The energy system of the future: Project LEO trials so far

As you may know, the Low Carbon Hub is one of the project partners for Project LEO (Local Energy Oxfordshire) – one of the most ambitious, wide-ranging, innovative and holistic smart network trials ever conducted in the UK. The project is exploring how the UK’s energy system needs to change so that we can achieve zero carbon.

At the Low Carbon Hub we’re able to offer our existing portfolio of renewable energy installations to Project LEO to allow the trials to take place. But to make the most of the opportunity we also need to grow this portfolio and increase local renewable energy generation, storage, and flexible demand – all of which will be referred to generally as Decentralised Energy Resources (DER). We also want to get much more visibility of what is happening in the electricity network in real-time, which means gathering data.

Why do we need to increase DER and real-time visibility of the network?

As part of Project LEO we are developing a virtual power plant in Oxfordshire. To facilitate this we need to significantly increase the amount of renewable energy generation and other DER we have available to connect to it. This will enable us to rigorously test the system and demonstrate the potential that local energy has to decarbonise the energy system as a whole.

It might sound strange, but our electricity network is at once near full capacity and underutilised. It’s almost at full capacity for a few hours during the day – making it very expensive to connect new renewable generation or new demand to the network, for example EV charging points, heat pumps, new housing developments.

The edge of our electricity network (the cables most of businesses and all our houses are connected to) is the part we know the least about what is happening in real-time, despite being where most energy users are connected. This means that it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to see what the actual combined supply of renewable energy and demand patterns look like in a particular part of the network, or a particular neighbourhood – meaning we aren’t able to make the best possible use of the network.

With access to real-time data we will be able to learn how we can make the most of our existing infrastructure and where to deploy new assets, or even how best to adapt our energy use patterns for the best outcomes.

What is a virtual power plant?

To help solve the climate emergency, we need to change to a zero carbon energy system, which will be done in the following ways: 

  • Power up: increasing the availability of renewable energy
  • Power down: reducing the energy we need by improving efficiency
  • Decarbonise heat and transport: switching to renewable energy sources
  • Match supply and demand: using storage and flexibility so we have enough energy available at any time to meet needs.

Key to this new system will be the ability to know in real-time what energy is being generated or used in the network, so this information can be used to harmonise supply and demand. This already happens in the transmission network. We want to do it in the distribution network, or network edge, close to where demand takes place – by doing so we will be creating the conditions for more local generation and storage as well as investment in energy efficiency.

The virtual power plant enables us to do just this. Starting with our existing Low Carbon Hub generation installations we’ll then increase our generation capacity. In Oxfordshire (due to our geography) this means increasing solar generation, so we’re exploring opportunities for ground mount solar sites – the initial stages of which will be funded by our Community Energy Fund, which is open for new investment until 10 June 2020.

We’ll then add in batteries and heat pumps to provide flexible storage and demand to the system. Through this we will learn how to use raw data about the generation or energy needs of any part of the electricity network to optimise the whole system. This will help us make the most of local generation and make more efficient use of our existing energy infrastructure, so making room in the system for the electrification of heat and transport.

The Project LEO trials so far…

Some of the infrastructure that we need to be able to start the trials and develop the virtual power plant already exists as part of our Low Carbon Hub portfolio of renewable energy generation projects, meaning we’ve been able to complete three trials already:

  1. Exploring how much energy could be discharged from the Oxford Bus Company’s battery storage system (installed to harness the power from their solar panels and allow them to electrify their fleet) to the grid at peak times, managing demand.
  2. Testing whether we can vary the output of Sandford Hydro based on energy demand – speeding up and slowing down turbines, as well as holding water upstream from the Hydro to change the levels of the river.
  3. Exploring whether we can use thermal storage as a battery at the Sackler Library (the University of Oxford’s archaeology and the ancient world focused library), slowing down heaters to reduce demand and then ramping them back up, but at such a rate that the library users would not notice a difference to their heat.

These three trials are still underway, as we test and iterate the process based on the issues and outcomes which arise during the testing.

What happens next?

As we mentioned at the start of this post, to ensure these and future Project LEO trials are truly meaningful we need a sufficiently large amount of renewable generation that enables us to work at a larger scale and test the system rigorously– meaning that we need to grow our portfolio of DER, particularly renewable generation.

And we can’t do this without your help: we need investment to allow us to finance the construction of these installations. That’s why we’ve opened our Community Energy Fund to new investment, inviting you to support us in accelerating the transition to a zero carbon energy system, if you’re able to.

Invest today and help make it happen.

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