Virtual power plants: 10 of the best demand response projects in the UK

As demand response continues to gain traction among sustainability professionals and energy managers alike, edie rounds up some of the biggest and best projects across the UK that are demonstrating the vast economic and environmental potential that this burgeoning technology has to offer.

As the Association for Decentralised Energy (ADE) recently reported, the UK loses £9.5bn worth of electricity due to wastage, inefficiency and transmission costs before the energy even reaches end-users.

Demand response, which remotely controls electricity use, is a cost-effective solution to this issue; cutting unnecessary energy consumption, utilising idle distributed generation capacity, and connecting decentralised energy storage systems to the grid.

By balancing peak electricity supply and demand curves by shifting consumption, demand response is reportedly already reducing almost half a billion tonnes of CO2 emissions each year, and has saved the UK from building 14 new power stations between 1980 and 2012. 

For business, demand response schemes also make energy bills substantially cheaper, with the potential UK-wide savings from deploying demand response estimated to be in the region of £8bn. By turning down demand instead of increasing supply, organisations could provide up to 16% of the UK’s peak electricity requirements.

So, where is demand response being most effectively utilised? How much energy is being saved, and what are the business benefits? Below, edie has rounded up 10 of the best demand response projects from across the country that have been undertaken over the past few years. Will your business be next? 

1) Oxford Brookes University

Oxford Brookes is one of the first educational establishments in the UK that has turned to demand response as a means of reducing energy usage in notoriously wasteful student accommodation.

A 10-year contract, signed with UK demand response aggregator Open Energi and energy saving control systems designer Prefect Controls, aims to roll out demand-response systems to 71 water tanks within the University and 300 on-campus heaters. The smart devices will adjust energy use in real-time to help balance electricity supply and demand while remaining detected by students and staff. 

The National Grid will be able to tap into 700kW of flexible demand from campus heaters alone, and more than 8MW in total during times of extra demand. That is energy equivalent to the output of one fully operational V164 turbine connected to the grid – the single largest serially produced wind turbine in the world. 

2) Hanson UK 

In March this year, construction company Hanson UK became an early adopter, partnering with Open Energi to pioneer the demand-response approach at 29 of the company’s quarries across the country. 

The technology will be used to periodically reduce the energy consumption of tanks and pumps used to dewater Hanson’s quarries, and provide sub-second metering data on equipment performance.

The demand response equipment will have no impact on Hanson’s equipment performance, rather than costing Hanson – they will of course be paid for taking this smarter approach to grid balancing. 

This project will deliver around 2MW of flexible capacity to the National Grid and supports the UK’s integration of more variable renewable energy power sources such as solar and wind.

3) Royal United Hospital Bath NHS Trust

In 2012, Royal United Hospital (RUH) in Bath decided to utilise the two 800kW standby diesel generators at the hospital to create demand response revenue. By providing occasional reserve energy to the National Grid from otherwise-unused equipment, the hospital is generating revenue of £40,000 per megawatt of energy supplied. 

The generators are switched on during periods agreed between the Hospital and Flexitricity, through a fully-automated control and monitoring system. Flexitricity provides extra payments to RUH Bath for power delivery to the National Grid during demand response events such as emergency situations when a power station fails, or if demand is unexpectedly high. 

Flexitricty also manages the generator testing regime, and holds responsibility for ensuring the generators can still provide standby functionality to the Hospital, freeing up staff for other NHS business. 

This scheme creates 1.2MW in distributed energy generation – enough to power the average UK residence for nine months

4) The Herald and Times Group 

As of last month, The Herald and Times Group, which publishes the Herald, Evening Times and Sunday Herald in Scotland, is allowing the National Grid to access its back up generation assets during peak demand times.

The five-year contract, as part of the UK Capacity Market and in partnership with Flexitricity, will see the running of the diesel generators handed over to Flexitricity’s control room in Edinburgh. The scheme ensures response during peaks in demand while simultaneously providing guarantees of backup capabilities to the publishers in the event of blackout. 

The generation capacity will earn the Herald and Times Group up to £250,000 over five years, with no impact on its ordinary day-to-day business. 

Speaking at the time of the announcement, Herald and Times Group print centre manager Stuart McLean said: “We had previously been unaware of demand response and hadn’t realised its merits in terms of generating new revenue for our business. Our backup generators… are now utilised as an energy asset, helping to support Scotland’s energy security through this essential service.”

5) Saint-Gobain 

Saint-Gobain, the UK-based construction material supplier, partnered with Smartest Energy in June to power down its factories during periods of increased demand strain on energy suppliers.  

Drawing energy from the grid during such periods can increase running costs by as much as 500% at each factory site, and in response Saint-Gobain has switched off machinery for a short period of time – between 4pm and 6pm – each work day. 

The manufacturer experienced an 11% fall in energy demand across its 20 sites in the UK and Ireland, and made a total saving of £165,000 – equivalent to a whole month’s energy costs. 

Saint-Gobain Glass’s engineering manager Michael Dickinson said: “As well as reducing our costs and helping maintain our competitiveness, it also ties in well with our aims as a company to minimise our environmental impact and contribute to the economic and social development of the communities we operate in.” 

6) Vivaqua 

Water treatment company Vivaqua entered into partnership with Restore in 2012 – the only demand-response aggregator that has contracts in the UK Capacity Market for the first wave of energy provision in 2018. 

By temporarily curtailing power demand from its upstream pumping stations, Vivaqua was able to reduce its energy use by up to 5MW during demand response events. This has reduced its carbon footprint by 4000 tonnes each year, and produced almost £50,000 in revenue for the business. 

The demand-reduction load is available within an impressive three minutes of the start of a demand response event, and has no effect on the water flow or pipeline pressure in Vivaqua’s facilities.

Pierre Granville, technical director at Vivaqua, said “Operators can fully concentrate on the core business, as the demand response process is entirely automated.”

7) Sainsbury’s/United Utilities/Aggregate Industries (the ‘Living Grid’)

In April this year, three of the UK’s corporate giants announced the foundation of the Living Grid ‘energy ecosystem’, which aims to use demand response to create 200MW of flexible power across the UK and recruit 20 organisations into the fold by 2020. 

Sainsbury’s, United Utilities, and Aggregate Industries themselves have the potential to provide up to 39MW of power, saving the country the energy equivalent of 30,000 pounds of coal. United Utilities alone is set to generate approximately £5m in income from demand response by 2020. 

Aggregate Industries expects to reduce its CO2 emissions by almost 50,000 tonnes over the next five years, equivalent to 390,000 individual journeys from London to Paris by plane. United Utilities will also be able to save 50MW of electricity – the same as the output of a conventional power station. 

8) Time Inc. UK

Time Inc. UK is Britain’s leading publisher of print and digital magazine content. The company recently partnered with KiWi Power to design a process which enables their plush London offices to reduce load and increase power available to the National Grid at peak hours with the push of a single button.

Equipment was brought in to reduce the demand of chillers and air handling units, while all heat pumps had their inverters adjusted from 50Hz to 30Hz. KiWi power also installed real-time smart meters which fed data back to its control room – allowing the configuration of three separate trials of demand response in order to find the optimum energy reduction strategy with the least disruption to staff. All this took place over the course of only three months. 

The Time Inc. UK offices managed to deliver more than 200kW of power in less than four minutes of demand reduction – substantially reducing its energy bill. 

9) European Marine Energy Centre 

Demand response frameworks also have the capability to directly encourage renewable energy. The European Marine Energy Centre, which partnered with Smartest Energy in 2010, is a standout example. 

The Centre, located at Orkney in Scotland, is working to develop renewable energy from wave and tidal power. It recently signed a power purchase agreement (PPA) with Smartest Energy which represents an agreement to buy all of the power generated by the site. 

The research centre can provide around 11MW of energy when all test berths are occupied. Overall, an 11MW output is equivalent to saving enough energy from National Grid production to power 3,125 average households. 

10) Rainbow Growers 

Rainbow Growers, a Dutch commercial horticulturalist, is now selling redundant generating capacity to the National Grid during peak demand hours through Flexitricity. 

The company’s Thanet Earth greenhouse complex in Kent has enough glass to cover nearly 80 football pitches, and holds one of the largest single-unit greenhouses in the UK. The greenhouse is powered by two large gas-fired combined head and power (CHP) generators – supplying heat and carbon dioxide to the capsicum pepper crop. 

The two units only operate when heat or CO2 is needed at the facility, meaning that just under half of this capacity is standing idle at any one time. These CHP units total approximately 5.4MW of electrical output, which is available to the grid when demand is high, in order to substitute for dirty and expensive auxiliary power plants which may have to be turned on otherwise.  

Distributed generators such as these maintain an energy efficient and secure alternative to ordinary grid energy suppliers.

Luke Nicholls & Cameron Joshi

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie