Flexibility has been the holy grail of the industry since ever since we started to generate more electricity from renewable sources and find smarter ways to use energy. Electricity systems have to be capable of generating enough power to keep the lights on even at rare peak times such as half time at the Cup Final when everyone in Britain puts the kettle on. Constructing a system large enough to cope with the biggest spikes in demand is massively expensive.


Flexible electricity distribution


But new technology and a less regulated, competitive market environment have changed the rules. Environmentally friendly generation capacity is rapidly increasing as solar panels and wind turbines arrive. Networks are gaining intelligence, and smart meters focus consumers' attention on the potential savings that can be made by changing patterns of consumption. And electricity storage technologies including batteries will enable surplus power generated by sun and wind at times of low demand to be stored until needed. Flexible electricity distribution has the potential to save a lot of money. Research by Imperial College and the Carbon Trust has shown that it could save consumers up to £40 billion by 2050. That is a lot of money off the average electricity bill.

The government and the regulator, Ofgem, have jointly issued a call for evidence that will help shape the smart, flexible electricity network of the future. Submissions must be in by 12 January 2017.

The aim is to radically improve all parts of the electricity supply chain, says Andy Burgess, who leads Ofgem's work in the area. "Flexibility is about making more efficient use of electricity and being able to use it when you need it. The current system was designed for a static world where you had power stations feeding electricity into a transmission and then distribution networks to consumers’ homes. Now it is much more interactive, with scope for consumers to control and even generate their own electricity, so we need to review how the overall system is working."


Emerging technology


Emerging technology will be key, Burgess says. "We are trying to remove barriers to new technology and services coming in, focusing on storage including batteries, and aggregators who will help businesses and other organisations sell back energy they don’t want to use These are new things the existing industry rules were not necessarily designed for."

The industry is changing not only because of technologies such as batteries and smart systems, but because many of these new ideas are coming from outside the established players in the power generation industry. The Silicon Valley start-up Tesla, for example, may be best known for its electric cars but it is mainly a battery company: its Powerwall, for example, can power a three-bedroom house for two days, so householders can store the electricity generated by the solar panels on their roofs during the day when they are out at work. When the company's Gigafactory starts pumping out Powerwalls, costs are predicted to come down substantially.

One of the government's aims is to encourage British entrants to the market. "There are a lot of ideas coming along in start-up companies and we want to make sure they can get to the market without undue barriers," Burgess says.

At the other end of the chain, consumers need to be encouraged to become more active both in choosing and changing suppliers and in controlling their consumption to minimise energy use.

"We need to look at how consumers interact with the new system, many of whom find it difficult to engage with the existing market and change suppliers. It will have to be made either very easy, through automation, or fun, and we think the smart meter is the vehicle to do that," Burgess explains. "Smart meters will be enablers, collecting the data that can be used in various forms to enable people to understand what energy they are using."

As the 'internet of things' spreads into British homes, more and more people will be able to control their central heating, lights, ovens and other domestic appliances from their smartphones. The new flexible electricity systems will not only make energy cheaper but make our lives easier as well.