Welcoming the government's 'Smart Systems and Flexibility Plan', but challenges lie ahead

New plans announced by the Business and Energy Secretary this week to give homes and businesses more control over their energy use and support innovative new technologies, are a welcome and interesting move by the government.

The plan outlines action the government, Ofgem and energy industry will take to remove barriers to smart technologies, including issues such as with storage (such as either electricity or heating), as well as assisting smart homes and businesses with demand control. It will also improve access to energy markets for new technologies, access to business models to reduce the cost of the energy system and help keep energy bills low for consumers. However, the plan raises questions over how these actions may be carried out.

What part do Smart Meters play in transforming the energy systems?

The new measures discuss the roll-out of smart meters and the introduction of smart tariffs, making the suggestion that data communications will allow consumers to lower their bills. This role is, however, overstated. 

It is well known that Smart Meters are just electronic meters, without suitable control systems in place, or demand control (consumers deciding how much power they use). It is also important to note that the consumer’s participation cannot be fully implemented by Smart Meters alone.

Smart Meters are just entry-level requirements. Energy control systems for automatically switching on or off PV panels, electric vehicles, energy storage devices and appliances are really key to making smart demand management/control possible. Here, the control system is an intelligent system, which helps the homeowner decide intelligently how much power will be needed and when this will take place.

The government will need to have solid plans to implement Smart Meters and automatic energy control systems together, otherwise money could be wasted.

Can energy storage change the game theory of energy systems?

The plan suggests that: ‘By harnessing the potential of energy storage, and smarter business models, we have an opportunity to upgrade to one of the most efficient, productive energy systems in the world.’

This includes our approach to using lithium batteries, while ignoring other battery types and indeed, other types of storage. The role of longer duration large-scale energy storage such as liquid air and pumped hydro is not sufficiently covered. It is also unclear how energy storage capacity will be considered in national transmission grids and regional distribution grids.

The government plan also talks about ‘Cloud-based – virtual energy storage – services.’ Based on our experience, this type of energy storage should be encouraged. In fact, a more sophisticated demonstration project including distributed renewable energy sources such as Photovoltaics (PVs), a wind turbine, Electric Vehicles (EVs), heat pumps and battery energy storage using cloud-based services – an exemplar pre-commercial micro virtual power plant (µVPP). A Virtual Power Plant (VPP) is a cloud-based central or distributed control centre that takes advantage of information and communication technologies (ICTs) and Internet of things (IoT) devices to aggregate small-scale Distributed Energy Resources (PVs, EVs, wind turbines, energy storage, etc,) into a power plant that behaves like a power plant and this is somehow different from a real power plant and hence is referred to as a virtual power plant (VPP). In a paper published in IEEE Power and Energy Technology Systems Journal in 2016 a micro VPP developed by the University of Birmingham and EON was commissioned and has been and operating since July 2014 in Malmo, Sweden. The major objective of such a system is to maximise the utilisation of renewable energy sources while minimising the CO2 emissions and providing value added system services to support the security and efficiency of power grids.

It should be pointed out that in the plan the proposed virtual power plants would not necessarily work and we would need to consider the distribution of network bottlenecks (as we do for road transportation). This would also require a strong system operator’s role of distribution network companies whilst being aware that currently, regional distribution system companies have relatively limited control resources to support massive cloud-based (virtual energy storage) services compared to national transmission companies.

In energy storage development, innovation is the key. Recent wind turbine energy storage in the integration between offshore wind turbines and wave energy generation systems developed by the University of Birmingham would revolutionise offshore renewable energy integration in terms of cost reduction in wave energy generation.

The innovative idea here is that we can use wind turbine blades to store energy dynamically and in turn use this stored energy to smooth the output powers from wave energy systems. This would reduce the power delivery investment costs significantly, otherwise we would need to install additional power electronic converters/storage devices with wave energy generation systems in order to connect them to power grids with satisfactory power quality.

For the provision of fast frequency response and fast stability/power flow/voltage control, transmission system companies should be allowed to have licences to install and operate suitable energy storage systems so that such fast provision of energy storage services can be secured in order to ensure reliable, flexible and smart energy systems without jeopardising system security at a national level. This consideration is missing in the plan and will need to be addressed very urgently.

Professor Xiao-Ping Zhang

Department of Electronic, Electrical and Systems Engineering, University of Birmingham