Just when you thought it was safe to relax about Energy

This blog was written by BSRIA's Henry Lawson

This blog was written by BSRIA’s Henry Lawson

Did you hear about the crisis that hit the UK on 4th  November, causing  massive disruption, and provoking outcry in industry, and suddenly sent energy rocketing back up the UK’s political agenda?

You probably didn’t hear this, because the first major threat to the UK’s national grid this winter still left it with a princely 2% spare capacity, sufficient for the National Grid to issue a “notification of inadequate system margin” (NISM), but insufficient to actually disrupt the service.

While this was only the first stage of alert, and while an abnormal lack of wind was an aggravating factor – bringing the UK’s now significant wind generation capacity almost to a halt, one of the mildest starts to November on record may have helped to save the day. As so often in human affairs, a “near miss” is treated as a near non-event. A single “hit” on the other hand could have major repercussions, prompting much more urgent action not just on the resilience of the UK’s national grid, but on how buildings respond to peaks and troughs in energy demand.

BSRIA has been reporting and analysing on Building Energy Management and the issues around it for a number of years now. One of the trends that we have noticed is that over time, more suppliers of building energy management solutions include some form of Demand Response as part of their solution. This enables a temporary reduction in the power drawn by certain services in the building where this does not impact on productivity or well-being.

Our latest review of the global leaders in Building Energy Management showed that almost half now offer demand response, the highest figure that we have seen to date. This includes both the global leaders in Building Automation and Energy Management and suppliers specialising in energy management.

At the same time, energy storage is being taken more serious as a viable and cost-effective way of providing additional resilience and peak capacity, both for energy suppliers and in some cases for consumers. While the UK is still some way from having a thriving market in home energy storage systems comparable to that developing in Germany (where residential electricity is significantly more expensive), it seems quite likely that any significant grid outages will give a boost to the market for battery storage for both residential and non-residential use.

It is still quite hard to judge how probable a major power outage is in the UK this winter. There are already further processes for demand reduction which can be invoked if the situation gets tighter than it did on November 4th. However a coincidence of severe cold with a lack of wind, and unplanned outages at power stations is not inconceivable. And the major strategic initiatives, such as the construction of two new nuclear power plants, will take years to come online.

The UK has got used to ‘living dangerously, and so far has got away with it. But the sensible response to a lucky escape is to learn the lessons, and  not to assume that your luck will go on holding indefinitely.

The very least we can say is that all organisations should be looking at the potential implications of even a short interruption to power supplies, and how they can best mitigate these.

I shall be talking a bit more about BSRIA’s latest research into building energy management and related areas in a webinar on Tuesday 24th November, so I hope that you will be able to join me then

BSRIA and ECA working together in order to keep the lights on!

BSRIA is pleased to be working alongside the ECA at this important event

BSRIA is pleased to be working alongside the ECA at this important event

Ofgem has sounded serious warning bells about UK’s generating margin falling from about 14% to sub 4% levels around 2016. Ed Milliband’s statement of a Labour Government freezing energy bills could hardly come at a worse moment and could in fact result in a greater likelihood of brown or blackouts.  View event details and book on-line.

Major investment is needed in the electricity network and the new wave of nuclear power stations recently announced will not come online until at least 2020. The debate over alternative fuels like shale gas still needs to be had, to assess its suitability and impact on the future of UK energy. And whilst standby generation may seem an easy option and undoubtedly this will form part of the solution, it also needs to be highlighted that it cannot necessarily be relied on as a last-minute solution, for when the crunch comes, fuel will be in high demand and availability will plummet.

So where does that leave the rest of us? There are few benefits to a power outage; the only redeeming effects being an increase in self-reliance and a chance for the standby power industry to shine.

The risks to business is high, even more so due to the current lack of awareness and most may well have no contingency plan to keep their businesses running. Companies face disruption through possible loss of process and equipment failure.

BSRIA is pleased to be working alongside the Electrical Contractors Association (ECA). Our forthcoming event at Central Hall in London looks at the scale of the problem of reduced electricity supply capacity at peak times in the coming years. We look to identify solutions that can be adopted in order to reduce the risk to the core business and also the support needed for building owner operators, facilities mangers, contractors and service providers to allow them to provide the maximum provision during challenging times.

This event is free to BSRIA and ECA members, but also open to a wider audience.

View the full programme and book on-line

ECA members are able to book free by emailing their free payment code to events@bsria.co.uk.

Smart metering makes BPE easy…or does it?

BSRIA's Alan Gilbert

Head of BSRIA Instrument Solutions Alan Gilbert

Building Performance Evaluation (BPE) is here to stay. With government driving towards 20% reduction in costs for its built estate and increasing unwillingness to accept design predictions as sufficient to prove outcomes, objective measurement will be key. Government Soft Landings (GSL) and the implied BPE activities attest to this. In the housing sector regulation is increasingly looking to proof of performance (airtightness for example) with a growing European focus on providing owners with objective labeling of homes. The recent announcements of the 2013 revisions of Part L have largely focused on fabric issues but it seems likely that attention will now turn to the performance of installed HVAC plant and associated controls which themselves will present a challenge in proving that combinations of low carbon technologies are indeed working properly.

All this is happening at the same time as measures to introduce smart metering are coming on-stream. With a commitment to have full implementation by 2020, smart meters should provide a powerful means to assist with BPE of both commercial and non-commercial buildings but will they really realise this objective?

Just how “smart” is smart in the context of metering? At its lowest level the smart meter simply offers a remote display of energy use (often expressed in £) so that users are sensitised to consumption. Rarely are both gas and electricity monitored and I know of no instance where water is included as well. This is a shame: water (especially hot water) is an increasing proportion of dwelling energy use and is largely ignored by householders. There is increasing evidence that this kind of visible display can have good initial impact but that users rapidly de-sensitise. Really, these meters are not smart but simply remote display devices.

More commonly “smart” means that meter readings can be transmitted to the supply company on a scheduled basis. This is the type currently planned to be used in the present roll-out. Again it is unlikely that all three services are monitored and the data is often collected at no more than half hour intervals. As an alternative to self-read or estimated billing they are undoubtedly an improvement and will help electricity companies come to terms with balancing home generation and network loading but the thorny problem of access to data remains to be overcome.

Finally there is the possibility of the “really smart” meter which will permit full two way communication between utility and user thus bringing into reality the possibility of sophisticated demand management options for the power companies. Potentially this could be a rich source of data for BPE but ownership of the protocols and access rights are likely to be a serious hurdle to potential third party users of this resource.

Even if full access to a multi-service, duplex remote metering scheme is possible it cannot provide the additional data that a proper BPE service demands. In order to interpret energy use data additional sensors are needed to enable forensic analysis. Internal temperatures, occupancy rates, casual gains from white goods and local weather, all are needed to understand and normalise energy use back to some design criteria. Even when all this is achieved there is often no substitute for “feet on the ground” to interview occupants or spot unusual behaviours.

Access to large volumes of user data is one key requirement to understanding just how the various interventions in existing dwellings or

British Gas Smart Meter

British Gas Smart Meter

the application of new regulations in the built environment sector are working. The Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC) has developed a restricted access National Energy Efficiency Data-Framework (NEED) and this has proven invaluable in understanding the real impact of certain measures such as cavity fill retrofits. Unfortunately this kind of data is not readily available to the wider research community at present nor is it fed from real-time or near real-time sources. This makes it unsuitable for analysis of individual properties.

We want to really deliver truly low energy (an carbon) buildings that are also healthy, productive and comfortable to use but,until the tangle of issues associated with privacy and smart metering are resolved then there is little alternative or more of this kind of work that will not only resolve issues in individual dwellings but also create a new generation of people able to interpret complex building physics and behavioural data. Surely a good thing in itself. If however we really want to look at effects in the wider population of buildings then DECC should be encouraged to invest in NEED and roll it out to wider research community so that academics, business and industry can better identify opportunity for action in bringing UK nearer to its legal carbon commitments.

For more information about BSRIA’s involvement in BPE including a presentation defining BPE as well as information on how Soft Landings fits in click here.

What happens when the lights go out?

In July we posted a blog about whether the lights will go out in the UK. This blog discussed the startling fact that the peak demand on our electricity supply network is perilously close to the supply capacity. With this comes the real risk that consumers will be exposed to outages “blackouts” and voltage dips “brownouts”. There is debate about whether this could happen, Datamonitor’s director of energy and utilities research and analysis, Neil Atkinson has commented that in practice the lights won’t go out in the UK or at least not for a long time, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be worried or ignore the problem all together. He states that the Government hasn’t put sufficient contingency plans in place for the future of the UK’s supply and demand, that the Green Deal and the dwindling hopes of Nuclear power aren’t enough.

The ECA are less optimistic than Datamonitor. Bill Wright, head of energy solutions, states that the intended increasing reliance on wind power assumes that the UK as a whole will not be affected by periods of cold weather at the same time as minimum wind. This is something that has to be considered though, for if the UK were to suffer a harsh or long winter like we saw in 2012/2013 then there is a real risk that we could end up facing lights out this year or during any winter that is out of the ordinary.

Fuel poverty in England – 10 per cent, 1996 to 2011

Fuel poverty in England – 10 per cent, 1996 to 2011

There is also Ed Milliband’s pledge to freeze energy costs for customers to consider. Will this pledge speed up the process of blackouts and brownouts or it will have no impact at all? The government’s Fuel Poverty Report 2013 suggests there are already 4.8 million households in the UK that are already suffering with blackouts so Ed’s pledge won’t necessarily make any difference.

But what if it does? What will happen if the lights do go out?

BSRIA held a number of parallel workshops in June to discuss that possibility. The workshop covered the effects blackouts would have in the UK, the risks for business, the systems required, the continuity plans and what BSRIA will do. Here are some of the conclusions:

Effects of power outages

There are many potential effects that come with a long power outage. At the moment, most power outages don’t last more than an

An image of Channel 4's The Blackout

An image of Channel 4’s The Blackout

hour so there are minimal risks but the longer the outage, the more opportunity for chaos to ensue. The loss of power could lead to an increase in crime due to diminished security options e.g. alarms and security cameras leading to shops being broken into and civil disorder (a dramatization of the potential damage can be seen in Channel 4’s The Blackout). The country’s communication and transport systems would soon break down and there is a high risk to the economy due to closed businesses and lack of trade. There are few benefits to a power outage; the only redeeming effects being an increase in self-reliance and a chance for the standby power industry to shine.

Risks for business

If power outages have such an impact on society in general, then the risks to business are high as well, even more so due to the current lack of awareness in businesses. If they are unaware of the future problems, then they may well have made no contingency plan to keep their businesses running. Without a contingency plan, they face disruption to their work through either staff shortages (staff may be unable to get into work due to the breakdown of transport), or loss of process and equipment failure. If companies are dependent on computers or other technology, then they risk losing business or missing deadlines, resulting in damage to reputation and loss of profit.

Required systems and contingency plans

To help the UK prepare for the risk of future power outages, the workshop came up with some ideas for required systems and contingency plans that could help reduce the damage caused. Here are some of those. Firstly, education is key and more needs to be done to raise awareness. BSRIA is in a prime position to promote and facilitate this. Starting with the low-hanging fruit, buildings should make maximum use of natural light and ventilation to reduce base energy load. Critical areas or services need to be identified and ring-fenced to maximise the opportunity for them to run when other systems go down. There needs to be a way of controlling the amount of energy used in buildings and this is where energy services and building energy management systems could play a very important role. Incentives, such as variable tariffs from utilities, would encourage changes in consumer behaviour and more investment in smart technology. The debate over alternative fuels like shale gas needs to be had to assess its suitability and impact on the future of UK energy. Whilst standby generation may seem an easy option, and undoubtedly this will form part of the solution, it also needs to be highlighted that it cannot necessarily be relied on as a last-minute solution, for when the crunch comes, it will be in high demand and availability will plummet.

Continuity plans need to be made for a multitude of scenarios. The Government and businesses alike, need to prioritise the services

Graph taken from Bill Wright's presentation given at BSRIA Workshop

Graph taken from Bill Wright’s presentation given at BSRIA Workshop

they need most and make sure they are supported in the best possible ways. If blackouts are expected to become a regular part of our lives, then announcing them in advance will help companies to plan closures or change working hours. Companies also need to think about how their employees work; the fact is, we are highly dependent on technology like laptops and mobile phones. Without the means to recharge their batteries they quickly become redundant and we become unproductive, so companies need to think of alternative methods to keep their workforce useful – we may even have to resort to good old pen and paper!

What BSRIA could do

 From the workshops, it was suggested that BSRIA can help raise awareness and provide education on the subject. This could take a range of forms, and conferences, publications and guidance for continuity planning were just some of the activities suggested. BSRIA can also work with other organisations towards these goals to help limit the risks for everyone.

When will the lights go out?

In the UK and some other countries the maximum demand on our supply network is perilously close to the supply capacity. In the UK we have a total supply capacity of 80 Gigawatts, and only around 67GW is available at any one time according to OFGEM director-general Alistair Buchanan. The maximum demand last winter was 60.5GW and the peak summer demand isn’t much less. It would only take a prolonged cold spell or a power station failure to drop the supply capacity below our maximum demand.

What this means in practice to an individual customer is that there is an increased risk of outages or voltage dips. It has been predicted that this could be a one in twelve chance of losing power in a year for any customer by 2015 and an increasing risk until either the supply capacity is increased or demand is cut. In the UK we are closing our coal fired power stations, decommissioning our old nuclear stations and not building new capacity fast enough to replace them. Read more about this in The Spectator.

Last week OFGEM published electricity supply and demand forecasts, showing that spare capacity has fallen as more gas-fired plants have been mothballed. It reiterated warnings that even if blackouts are avoided, power prices will rise steeply.  With the UK generation capacity margin likely to drop to 2% by 2015 the competition for supplies is likely to push prices up by 20%. Read more in The Telegraph.

Graph taken from Bill Wright's presentation given at BSRIA Workshop

Graph taken from Bill Wright’s presentation given at BSRIA Workshop

The profile of generation capacity over the next ten years is affected by political decisions such as closure of coal-fired power stations, extending the life of old nuclear stations, availability of imported gas, introduction of fracking for shale gas and planning permission for renewable energy.

Businesses need to prepare for the increased risk to protect their business continuity. At a recent BSRIA workshop, business leaders talked about how they could respond to the risks and the knock-on effects of power outages.

There are two main approaches:

  • reducing demand, including demand side management
  • adapting to a less reliable power supply with standby power.

But the effects of power outage on security of supplies, transport and even public order and crime need to be considered.  The process of planning for outages and continuity of power is part of a more general process of Business Continuity Management, for which there is a British Standard Code of Practice, BS25999.  This Standard covers all the threats to business continuity, but with the risk of power loss to a business and its supply chain and the effects of power loss on staff, customers and the public there may be a need to re-assess the risks and amend the business continuity plan.

OFGEM are hosting a Working Group to develop solutions to network capacity problems using the Low Carbon Networks Fund.  Their recent seminar presented the results of commercial and domestic demonstration projects.  The domestic demand peaks at nearly double the daytime demand between 4pm and 8pm on weekdays.  The early part of this peak coincides with the last hour of the working day so commercial demand is also high.  Various approaches to demand management are being trialled in different areas of the UK including incentives and variable pricing.

There are incentives for customers agreeing to cut their demand when local supply nears capacity.  These are set up locally with different priorities, such as the Thames Valley Vision which utilises Automated Demand Response and Business Consumer Consortia along with energy storage to reduce peak demands and avoid the need for supply network reinforcement.

In summary, the UK electricity supply network is expected to become less reliable and this will affect consumers as soon as 2015.  If consumers don’t do something they are likely to be hit by power cuts more often.  Solutions include planning for power failures, checking the reliability of standby systems, negotiating demand reduction facilities or permanently reducing demand.

BSRIA is keen to work with building operators, manufacturers, network operators, consultants and anyone involved in power continuity management.

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