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11 October 2019

UKPN, EDF expand London energy trading project, market still wary

UK Power Networks (UKPN), EDF, and Repowering London have announced an expansion to their collective smart grid project in London, which will now trial load flexibility services in addition to the rooftop solar and local energy trading marketplace. However, while the project shows promise, the major stakeholders in the energy market have shown little sign of being convinced of the use case’s merits.

This could change, pending the results, as the Elmore House installation was initially quite isolated. The project installed solar panels and then deployed technologies that would allow the units inside the block of flats to trade energy among themselves using storage batteries to hold energy for later use but also supply a neighbor’s needs.

This peer-to-peer platform is interesting, but not widely applicable, as in most cases, the building’s owner would be looking to profit directly from the rooftop installation – either by cutting their direct bills, or offsetting the electricity revenue against the building’s operational costs. It would make more sense among a street of houses, where there were clear ownership boundaries between the properties, and once finalized, such a model would be much more easily exportable to other areas and locations. Of course, there are definitely opportunities for peer-to-peer trading in MDUs, but the per-house model is easier to evangelize.

The new expansion for the Elmore House installation is the use of the batteries and solar panels in load flexibility services, which essentially earn the owners cash for allowing the building to help the utilities and/or distribution network operators (DNOs) keep the grid frequency at the optimum level. The use of an MDU is particularly notable, as much of the flexibility response equipment is much more on the industrial end of the scale than this residential project.

But if tower blocks and streets start to convince the DNOs and utilities that they could be valuable assets, then this sort of deployment should become much more commonplace. As it stands, the original impetus for the project had social justice and equality at its heart (a community-owned project on social housing), but if Elmore House can prove that dollars can be drivers too, then adoption and expansion should come naturally to the business world.

Maria Brucoli, Smart Energy Systems Manager at EDF Energy R&D, said “working with UK Power Networks on this new project is the first step to understanding how domestic, local energy markets like this can interact with the grid and flex to match market demands. Urban Energy Club is a first for the residential market, but will hopefully inspire many more and support our journey to net zero by 2050.”

The initial phase was launched back in February, as part of the Brixton Energy Solar 1 project that was later expanded to include the blockchain-based Project CommUnity trading platform. The trading trial is due to complete this month, and we will presumably hear about the findings shortly – and UK regulator Ofgem should be considering the evidence, as it considers changing its rule that requires a customer to only buy electricity from a single source.

There are a number of similar trading projects in the rest of the world. Sonnen and TenneT have one in Germany, while EnSync’s Hawaiian project is still ticking along. LO3 and Siemens are notable, but LO3 has also partnered with Kyocera and eMotorWerks (now Enel) too.

Enexis and ElaaNL have a pilot, as do WePower and Elering, and Ovo’s Kaluza has invested in Electron to this end, while the US DoE recently awarded a $1mn grant to ComEd, the University of Denver, Virginia Tech, and BEM Controls, to create ‘an energy internet,’ to provide blockchain-based transaction capabilities. Centrica is also testing things in Cornwall, while Verv claimed the first UK blockchain-powered energy trade in the UK back in April 2018.

The Energy Web Foundation is one of the more prominent names in the space, and has worked with LO3 in the past, with IOTA and InnoEnergy also collaborating on DLT (similar but distinct from blockchains) technologies. Walmart and the EWF also partnered, and Walmart has even gone as far as filing patents for energy-blockchain technologies. But despite all this activity, the record hasn’t really changed in the past year – skepticism remains.