What is a flexible electricity grid, why we need one for the climate crisis and how the public can benefit
Here’s Dan Stone’s thoughts on the day…
I was excited to be invited to give verbal evidence at the Energy Security and Net Zero Committee inquiry into a Flexible Grid for the Future yesterday. It couldn’t be more current!
In the news just the day before:
- The world’s fossil fuel producers are planning expansions that would blow the planet’s (rapidly dwindling) carbon budget twice over.
- The announcement in the Kings Speech that new oil & gas licenses would be awarded annually (making it impossible for us to criticise no. 1.)
- We’ve had consecutively, the warmest June, July, August, September and October in recorded history. September particularly was 0.5°C above the previous record, described by a climate scientist as “gobsmackingly bananas”.
- 2023 is almost certain to be the warmest year in recorded history, according to Copernicus.1
Climate scientists are worried that climate change has dramatically accelerated this year, and that tipping points have tipped, or are about to. If correct, that would be bad.
So what this all means is that the need to decarbonise and re-model our energy system has never been more urgent.
At present, we just turn on or turn up fossil fuel generation to meet our electricity demand. In a zero-carbon energy system that’s no longer possible, so we will need to use energy more flexibly, shifting demand to match the variable levels of generation from renewable sources, and storing energy from when the sun is shining and the wind blowing until we need it.
There’s potential for households to reduce their energy bills by using energy in this more flexible manner and gain more from selling the electricity they generate when it’s most needed.
Moving towards a more flexible energy grid
Yesterday’s session was about how we move to that more flexible electricity grid, what this means for how people use and pay for their energy, the regulation and management of this more complicated energy system, and how to ensure that happens fairly without leaving people behind.
As a town planner, I missed the more esoteric points about the provision of flexibility services and the setup and regulation of these markets, however, I took away the following.
The MPs were very aware of the risks of a two-tier energy system that CSE has talked about, and about the need for a fair distribution of financial benefits arising from flexibility services to wealthy, poor consumers, and energy companies respectively.
It’s obvious that my architect friend with a very energy-efficient house, rooftop solar, an electric battery and an EV on the driveway is perfectly placed to benefit. Along with huge potential to move his demand and supply with no inconvenience. And a wealth of products that he can use to reduce his bills.
But for the person living in a rented flat, on a pre-payment meter, with walls they don’t own, and no control over their energy infrastructure, the panel asked how could this person get involved and benefit, aside from sitting in the cold and dark. Is the domestic flexibility market likely to just make already wealthy people’s energy bills cheaper? There’s a significant danger of this and very careful market design and regulation is required to avoid it. We talk about this more in our latest demand flexibility blog.
Recommendations from the panel
It sounded like the panel are considering these recommendations to government:
- Getting rid of fixed standing charge for electricity which is the same for everybody irrespective of their energy use, whether they live in a one-bed flat or a castle. It’s totally unfair.
- Rising tariffs where the people who use least energy pay least for it and those who use more pay more for it per unit. We’d all essentially pay a very cheap rate per unit for a subsistence amount of electricity. Those using more would pay more per unit.
- Enabling communities generating a lot of renewable energy to benefit from lower energy costs and buy their energy directly from local suppliers.
- Greater support for the community energy sector, such as funding local community energy champions to make things happen.
- Reviewing how electricity rates are set. They’re currently pegged to the costs of generating electricity from gas, but an increasing proportion of electricity is from renewable sources.
An open question that they hadn’t concluded on was should areas with high levels of renewable generation (e.g., Scotland) pay the same system charges as everyone else?
Recommendations from CSE
I put across CSE’s key points about planning system reform, which I hope will also influence their recommendations:
- Reinforce the overriding need for renewable energy in planning policy. The NPPF has not been updated in many years except to make onshore wind harder! Meanwhile, the need and urgency with which we must decarbonise gets greater every month.
- Remove the need to forward plan onshore wind proposals – make a level playing field with other forms of energy generation, so you can just submit a planning application, without the need for a support wind policy in the local plan.
- Bring forward legislation to define community energy and enable LPAs to treat community and commercial renewable energy differently
- Experiment with streamlining planning processes for community energy proposals as recommended by the National Infrastructure Commission for Wales.
- Enforce the requirement for local planning authorities to have genuinely positive and proactive strategies for renewables and test them on this at local plan examination. One authority who shall remain nameless alleges there are *no* suitable areas for onshore wind in their whole (sizable county). That’s not what their evidence or the already spinning wind turbines suggest.
- Make the process of preparing renewable energy policies easier / cheaper / quicker. Map the potential for wind, solar, micro-hydro etc nationally. At present local planning authorities commission this separately, authority by authority.
Participatory engagement processes
I also enthused about the potential for participatory engagement processes like our Future Energy Landscape (FEL) approach to spin off community energy projects and build consent for ambitious policies.
Through FEL, we’ve found that provided communities can have a genuine say and benefit from projects going ahead, almost all are supportive of hosting more renewable energy locally.
Increasingly the public gets that increasing renewable energy generation is the best way to get energy security and reduce energy costs, both as a country, as a community (through community energy projects) and as an individual. There’s huge untapped scope for increasing renewables/community energy/joint ownership projects with community support.
Today’s session was really encouraging. The panel of MPs were asking the right questions, and I have hopes they will make good recommendations to the government. Whether they will be taken up, given the sudden turn away from any sensible climate strategy, is a totally different question!