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Preventing power cuts by unlocking smart grid flexibility

How innovation in energy optimisation and demand side flexibility is providing long-term solutions to future energy supply disruption.

In the aftermath of the UK's biggest power cut of the decade, businesses are seeking long-term solutions to prevent future energy supply disruption.

Thanks to advancements in digital technology and automation extra grid reinforcement doesn't require the construction of lots of costly new power stations. Supply and demand mismatches, such as those that caused the recent outage, can be relieved more economically and sustainably by optimising existing power flexibility.  

This is being achieved through energy optimisation solutions,  in particular Frequency Response, and the emergence of Artificial Intelligence (AI) enabled advanced Virtual Power Plants.

Balancing supply and demand

National Grid ESO's Incident Report on the major 9 August power cut reveals that the network outage was a protective measure to maintain grid integrity risk – caused by a brief dramatic drop in frequency. It is believed that the fall in frequency, far below the statutory minimum level of 49.5Hz, was triggered by almost simultaneous failure of two large generators. The frequency dropped to such a level, 48.8 Hz, that demand users were required to be disconnected for a short period of time to ensure the system could recover. This affected nearly 931MW of demand being discounted or 1.15 million customers, as well as chaos for rail, road and air commuters. 

Grid operators must ensure perfect real-time balance of supply and demand across power networks to prevent equipment damage and serious energy supply disruption. In the UK, this involves maintaining a power frequency of all synchronous generators at very close to 50Hz at all times. If demand exceeds generation, system frequency falls, while frequency rises if generation exceeds demand.

The growing importance of Frequency Response

The difficult balancing act is largely handled ahead of real time, but there are always last-minute mismatches, such as generators producing less power than anticipated, as was the case in the recent major power cut. 

While National Grid says its recent outage was a rare incident, it's getting more and more difficult to maintain the required frequency. This is due to increasing system volatility, which reflects the increasing variation of the decentralising power supply – characterised by a steep continuing growth in intermittent renewables.

Prior to the power cut on 09 August, we had noted the increasing volatility, with three recent incidents in 2019 where frequency levels were close to the statutory limits that the frequency must stay within. We expect that this event and the increasing volatility to lead to greater use and procurement of Frequency Response mechanisms by National Grid, which helped the network operator to mitigate the impact of the recent outage. However, it is clear that even more fast acting capacity, such as battery storage, will be required in the future.

Frequency Response incentivises participants to speedily reduce or increase output of their energy consuming, generation or storage assets to keep the grid in perfect balance. It is typically the most lucrative Demand Side Response (DSR) opportunity, but it is under exploited because of its complexity. It requires split-second communication with the grid - relying on fast responding assets such as battery storage, advanced load curtailment and other onsite energy resources.  

Innovation in artificial intelligence and internet of things IoT technologies, such as our Utility Optimisation Platform, provide the automated systems to manage the complex and timely grid interaction, thus simplifying the process for participating customers.

Taking DSR to a new level with Virtual Power Plants

We're taking supply optimisation and Frequency Response to a new level with the creation of Artificial Intelligence (AI) enabled Virtual Power Plants (VPPs), which can scale up smart, fast acting grid reinforcement. For example, we've already built the world's most advanced VPP, which is Europe's first large-scale, multi-asset clean energy smart grid. 

Our 32MW, scalable facility at Belgium's Terhills leisure park aggregates 18MW of Tesla batteries with a flexible  portfolio of other distributed energy assets, including  industrial load and on-site generation, such as Solar and CHP. In this way we can create an ultra-fast, agile portfolio of assets from hundreds of sites across hundreds of miles. 

Each asset in our clean energy VPP portfolio can contribute to balancing supply and demand.  The faster assets, such as batteries, can deliver rapid short-term bursts of power, while others can meet longer duration slower power delivery requirements. Our agile VPP automates deployment of the best combination of assets that are available for use on a second-by-second basis, while observing the operational requirements of the customer to ensure that there is zero impact on productivity or safety.

The AI platform automates energy trading, supported by our 24-hour trading team, and deploys flexibility in real-time, which means that we can take advantage of the complete range of market opportunities to dynamically capture the highest returns and guarantee financial returns on a 'no-lose' basis for battery assets. As well as generating revenue, VPP participants can save money on their energy costs, reduce carbon emissions, improve productivity and secure  energy resilience.


We're also making our AI technology available to utility companies on a 'software-as-service' basis, which enables them to manage grid resilience by running their own VPPs. This option is being used by TEPCO, Japan’s largest power company, to aggregate flexible generation and demand assets that can provide the transmission system operator with flexibility services for the Reserve market.

Supply optimisation from Centrica

As Europe's number one Demand Side Response provider and as the UK's largest electricity and gas supplier, with superior access to 27 European wholesale markets, Centrica Business Solutions provides advanced energy optimisation solutions. We provide the expert support to maintain perfect supply and demand balance on the grid. We also help our customers to minimise costs and maximise revenues and sustainability, while bolstering their own energy resilience.   

Our patented AI DSR and VPP platforms are used by more than 150 of Europe’s largest energy users to deliver competitive advantage from high-value reserve and wholesale trading markets.

Find out how Centrica Business Solutions can provide the highest value from energy optimisation and reinforce grid resilience to prevent power supply disruption.

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