grids are being looked at as temporary power solutions for many rural communities in developing countries but with the massive increase in renewable energy and the need for faster integration and a more efficient demand response solution,  these innovative systems are being adopted in communities in more developed countries. [Meeting the remote minigrid energy management challenge.] [Minigrids empowering communities.]

Centrica, British multinational utility company with its headquarters in Windsor, Berkshire, plans to spend  £6 million on a project which will see nearly 160 homes and businesses in Cornwall become a new independent power market.

The retail energy supplier intends to prove, by means of a three year trial of various batteries and green energy systems such as combined heat and power, that the traditional energy system is becoming redundant. The “virtual marketplace” will show it is possible to smooth a global surge in renewable power, according to Jorge Pikunic, managing director of Centrica’s new distributed energy and power business, who says that the systems on trial will highlight what the future utility business models will be.  

Cornwall’s mini-grid the answer

Massive dips in the cost (both technology and installation) of wind and solar power has helped boost global adoption in recent years.  This trend has caught on in Cornwall where renewables account for 25% of the country’s generation, up from less than 10% only five years ago. Today, Cornwall residents receive 30% of their electricity from renewables, up from 26% last year.

However, the increase in clean energy has its challenges. Developers, for instance, have to queue for grid connections. Sometimes even generation is curtailed as a result.

While upgrading the existing grid with expensive new transmission systems may be the obvious answer, Centrica has come up with a more cost-effective and sustainable plan. The supplier has joined forces with National Grid and other groups to see if it is cheaper to hook up homes and businesses in a local mini-network that can reduce pressure on the main electricity grid by generating, storing and selling its own power.

With the help of a £13 million EU regional development grant, and £6 million from Centrica, the group is launching a three-year trial in which batteries and other systems will be installed in dozens of Cornish houses, businesses and other sites such as hospitals.

Combined heat and power systems, for instance, capture heat from electricity generation and use it to warm buildings in a way that uses less fuel. By connecting these units to batteries, the Cornwall pilot will enable locals to generate and store their own power.

An automated system could fire up these units when there is heavy demand on the grid, securing a payment for households that have the potential to reduce their energy bills.

Businesses may be in a better position to decide when they want to sell or use the power they generate and in some cases it is expected batteries will be connected to solar panels or wind turbines.

Mini-grid pilot-first of its kind

The pilot is the first of its kind in the UK according to Matt Hastings, head of local energy systems at Centrica’s distributed energy business, but its findings should be of interest internationally as renewable power develops.

“It’s a research and development project but we see this high penetration of renewables ultimately becoming an issue not just for the UK but globally,” he said.

Pikunic says local power networks or “microgrids” were already on the rise in the US, where a recent survey had found a large number of businesses expected to have at least one facility disconnected from the grid by 2020. “That’s never happened before so the world of energy in the future will be quite different.” However, he said he did not imagine people would go completely off-grid in large numbers any time soon in the UK.

“The vision for us is there’s always going to be a central system,” he said. “But dotted around that we see a number of energy markets creating a much more efficient system.”