Centrica burns battery candle at both ends, launches Hive in Italy

A week after its acquisition of REstore, utility giant Centrica is again leading the smart grid charge, with plans for a 100MW battery in Ireland, an expansion of its Hive smart home platform into Italy, and the signing of its first participant in its Cornwall Local Energy Market (LEM) trial in England.

The small LEM storage technology is a microcosm of what Centrica is planning for the grid-scale projects. Using batteries to store power from renewables, when their generation output is greater than useful demand, the storage can be used at a later time, when demand outpaces supply. This should help the utility save money, by not needing to fire up the relatively expensive reserve generation assets – which tend to be more polluting non-renewable sources too.

The storage projects are part of what is called supply-side energy management, and are distinct from the demand-side techniques like Demand Response (DR) – the latter of which would let a utility remotely turn down an appliance to lower the stress on a grid, again so it can avoid using the peak generation assets. In scales such as towns or industrial centers, DR can be hugely advantageous to a utility, but it requires an in-building presence as well as a smart meter.

Luckily, Centrica is working on just such a requirement, developing its Hive platform to provide the DR features that would eventually allow a utility to negotiate with a consumer – offering rebates or discounts in exchange for letting the utility adjust the HVAC settings or delay a white goods appliance, in order to avoid using those peak generation assets.

Cumulatively, Centrica is burning both ends of the candle here, in a way distinct from most of its rivals. It has a clear focus on both the grid-scale projects and the home-scale steps that need to be taken in order to move into a new era of utility services. It’s also not afraid of getting its wallet out to fund this, as seen in the $81m acquisition of REstore last week.

The Irish battery plan will be in combination with other grid services that are currently under development, and follow the 49MW battery that is being built in Rooscote, Cumbria. Centrica says that it is planning on building similar projects in North America too. While the Irish project is still in the planning stages, with three potential locations up in the air, Centrica is looking to exploit its strong Irish presence – which it cemented in 2014, by buying the state-owned Bord Gais utility.

But the partnership with Eni, an Italian utility, sees it push its Hive smart home platform into a new territory. Initially launched in the UK, the Hive thermostats have also been introduced to the US and Ireland. With some 8m retail customers, Eni’s footprint looks like a strong sales opportunity for Centrica – which has recently expanded Hive with a camera, sensors (door, window, motion), light bulbs, connected plugs, and the controlling hub.

Centrica has said it plans to invest £500m in its Connected Home business by 2020, and this five-year deal with Eni should be the tip of the iceberg. Hive has an integration with Amazon’s Alexa, and is also bundling Echo devices with some of its promotional packages. The most recent numbers show 660,000 Hive hubs and thermostats sold, and over a million other products sold.

Perhaps most interesting is the Cornish LEM trial, part of a government-approved program to test how local markets might interact in a world of Distributed Energy Resources (DERs) and battery storage – buying and selling electricity locally, instead of over a national grid, as part of a 150-premises trial in Cornwall that has an investment pot for local businesses to apply to for low-carbon technologies. There is still some £6m up for grabs, as part of a project that has received £19m in funding.

The first participant is The Olde House, a holiday cottage site near the village of Wadebridge. Also a working farm, it has had its own solar panels since 2011 – an array that has generated more electricity than The Olde House could use. Now, battery specialist redT Energy is installing 1MWh of storage (housed inside a small shipping container), to compliment the 250kWh solar array.

The Olde House’s Shaun Hawkey said “we generate large amounts of electricity throughout the day, but unfortunately we cannot utilize it all. With the installation of these energy storage machines, we will be able to store the energy until times when we have a higher demand, for example at the end of the day and into early evening when our guests return from their days out.”

“The Olde House is a perfect example of how UK businesses can now utilize more of their renewable generation and make money supporting the electricity grid,” said Scott McGregor, the CEO of redT. “Centrica is at the cutting edge of the UK energy market, and with initiatives such as the LEM, we are pleased to be working with them to secure the UK’s energy future by creating reliable, affordable, low carbon energy for business owners.”