For the past two years Sustainability First has provided support for a major demand-side initiative, designed to encourage industrial and commercial (I&C) customers to understand more about the opportunities that their flexibility could unlock and how to set about it: whether to save money from active peak avoidance, or to earn potential new revenues if they can successfully offer services to the GB balancing or capacity markets. From time to time, business customers might be paid to export generation or to flex their power off-take to respond to the wider needs of the overall power system.

Power Responsive is a collaborative effort led by National Grid for I&C electricity customers to raise awareness, improve understanding and support development of sustainable markets for GB demand-side flexibility. The initiative is delivering a systematic work programme alongside active outreach to business customers, coordinated by a steering group whose main task is to get to grips with the major enablers and blockers for future demand-side market development:

The group is high-level but also has the experience to flag up potential problems and to anticipate developments, focusing on matters that risk stalling wider development of GB flexibility markets before these get the chance to grow, including potential issues of trust and reputation. The group draws from a mix of market actors - retailers, aggregators, brokers, networks, the system operator - together with I&C customer representatives, including distributed generators and storage operators, and Ofgem and BEIS. The group’s job is to take a strategic look out to 2025 at what demand-side success might look like – both for the market and for industry customers. The group does not shy away from difficult or complex topics. There is a strong focus on landing outcomes and on delivery.

One important output has been the Power Responsive annual report for 2016, just published, written for the group by Sustainability First. The report offers a good overview of the current patchwork that makes up the GB demand-side flexibility markets and a useful snap-shot of the current views of both market actors and I&C customers. There is also a good ‘state-of-the-market’ infographic.

But perhaps most important, the simple fact that a group was charged with looking right across the demand-side markets for I&C customers meant that it was possible to start a productive conversation about metrics needed for these markets:

And so, a main conclusion must be that it can be ‘good to talk’. A constructive start has been made for the I&C customer side. But strangely, and despite rapid developments on smart meters and the burgeoning home control market, there are no current plans for an equivalent cross-industry and consumer forum for small customer and household flexibility. Why not?

Sustainability First is convinced that it is time to join the dots at a high level for the household sector too. In our response to the recent BEIS smart energy call for evidence, we pointed out that there is an unmet and current need for a high-level standing group able to look at household flexibility and the GB household demand-side in the round. Current work on household and small-customer flexibility has an inevitable focus on detailed ‘process’, organised in separate work-streams. Of course this is necessary and important (half-hourly settlement, smart meter roll-out etc). But, there is a significant gap in looking across the board – including at wider outcomes, whether intended or unintended. The aim would be to ensure coherence and consistency of approach, early warning on unexpected outcomes, to improve consensus, and to achieve a degree of common understanding across the many different actors, interests and complexities.

This is not to suggest that development of a flexible household demand-side should not be market-led. Rather, that the complexity and scope for sub-optimal and / or unexpected outcomes is significant. The potential for reputational problems are major – even from just a handful of ill-judged or mis-sold products or schemes.

 Any such group would need strong BEIS and Ofgem involvement. Because its main focus would be households, including energy customers in vulnerable circumstances, it would need appropriate consumer representation, and this may need resourcing in some way.

Sustainability First’s initial ‘menu’ of topics – based on our current and former research – and where high-level thinking is needed over a sustained period includes the following:

Sustainability First’s long-standing experience on household ‘smart’ energy tells us that such a group would add up to more than a sum of its parts. It would help focus hard on the major barriers and could resolve problems in a collaborative way to ensure a better implementation / transition to household demand-side flexibility.

The pace of change for household energy customers is set to quicken. As household flexibility markets start to evolve and to grow, it is in everybody’s interests that customer outcomes are beneficial and positive. We look forward to the BEIS / Ofgem Smart Systems Plan due this spring. We hope that it will include a clear recognition that it is now ‘time to talk’.

Judith Ward
Director, Sustainability First