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COVID-19 and flexibility: Pandemic to ‘change established and expected patterns’

Image: Andy Beecroft.

Image: Andy Beecroft.

The demand pattern in the UK has changed over the last couple of weeks as the country went into lockdown in an effort to flatten the pandemic curve.

At such times, the flexibility of the grid is put to the test, as domestic demand increases and commercial and industrial demand drops.

Conor Maher-McWilliams, Kaluza’s head of flexibility, explained: “The government restrictions enforced to slow the spread of COVID-19 have dramatically changed how we go about our day-to-day lives. The substantial shift in people’s behaviour, as they stay at home and drive less, is already having a knock-on effect on the UK’s electricity grid.

“Over the last week, Kaluza-connected vehicle-to-grid chargers have been exporting almost 50% more energy to help support the grid than the week before, due to their higher availability.”

But the energy sector is well placed to respond, carefully monitoring demand, and prioritising flexibility in particular since BEIS and Ofgem released ‘Upgrading Our Energy System: Smart Systems and Flexibility Plan’ in 2017.

While more will still be needed to enable the energy network to truly decarbonise, work is still underway to increase the UK’s ability to cope with swings in demand and generation.

Recently, it was announced that the UK is to host what’s been described as the world’s largest, most ambitious energy flexibility market trial, part of two separate energy pilot projects. BEIS unveiled support packages for both Project TraDER and a separate, nationwide online flexibility exchange pilot programme, which is to be launched by Piclo.

While such projects are yet to come to fruition, their predecessors and the improvements in energy storage and demand side response have meant the grid is well placed to respond to situations such as COVID-19.

“Demand response operations are not disrupted,” confirmed Dr Alastair Martin, founder and CSO of Flexitricity.

“There is a lot of flexibility in the GB grid just now. We have seen only limited degradation in our customers’ ability to be flexible, most notably in the case of those supplying the NHS.

"Thanks to National Grid’s recent improvements in the way they buy flexible services (frequent auctions for short-duration commitments) no contractual commitments were put at risk. For our customers, the day job always takes priority.”

Maher-McWilliams similarly praised the grid's ability to cope, but highlighted that longer term changes in demand could increase the difficulty of managing similar scenarios in the future.

“The grid is showing that it can adapt to this unprecedented situation as it makes use of flexible, domestic assets that are optimised to charge during low demand, even if these times are very different to normal.

“In the future when our homes are further electrified, through the decarbonisation of heat for example, the effect of the mass population staying at home could create more volatility on the grid. Being able to manage a highly distributed grid that can react in real time to significant changes and make use of available capacity at the local level will be essential for our future energy system.”

Moving forwards, demand is likely to be reduced at least until the end of the lockdown, however following this the pandemic’s effect on both demand and generation is less concrete.

The lockdown has meant many projects have had to be paused for the protection of the workforce. There is also likely to be challenges with the supply of many components, as supply chains across the world have been disrupted and logistics complicated.

This could mean disruption of the development of new energy sites for a longer period of time, warned Martin.

“It’s essential to comply with government restrictions on working practices and travel. Some of the guidance has been a little unclear, but it is reasonable to expect that there will be some disruption and delay. This is important for two reasons.

“First, some of the businesses we work with will be under commercial pressure, and income from flexibility would help them to get through difficult trading conditions. This makes it an economic priority to connect these sites as much as a system security requirement.

“Secondly, the new Dynamic Containment service which we expect to launch in the summer is going to be critically needed. The priority attached to Dynamic Containment is likely to be higher rather than lower, because the problem it addresses is greater when electricity demand is lower. We don’t have final details yet from National Grid on that, so we can’t be sure how it will be affected. Once we know that we will see what contingencies may be required to enable this service to launch.

“Finally, we are pressing ahead with longer-term plans around electrification of heat and transport, and the critical net zero target. We’re not at the stage yet where that work is held back; we’re just getting on with it.”

Much remains uncertain about the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on generation, demand and flexibility.

A key aspect of this, concluded Electron’s Jon Ferris, is the length of time this will impact, in particular as we move into sunnier, warmer weather.

“If the measures continue into the summer, the increase in residential demand from home working is likely to be offset by the demand in business and industrial demand. This is often connected to the distribution grids at higher voltage levels, so the impact on the distribution grid will vary. And if summer demand falls to historically low levels, renewable generation is likely to be constrained to ensure that grid stability can be managed.

“While National Grid ESO is aiming to manage periods of zero carbon from 2025, there is a risk due to COVID-19 that demand will fall below the level of solar, wind and nuclear generation. The summer outlook report will be essential reading this year - forecast daytime minimum demand may drop below 20GW for the first time.”

As such, the need for flexibility will continue to be great, but potentially for different reasons that the UK is used to experiencing.

“Flexibility was historically required to reduce peak demand, but is increasingly required to manage excess generation in areas where the grid was built to supply demand. The impact of COVID-19 will change established and expected patterns of demand,” Ferris continued.

“The need for flexibility will be more local, including areas where grid monitoring is limited, and increasingly short term and responsive. Longer term procurement of flexibility will need to be supplemented with near real-time markets if curtailment of renewables is to be minimised.”


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