By Hywel Lloyd, Government Engagement


As many in the energy and construction sectors await the Heat & Building Strategy, some of us have had the opportunity to dive into the recent BEIS/Ofgem Smart Systems & Flexibility Plan 2.0, an updating of the first smart systems plan of 2017.


The Plan is in many ways fascinating. It gets to the heart of how managing demand is as useful and important as managing supply, with flexibility the key principle going forward.  Instead of an out-dated predict & provide we are very much in the territory of optimise what we have, or you could say let’s make the most of our tools, techniques and technologies to run a much more efficiency and effective system.

In the smart plan there is a growing realization of the massive savings to be made from making the most of the deployment of heat pumps and Electric Vehicle (EV) charge points, built on the growing realisation that both can offer demand flexibility that responds to the variable nature of renewable generation – and the more of that flexibility we can harness the greater the advantage we can take from renewables[i].

Another key driver is the acknowledgement that the ‘system’ has a new boundary.  The energy system of the future is one that reaches our fingertips, quite literally with the growing ability to control many elements of energy flow with an app on a phone.  As others, not least Laura Sandys, have highlighted we are moving to an energy system that has millions of assets on it, as we recognise that yes a home can be a power station, that an EV can be an energy store, that a Flexible Building or Home (FB/FH) with intelligent hot water tanks and/or batteries can buffer demand, reducing the peaks the system would otherwise have to build capacity for.

And yet this feels like opportunity waiting to be realised. The reason we are probably seeing separate strategies for flexibility and to come for ‘heat’ is the focus in one on the flexible functioning of the electricity system, and in the other, on the inefficiency and carbon intensity of our current arrangements for heating homes and buildings.

With the advent of the heat pump these become inexorably linked, helping give us Smart Heat.

The heat pump, that mysterious technology that few have seen and fewer still have used.  Yet what’s to like, or not about them? They certainly operate differently and have a different set up to a boiler just as my Nan’s coal powered Rayburn was to gas.  They’re new, and currently expensive as is often the way with emerging technology, with a clear direction from government volumes will grow and prices reduce.  On the downside, for gas at least, they are hugely more efficient than burning stuff, they don’t pollute the air around your home, and they represent electricity demand that can be flexed

This based on the heat pump being a technology powered by electricity. You could describe how it works as akin to a fridge, which ‘concentrates’ cold within the fridge and removes warmth; while a heat pump ‘concentrates’ heat for use within the home.  Both work on the age old basic physics principle of gas compression and heat exchange.  As with a fridge it is always on, and as with a fridge, in a well insulated home the degree of ‘on’ for the heat pump can be flexed, in turn reducing peak demand on the system[ii].  As an aside that means a heat pump can provide cooling.

Coupled with electric battery storage, in the home and/or from the associated EV and you can add a further level of demand flexibility, for example by using battery electricity for the heat pump at times of stress on the grid; or by supplying electricity to the grid from either battery.

Flexible buildings and homes (FB/FH) combine intelligent energy controls with an ability to at least store energy, and ideally vary demand in response to (price) signals from the grid – these are the buildings, and homes, with their own battery or intelligent hot water tank, or of course an EV.  The current smart plan recognises the huge savings EVs could help realise in a flexible system – just imagine what those savings would be from FB/FHs, given they could have bigger capacity and capability, and can be sited specific to address constraint management zones on the distribution grid.  Active Buildings, Homes as Power Stations (HAPS) and other building designs are now flexible.

Building on the integration offered by Flexible Buildings, deploying heat pumps as part of a set of technologies that can respond to price signals and the needs of the grid as much as those of the building user, we could then deploy such buildings into the future development of the energy system, not least into local planning for energy. It is becoming increasingly apparent, as BEIS official and others explore such planning, that integrated approaches offer greater benefits than expected, as to optimise is often to integrate.

With the probability of a national framework for local planning for energy before the mid 2020s, with the growing learning from the deployment of flexible buildings, by the Active Building Centre, by the SPECIFIC research, by Swansea Bay City Region through their HAPS deployment, by others in construction such as SERO, we could then look towards an integrated strategy, aka The Smart Heat and Flexible Building Plan 3.0.

Such a Plan could explore how to:

  • Share the savings flexibility brings, reducing the costs of transition to consumers;
  • Deploy home based batteries and ToUs to address the needs of vulnerable consumer and fuel poor households (as one DNO ED2 draft business plan already proposes);
  • Specify the right locations for Flexible Building deployment to reduce / remove constraints on the distribution grid;
  • Ensure the local planning for energy framework and methodology includes appropriate deployment of Smart Heat and Flexible Buildings;
  • Optimise the local energy system, taking into account drivers of both smart heat and flexibility;
  • Inform the emerging DSO role to include efficiency and flexibility;
  • Set up the future ED3 process to be based on robust local whole energy system plans;

Smart Heat and Flexible Building Plan 3.0 would offer much wider benefits than stand alone strategies.

Integration of smart heat with flexibility, informing local planning for energy offers a thoughtful and locational aware approach to how best to meet heat demand, how best to optimise system flexibility, where best to deploy Flexible Buildings & Flexible Homes – optimising for electrification with the added value of flexibility – as well as the most effective places for heat networks; in turn helping address the best answer to the hydrogen deployment question.

After all much of what we are describing here for homes, is a journey that vehicles are already on.  As with vehicles we will need to encourage ultra low emissions homes, yet from a 2021 energy system perspective we can now see that Vehicle to Grid (and other things, known as V2X[iii]) can bring additional, energy system, benefits with the clean air & climate benefits.  Stepping up we can see the greater benefits of Flexible Homes and Buildings (EB2G) – buildings that are pollution free AND support the energy system, by design.

References

[i] The role of active buildings in the transition to a net-zero energy system – https://abc-rp.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/Active-Building-Centre-Research-Programme-White-Paper-The-role-of-active-buildings-in-the-transition-to-a-net-zero-energy-system.pdf

[ii] ASSESSING HEAT PUMPS AS FLEXIBLE LOAD – https://pureportal.strath.ac.uk/files-asset/20200222/Hong_J_Kelly_NJ_et_al_Pure_Assessing_heat_pumps_as_flexible_load_2012.pdf

[iii] The Role of Vehicle-to-X Energy Technologies In A Net Zero Energy System – Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy – Citizen Space

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