Everyone in the energy sector is talking about big – and intelligent – data. But it’s still early days and the benefits from all that potential are yet to register. The goal is greater energy efficiency; in consumption but also in planning future infrastructure and services that are tailored to local – not just regional – needs. Smart meters are only the first step, says Dr Richard Dobson at Energy Systems Catapult. The end game is the emergence of energy service providers (ESP) focused on selling outcomes, not energy. The least-cost prototype “Living Lab”, operating in 100 homes across the UK, could provide an ESP template for the future.
Energy data has massive potential to transform many aspects of our lives, with developments in big data, open and shared data, data science, machine learning and AI enabling this transformation. Whilst there are still some risks surrounding cybersecurity, data privacy and data protection that need to be addressed, the greater availability of and access to high quality energy data will provide an opportunity for innovators to create new business models, products and services which enable better outcomes for consumers. There are highly-skilled data scientists able to apply their skills to our sector. By providing the fundamental resource of data, we can unleash a wealth of innovation which will create benefits right across the sector.
So, what could the future of energy look like?
Access to the right data at the right time can enable electricity supply and demand to be balanced within a local area, maximising the use of renewable energy, reducing the need for inefficient backup generation and helping to decarbonise the energy system. Local areas will also be able to plan their energy infrastructure more effectively, choosing solutions which deliver on the unique requirements of their community rather than a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. This opportunity was recently explored by us when we published a planning framework for local authorities, energy networks and other key local stakeholders to take the lead in planning for decarbonisation.
Data will allow organisations to improve the efficiency of their energy systems by using algorithms which conduct continuous ‘health checks’. These will allow operators to quickly identify and diagnose issues and act before consumers are affected. Proactive network maintenance and self-healing systems are commonplace in other sectors such as entertainment, telecoms and transport. Once the data is available, there’s no reason why they can’t be equally effective in the energy sector. In addition, organisations will be able to utilise this data to optimise the procurement, deployment and dispatch of generation facilities to reduce whole-life costs and deliver a greater level of flexibility to the emerging smart grid.
Perhaps the most profound change that will be enabled through the greater availability of data is a transition to a more consumer-centric energy sector. Initially, the challenge of finding the best energy tariff (including half hourly time of use tariffs) and switching supplier will be eased through auto-switching services powered by a more granular and timely view of their energy consumption.
Data will enable innovators to help consumers identify energy inefficiencies at home and take action to improve their comfort whilst reducing their impact on carbon emissions. ‘Connected home’ innovators are already moving in this direction, but with greater access to energy data and with the right consumer protections, this could be accelerated and the impact maximised.
One of the biggest changes, however, is likely to be the emergence of energy service providers (ESPs). ESPs will offer consumers the chance to buy the outcomes they want instead of units of energy which few people really understand. It will introduce consumers to a new range of propositions that they wouldn’t formerly expect from an energy company. For example, we began consumer testing ‘Heat Plans’, where an ESP uses energy data to deliver room-by-room, hour-by-hour temperature control to its customers.
The “Living Lab” prototype
In a first-of-its-kind trial, we built a ‘Living Lab’ of around 100 real-world homes kitted out with a variety of smart home technologies expected to become commonplace within the next decade. Drawing on more than four million data points per home per day, this has enabled us (and Bristol Energy, currently running their own trials in our Living Lab) to see not only what consumers say they want from their heating, but how they really use energy at home.
Heat Plans are calculated using the data from each consumer’s individual comfort profile, including data on the thermodynamic performance of their home and their temperature and scheduling preferences – leaving the ESP to work out the best way to deliver that comfort. This provides the customer with improved control over comfort and cost, while opening up a route to market for low carbon heating technology and incentivising the ESP to deliver that outcome at least cost and kWhs. To achieve this, the ESP may choose to invest in energy efficiency measures, install more efficient heat generation technologies, offer flexibility services to the network operators, or develop more advanced, integrated propositions such as linking distributed generation and storage.
Usage anomalies expose faults in real time – including your health!
This model is radically different to how we currently use energy and is only just becoming possible due to the increasing proliferation and availability of consumer energy data. The possibilities for improving people’s lives are vast. For instance, by spotting unusual energy usage patterns, it will become possible to flag potential health problems amongst residents – opening the door to non-invasive care propositions. Other added value services might include timely warnings about faulty equipment by identifying anomalies in energy consumption.
These ideas might seem far removed, but the game changing impact of energy data is now being taken seriously by key industry stakeholders, including government. Last year, the Department for Business, Innovation and Industrial Strategy, Ofgem and Innovate UK set up the Energy Data Taskforce. This taskforce, led by us, aims to develop a set of recommendations for how industry and the public sector can work together to facilitate greater competition, innovation and markets in the energy sector by improving the availability and transparency of data at all levels in the system.
Greater availability and access to data is set to revolutionise the sector. It has the potential to improve the lives of consumers, enable widespread system optimisation, accelerate our path to clean energy and stimulate a wealth of innovation which can benefit people and energy businesses alike.
Dr Richard Dobson is a Technical Collaboration Consultant at Energy Systems Catapult