In COVID-19 Britain it pays to run your washing machine on Sunday afternoon – POLITICO

Electrical demand is expected to drop by a fifth this summer in the U.K. | Frank Augstein/AFP via Getty Images

With surplus electricity putting pressure on the UK’s electrical grid, one utility is urging its customers to run appliances this weekend.

Coronavirus-related industrial slowdowns have seen electricity demand plummet throughout the world as grids struggle to handle the suddenly excessive supply of power.

In the U.K. — where electrical demand is expected to drop by a fifth this summer as shops and factories remain closed — there have been worries that the unused power could overwhelm the grid and cause blackouts. In response, operators are contemplating shutting down some renewable generation sources.

That’s going to be an even more pressing problem over the upcoming bank holiday weekend that marks the start of the summer season, when electricity consumption tends to drop.

In order to prevent grid instability, Octopus Energy, which buys power generated from renewables on the wholesale market, made its customers an usual offer this Friday — the company will pay people to use power.

“We will pay over 100,000 of our customers with smart meters to run the dishwasher, use their oven or watch TV this weekend,” Octopus CEO Greg Jackson told POLITICO. “If they were to charge an electric car, for instance, they’d make 35 pence and be able to travel 50 miles, which is great because traveling the same distance in a petrol car you’d pay about £6 to fuel up.”

The grid-based problems being experienced by the U.K. are likely to become increasingly common as power generation becomes greener.

Jackson explained that the first-of-its-kind scheme was seeking to find alternative ways to balance a sensitive power grid while also rewarding customers equipped with smart meters, which allows them to control their energy use. About 4 million smart meters have been installed in the U.K. and the goal is to have 85 percent of power customers equipped with them by 2024.

“With the smart meter technology we’re able to better manage power and empower customers to benefit from incentives available at specific hours, making the most of domestic household consumption at a moment when fewer factories and commercial surfaces are operating,” he said.

Jackson argued that if wind and solar farms were shut off due to power oversupply, that could end up spooking investors and harm future investments in Britain’s clean energy transition. “If we start wasting electrons, that transition will become more complicated.”

Julian Leslie, head of networks for the U.K.’s National Grid, said that the drop in demand caused by the pandemic had raised concerns about the stability of the grid.

While he said the electric power transmission network had “mechanisms in place to avoid emergency restrictions or system disturbances,” he added that customer-driven approaches like the one taken by Octopus could help soak up surplus power.

“As we roll out smart meters in the U.K., time of use tariffs that incentivize the use of low-carbon energy at off-peak hours could prove to be a useful tool if they’re used at a wide, predictable scale,” he said.

Depending on the success of the scheme, similar initiatives could be feasible in other energy markets that use smart meters, which would lead to a more efficient use of renewable power.

The grid-based problems being experienced by the U.K. are likely to become increasingly common as power generation becomes greener.

study published by Imperial College London and electric utility Drax on Thursday showed that during the first three months of the year renewable energy sources provided more electricity than fossil fuels. Those findings line up with National Grid data — Leslie said there has been no coal-generated power since April 10, something that hasn’t happened since the Industrial Revolution.

Leslie said that solar and wind penetration had contributed to a “mindset shift” in Britain, where he said that after decades considering coal as a base load for power output, renewables were now being considered the base source to be “topped up.”

“There’s no reason why we as a system operator need to buy coal, and it doesn’t look like we’ll need to until the winter, when demand will likely rise again,” he said.


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