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Current± Chats: EDF’s Maria Brucoli on smarter energy systems and scaling up local energy trading

Image: EDF.

EDF’s research and development team is working on a variety of innovation projects, perhaps most notably Project LEO, billed as the “most wide-ranging and holistic smart grid trial in the UK”.

Alongside Project LEO – which is being run by a wide group of energy firms – is EDF’s community energy trading pilot, Project CommUNITY. Maria Brucoli, smart energy systems manager at EDF Energy R&D UK Centre, talked with Current± ahead of speaking at the EnTech event in London this October about why energy systems are becoming smarter and the technologies driving Project CommUNITY.

Why do you think we’re seeing a large focus right now on creating smarter energy systems?

Energy systems have always been smart, in my opinion. I think now a bit of the focus is around the fact that the landscape is changing, particularly around the user; there is a shift around how we use our energy. Our needs have changed a bit and we’re not considered passive anymore.

Then there is this push of electrifying other services. This is happening now but it’s not yet at scale. So things need to become a little bit smarter as you need to integrate these new things into an existing system that has operated well for many, many years.

Then there is another push around reducing carbon emissions. You have coal-fired plants closing down, you have more renewable energy coming onto the system. It’s another entity that you have to integrate into the system.

Is there an onus on the big six to be the innovators driving the transition forward?

In the UK we are lucky as we have a very varied landscape so we have a lot of other, smaller retailers. From some of the smaller retailers you can see some interesting things come out and that has to be acknowledged. It brings diversity to the picture.

From us, from the big six, there is a very big push because its’s our mandate. We need to look into what our customers want but we also need to look to the future and see what the trends are. The big six are all doing this, although some more than others.

How much of a role does blockchain play in your Project CommUNITY trial?

Blockchain for us in Project CommUNITY is a piece of the puzzle. The main thing we are trying in the project to address is enabling residents in a block of flats to have access to distributed energy resources such as PV panels.

We want to make sure that what we are testing here can be done at scale and could be included or attached to another system. That’s why we decided we want to test some form of blockchain feature. In particular, it’s the trust mechanism that we are using blockchain for. In these small markets, there are a lot of transactions which are around not just the energy flow but also the customer’s preferences, for example how much demand there is and how much is the PV generating. We use blockchain to register all this and verify them and store them in the chain.

How do you go about scaling up a project like CommUNITY, particularly in regards to regulation being a barrier for peer-to-peer trading as it sits now?

In terms of the regulation, Project CommUNITY is part of Ofgem’s sandbox and we are working very closely with Ofgem. I think a peer-to-peer market or local energy market can be delivered in many ways, it can be different models or different retailers or suppliers. The one we have chosen is actually permitted by current regulation because everything is managed by EDF Energy. But we still need a sandbox because in making your market rules and communicating how the system works to customers, there are still some challenges. This is not an easy system and Ofgem is very keen to make sure customers are protected and making informed choices.

There is a very good dialogue happening with Ofgem at the moment. They have been very helpful guiding us and they are keen to actually do a piece of research on this. It’s been a really great insight into how they see these things evolving. They have been really guiding us on this and collaboration for this project is really there.

What do you see the energy system looking like in ten years time?

I think in ten year’s time, in the UK and abroad I’d like to see more renewable and more efficient ways of generating electricity. I wouldn’t want to see any heavy carbon emission plants operating. If possible, I’d like to see more electricity generated at a local level and consumed at more of a local level.

But we need to make sure that we are not creating a first class/second class system where the first class have a good supply, an electric vehicle and solar on their roof and then we have second class citizens that are somehow left behind in this revolution.

I’m hoping that everyone can be a part of this and that there are the mechanisms in place so that everyone can be part of it. It’s something we need to keep an eye on and I’m hoping to see more projects like CommUNITY giving people access to renewable energy generated locally in the future.

Maria Brucoli will be speaking at Current± publisher Solar Media’s EnTech event in London, which runs 8-9 October 2019 and will discuss the country’s burgeoning energy technology sector. Details of the event and how to attend can be found here.


Alice Grundy Reporter, Current±


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