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What is a flexible electricity grid, why we need one for the climate crisis and how the public can benefit

A line of electricity pylons with blue sky
10 November 2023

Dan Stone, Senior Planner at CSE, visited the House of Commons on Wednesday to talk about the benefits of a flexible energy grid.

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:

  1. The world’s fossil fuel producers are planning expansions that would blow the planet’s (rapidly dwindling) carbon budget twice over. 
  1. The announcement in the Kings Speech that new oil & gas licenses would be awarded annually (making it impossible for us to criticise no. 1.) 
  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”.   
  1. 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: 

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: 

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! 

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