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By Hywel Lloyd, Engagement Lead, Active Building Centre

With unprecedented challenges currently facing global energy supplies, there has never been a more apposite time to be discussing upgrades to our national grid infrastructure. Any updates must guarantee that we can supply enough power to fuel our activities, buildings and vehicles safely and sustainably, both now and into the future.  

Open hearings

In the next two weeks Ofgem will be holding open hearings into six Distributed Network Operators’ (DNOs) five-year business plans, calling upon industry stakeholders to outline their intended operations for that period. The ultimate aim is to ensure these local grids meets our changing energy needs.

We predict these sessions will be more consequential than any before. We are entering a period of the energy revolution, where the capabilities of smart local energy solutions, in places or as Active Buildings, will go a long way towards supporting the  local distribution grids. We at the ABC recently submitted our own evidence ahead of the sessions, asking DNOs to consider the application of integrated local and building based solutions to  address the changing demand for energy.

The times they are a changing

The DNOs published their five-year business strategies back in December 2021, laying the groundwork for electricity distribution for the 2023/28 period. These plans included the proposed outputs the DNOs are aiming to deliver to consumers, and also the potential costs of any changes. The plans include expectations for the installation of nearly eight million Electric Vehicle (EV) charging points and an additional three million heat pumps.

The DNOs’ plans acknowledge the growing need to update their grids in response to our changing energy needs and future consumption habits. Yet they do not go far enough to understand and address the issues that could arise from these changes and different options to address them.

We believe that in choosing  to only focus on EV charge points and heat pumps in the current strategies ultimately serves to defer any real change for the next five years. We fear that the DNOs could, inadvertently, force customers to adopt technologies that do not take into consideration their homes’ generational capabilities, and rather than seek to offer optimised, smart, and integrated solutions we are collectively missing a trick. We believe the DNOs should start to consider how homes and buildings can generate as much energy as they demand, and to integrate that with new energy technologies such as charge points and heat pumps.

Local integrated solutions

Over the years we have seen plenty of new technologies, from solar panelling to smart-meters, all hailed as a one-stop-shop solution to rising energy usage. These “one-off” solutions are too often installed without taking into consideration other factors, such as the age or the fabric of the building, and may even end up increasing the energy consumption of a building. The installation of EV charging points and heat pumps is at risk of being no different.

The Government’s ‘no new gas connection’ policy, a strategy aimed to phase out gas networks in newbuilds, could force developers to install the cheapest, most easily accessible solution, which may not necessarily be the right one. By installing the wrong energy solution, developers could be drastically changing the energy consumption of a building and in fact increasing demand on the grid locally, and ultimately nationally – adding costs for us all.

At the ABC, our work is focused on providing a combined solution for all types of buildings, acknowledging and addressing each issue it could potentially raise. Our integrated solutions can help to generate and store energy, reducing energy consumption and improving the lives of the inhabitants, without greater strain on the network.

Behind the meter demand need not equal demand ‘seen’ by the grid

In pulling together our evidence ahead of the Ofgem consultation, we became concerned at a point that was routinely made not just in the DNOs’ plans, but reiterated across the industry. The common consensus across the sector is that more access to electrical solutions will lead to greater demand, demand that our grid cannot currently meet. In one example a DNO  business plan states that connecting 171,000 heat pumps, or 385,000 domestic EV charging points, is equivalent to a demand growth of 617MW.

Our work on integrated solutions shows that installing energy capture, energy storage and the right controls can help manage when and how domestic and other building based demand is met, with at least half an eye on the needs of the local grid.  Time of Use tariffs can help too.  Both can move peak demand as well as reduce overall demand.   Simply installing a charge point or heat pump, without controls, or storage, or energy capture risks completely ignoring the potential of Active Buildings. Our research into the capability of these buildings has shown that when structures are upgraded or manufactured with an appropriate integrated solution, they can become net contributors and an asset to the grid, as well as to their occupants.

Connah’s Quay

An illustrative example of this can be found in Ffordd Llanarth in Wales, where the ABC has been involved in a pivotal project, helping the local council design 20 new social houses. Each building has been designed to get maximum benefit from local renewable energy solutions, optimising the generational potential of PV (solar panels) and conducting early-stage fabric assessments in order to minimise consumption and reduce operational carbon. Our initial findings suggest that these Active Buildings could generate 7,495 kWh/year, just under the average home’s demand for the same period – and, since these new, better-designed homes are more energy capable than the average home, they would be net contributors to the grid.

If we begin to construct homes and offices to be not only buildings, but also active energy assets that can provide for their wider community and not just their occupants, then we can ensure that we reduce our net demand and shift when this demand needs to be met. We can transform buildings into energy generators and storage facilities that can be fed back into local grids and reduce the strain on the national grid. People can charge their cars from excess solar energy or feed it back into their homes to heat their water. The solutions are limitless.

The DNOs’ five-year plans acknowledge the need for greater alternative energy solutions. We would encourage the DNOs to remember that greater access to Low Carbon Technologies does not, inherently, mean greater net demand, provided we consider integrated solutions including elements such as solar PV, battery storage capabilities, smart heating systems and bidirectional home-EV charging capabilities.

Hearing good things

Overall demand for electricity will, undoubtedly, go up, but it would be irresponsible to meet this increase in demand solely with energy generated elsewhere and transmitted through the grid. Our research has proven that, even with the increase in demand, our net demand can be reduced with the deployment of Active Buildings. Energy capable buildings have an important part to play.

We hope to hear the energy sector take note of the potential future of localised energy solutions and how they can benefit everyone in the upcoming hearings.