The head of markets at the National Grid Electricity System Operator has told Sky News that its new energy saving scheme “is likely how we’re all going to operate in the future.”
The new Demand Flexibility Service, which allows consumers to volunteer to use less electricity at times of peak demand to help avoid blackouts, has been activated twice this winter.
The Grid’s head of markets, Claire Dykta, described it as an effective “insurance policy” for the coming months, but also a demonstration of how the system could adapt as it is increasingly powered by clean, renewable energy, which is more intermittent than the polluting fossil fuels it is replacing.
She said: “Demand flexibility is going to be a really important component of our energy supply mix going forward and it will grow and grow as something that we all get used to.
Claims British Gas forced pre-paid meters on vulnerable
Shell announces highest profits ever
Water bills to hit highest in 20 years in England and Wales
“Once we’ve got electric cars and we don’t have gas boilers anymore, we’re going to be using energy very differently to how we use it today. Consumers being able to shift their demand is likely how we’re all going to operate in the future.”
Retired bereavement counsellor, Wendy Hall, 65, is from one of the around a million UK households that have signed up to take part in the Demand Flexibility Service.
This time, she was asked by her energy supplier to save at least 20% of her regular usage over one-and-a-half hours.
When we arrived at her small single-story home in Chesterfield all the lights and appliances were off. Wendy was wrapped in her dressing gown for warmth, and was relying on the wood-burning fire in the living room to heat that part of the house.
She planned to eat and wash her clothes later in the evening, to avoid using large appliances that typically use lots of electricity.
During the energy reduction period, she had her phone and Wi-Fi on, and kept a battery-powered lantern nearby to light her path as she moved around her home in the darkness.
Avoiding blackouts for vulnerable who need electricity
So far, the most Wendy has managed to save in one session is £3.66. Although, for her, this isn’t the main motivator.
“Primarily, it’s about avoiding blackouts for people who need the electricity, such as families with young children, elderly or disabled people. If I can just do a little bit and it helps them then that’s everything for me,” Wendy said.
“I’m not worried about the money, it’s not about that. Thinking about the war days, they dug for England, they made do and mended and if just switching the power off for one hour is a help to other people, I’m happy to do it.”
The National Grid emphasised that advances in smart appliances and technologies will ultimately make it much easier for people to consume electricity more flexibly, helping keep bills down at the same time as reducing demand at peak times.
Ms Dykta said: “I think one thing we should be really clear about is that when we talk about this Demand Flexibility Service and what it means, it’s about shifting your energy intensive appliances so your tumble dryer or your washing machine or your electric oven – and using those at different times.
“It’s not about switching everything off and sitting in the dark.
“Great Britain is on a journey to a high renewables green system. We’re further along than a lot of others, so demand flexibility is a step on that journey.”
‘Smart’ consumers playing active part in system
But are the majority of British consumers ready to make this shift in their energy consumption habits?
E.ON chief executive Michael Lewis believes they are.
He told Sky News that “smart” consumers becoming an active part of the energy system is a critical part of its future.
“I think people are ready. They fully understand that we need to get off fossil fuels.
“We need to get to net zero and we need to get ourselves off these volatile international prices. And I think what Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has shown is how reliant we are on unstable political regimes.
“They know we need to take responsibility for our energy system and that means every individual taking responsibility for how we consume energy.”
But he warned that ditching fossil fuels will require a “huge national investment and a huge national effort”.
“Bear in mind we have to massively expand electricity generation, because not only are we replacing old fossil fuel generation, we’re also replacing all of the petroleum that goes into cars with electricity, and all of the gas that goes into heating with electricity.
“So we need much more renewable energy generation upstream and that’s both large scale generation like offshore wind, but also more embedded generation, like solar panels on every roof, and more electric vehicle chargers in homes and businesses.”
As well as increasing efforts to make homes more energy efficient, he said: “We have to look at storage.
“Batteries of course are great for short-term storage and as the electric vehicle fleet increases there’ll be more and more battery capacity embedded in the system, but we also need a long-term solution for seasonal storage.
“And that’s probably going to be hydrogen and we have to ramp up green hydrogen production to create that storage for when the wind isn’t blowing and when the sun isn’t shining.”
As part of its promise to decarbonise power generation in this country by 2035, the government has ambitious plans to ramp up battery storage and green hydrogen production, as well as increase wind power fivefold by the end of the decade.
But some industry experts worry that too much faith is being placed in technologies that, while rapidly advancing, are not yet at the necessary scale and affordability.
Heading for supply crisis in mid 2020s
Energy analyst from the Watt Logic consultancy, Kathryn Porter, says that the system has held up relatively well this winter, in part because warmer weather reduced the demand for gas, which provided just under 40% of our electricity generation last year.
But she is worried about what is to come, particularly about reliance on foreign electricity imports from European partners, especially France.
She said: “We’re running into a supply crisis in the middle of this decade.
“The reality is that this is the second time in five years that the French have taken large parts of their fleet offline for systemic problems, and so thinking that we can rely on old French reactors to get us out of trouble, I think is a little bit optimistic.
“We have legislation in place that requires all the coal power stations to close by October 2024.
“There are also two of our remaining nuclear power stations scheduled for closure in March 2024.
“So we have a situation where the winter after next, all of the spare capacity that we currently have… that will have gone.
“So we need to replace that. And the only realistic way of doing that is to build gas power stations. Now two years isn’t really long enough to do that.”
Click to subscribe to ClimateCast wherever you get your podcasts
A government spokesperson told Sky News: “Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine has shown it is now more important than ever that we boost the UK’s homegrown energy supply to strengthen domestic resilience and energy security now and into the future.”
They added that the British Energy Security Strategy will “supercharge” renewable energy and nuclear capacity, as well as support North Sea oil and gas.
Billions have also been invested up until 2028 to make buildings more energy efficient, they said.