Sunday, 28 April 2013

Give consumers not 'Big Brother' control over demand response

Consumers can and surely will control when their dishwashers, washing machines and electric cars will be able to run under proposals for 'demand response', not 'big brother' as reported in today's press. However, plans to achieve this have not been thought out properly yet by the powers that be at both UK and EU level.

The idea behind proposals to fit sensors to various types of electrical appliances is to increase the ability of the Natonal Grid to respond ('demand response') to fluctuating supplies of wind power, solar power and other renewable energy sources. Electricity-using equipment at the industrial, commercial and domestic levels can and will be enrolled in a system to match electricity supply with demand, without loss of service to the consumer.

The plans are in response to legislation going through the EU legislative machinery that have been proposed by the recently established 'European Network Transmission System Operator' for Electricity (ENTSO-E). They are now the subject of public consultation. But the demand response system needs to be designed so that, in the domestic sector at least, consumers have control over when they can use appliances like washing equipment, when their heaters can give out heat and when they can drive their cars. People should have a choice, through pre-set automated preferences, over the sort of trade-offs they want between time of use and price paid for energy.

It is quite possible to fit the right meters to ensure that consumers can set machines automatically. Hence they can use them according to their preferences, which will include them automaticaly running (or charging car batteries) when the electricity prices are low (when there is plenty of renewable power), and using them less when electricity prices are high (when renewable power is scarce).

But, as I explained in a previous blog current regulatory arrangements will only allow a 'top-down' system of controlling demand response. The sort of 'smart meters' being rolled out at the moment are the wrong sort that will not allow consumer control of demand response. In addition the way the electricity supply is currently regulated creates perverse incentives that creates barriers for a 'bottom-up' system of consumer control. It will be both cheaper and also much more consumer-friendly if the right types of meters are installed and the right sort of electricity regulation is established.   David Hirst has described the right type of meters as 'flow-cost' meters. See my earlier blog for more on this at

At the moment the usual 'top down' attitude of the British industrial 'we know best' establishment says this is not possible. This is the same estblishment whose experts brought us they idea of 'cheap' nuclear power - until it collided with reality of course. Well, a bottom-up system of control of demand response is very possible. Indeed California, which is more advanced in establishing demand response systems than we are, is discussing precisely such a 'bottom-up' consumer controlled demand response system at the moment. See the website of the California Public Utility Commission at:

Some fantasy figures of costs of doing this have been passed around, but really a microchip in new electrical appliances will cost very little extra, and there is no reason to suppose that the right type of smart meter will cost any more than the smart meters that are being rolled out at the moment.

The point here is that to maximise the amount of demand shifting you need to have the consumer making these decisions for some appliances at least (not fridges, though, which are in use all of the time) - otherwise electricity use will continue to be used more at sub-optimal times out of sync with the availability of renewable energy. There will be a financial incentive here for the consumer in that if they can do this, then they will be able to reduce their bills by scheduling use of appliances (eg washing equipment) when the electricity prices are lower - this will be when there is more renewable energy available, and so it will help make us of more renewable energy - it will also to the opposite and take consumption away from times when there is little renewable energy, so reducing the need for so-called 'back up' power stations. Currently the meters do not allow this and there is going to be nothing more than a basic night time rate which itself does not necessaily correlate with the availability of variable renewable energy supplies. As can be seen above in the link to California PUC, California is consulting about such a system at the moment.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Dave,
    Virtually all power consuming devices already include a microchip, and those that do not soon will. So the cost of "intelligence" and autonomous system frequency driven demand response is teh software, so negligible.
    For other devices, the costs is software (small), changes in mindset (unquantifiable), and communications.
    This last is a challenge, as it needs to be very secure. A cyber attach could be devastating and catastrophic for any electricity system. Unless the communications and control systems are transparent, open, and innately robust, they will be very expensive and create great risks. Big Brother does not come cheap. Unfortunately, an appropriate approach seems unlikely to emerge from present governance arrangements.