Communities and the Smart Energy Revolution

Report from the Regen event on flexibility, 11th March 2020

by Caroline Bird, BEN Chair

This event was one of several across the West where Regen and Western Power Distribution (WPD) are discussing the potential for communities to engage in the energy flexibility markets. The event discussed how local energy flexibility markets currently work and the emerging results of pilot projects exploring the opportunities for communities. As well as clarity around current opportunities, the event also looked at future potential and some of WPD’s innovation projects – for example domestic participation in flexibility.

Flexibility is a response to the growing need to better balance energy use in the face of current and future increasing demands on the electricity network – for example as heating switches to electric heat pumps and electric vehicle ownership increases. The opportunities offered by local generation, storage and smart technologies provide a route to respond where previously a centralised network might have required the addition of new generation facilities. 

Being smarter and more flexible with our energy use is also key to tackling the climate emergency – helping to engage everyone in better energy use. The future energy system will be increasingly distributed with many smaller generators producing clean energy to feed into a different sort of energy grid where many more parties will be engaged. So far, however, the incumbent fossil fuel generators are the ones dominating flexibility markets.

Regen started by outlining the sources of electricity flexibility, for example through network balancing, storage or demand-side response (DSR). The opportunity for communities is in enabling better use of low-carbon generation, linked to storage which can then provide additional income. Domestically: smart meters, appliances, chargers and controllers connected to PV, batteries, water heaters, heat pumps and EVs will bring households into the market via aggregators – which might be community-led. The Carbon Co-op is developing and trialling a model of an ‘Energy Community Aggregator Service (ECAS) to explore how this might work in reality.

WPD explained how flexibility markets currently work, the conditions under which participants join, the types of flexibility contracts offered and the potential for income. Only certain parts of their network have a need for flexibility, and this is generally a seasonal need. For me, this was a really clear explanation of how this market operates – and they invite all-comers to participate, which in practice means that much of the flexibility is currently provided by fossil fuels as WPD are required to be ‘technology agnostic’. Hopefully this will change as the market matures and, with ofgem reviewing this currently, a preference for renewables would be a good next step. 

Later presentations demonstrated pilot projects in Cornwall and with Bath and West Community Energy (BWCE). The BWCE project uses a cloud platform to connect with domestic energy generation and use, using an app to engage with users. Here it is suggested that ‘fit and forget’ is not the way forwards but that active engagement will yield better outcomes. A future phase of this project will look at Peer-to-peer (P2P) trading.

The discussion part of the day looked at roles and barriers for communities and suggested that real jobs (not relying on volunteers), education and training, correct pricing and returns, business models and a better understanding of the human dimension and the need to interpret the technology will all be needed for future success of the energy system.


All slides are available on the Regen website at: