photo credit: SandiaLabs via photopin cc

photo credit: SandiaLabs via photopin cc

When people hear the word research many will first think of universities. But there are many other organisations in the public and private sector that contribute to research and innovation. They present different environments and may operate in different ways. My PhD is taking place between two such worlds: one is here, the Energy Research Lab at the University of Reading and the other the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) in Teddington, South West London. Let’s see how these two compare.

As a university, Reading is an independent corporation with charitable status. Its charitable purpose is not only to deliver outstanding research, but also to provide an excellent standard in higher education. Funding stems from a variety of sources, with a significant chunk coming from the government, tuition fees and research grants; Reading also pursues some commercial activities such as research for the private sector.

NPL is the UK’s National Measurement Institute. It was set up and still exists to provide national standards in measurements which benefit the lives of people, businesses and the economy. In practical terms this can mean: delivering methods to accurately measure carbon emissions without which they can’t be traded; determining exact doses of ionising radiation for targeted radiotherapy; or calibrating meters to uniformly calculate electricity consumption.

NPL conducts research, delivering world-leading measurement solutions and working with a focus on applications and impact for industry, but nonetheless striving for scientific excellence. At the moment it is a ‘GOCO’ – Government Owned-Contractor Operated organisation, however, this model is subject to change as it has been decided that in future NPL will be involved in a strategic partnership between the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and one or more universities.

Government funding accounts for about 60% of its income and the rest is generated from other sources such as the EU and commercial activities.

One obvious physical difference lies in the facilities. The university campus is larger and has many more buildings needed to teach and accommodate its 16,000-strong student body. However, at NPL a much larger proportion is made up of state-of-the-art laboratories which are as diverse as the measurement and research activities, ranging from acoustics to optics and electromagnetics to name a few. Whilst Reading is one of many universities in the UK, NPL is unique as it is probably the only facility with purpose-built, specialised laboratories and equipment across such a wide range of fields.

Research is at the core of NPL’s activities and the drivers are applications relevant to the UK’s economy and quality of life. In contrast, at the university there is room to consider a wider set of research questions as long as they contribute to the advancement of science, even without an immediate real-world benefit. However, this difference is not clear-cut. Universities are also looking to secure industry-partnerships and deliver tangible research results. For research students like me and my colleagues in the Energy Research Lab commuting between both worlds opens up challenges and opportunities. We have to deliver on the demands of academic and commercial or applied research. But mastering this balancing act may develop a new species of entrepreneurial scientist with the ability to solve the problems that our ever more complex world is presenting.

Working in academic research means you are working at the forefront of new technology.  Here in the School of Systems Engineering, we have some exciting research being carried out in the field of smart grid technologies.  Our work with industry means that we are not just asking if it will work but what is practical to implement and under what timescale.  Academic and Industrial understanding of a topic can be quite different.

Companies need to know:

– What can be done with the equipment they already have?

– How much will new equipment cost?

– Will new equipment interrupt their production/service provision?

– Will new equipment integrate with old equipment and IT systems?

Sitting in between academia and industry, as all of us in the Energy Research Lab do allows us to bridge the gap to bring about technically feasible and industrially practical solutions to smart grid problems.   Over the coming months, all of the Energy Research Lab will be writing about their experiences sitting between academia and industry.

And here is part 1 – about working with Marks and Spencer on Demand Side Management.

Sitting in front of a spreadsheet of asset data is a bit different to setting off to test a piece of equipment in a store.  It doesn’t matter how many caveats you think you’ve covered, there’s bound to be something that just hasn’t been available to you before you head in.

Every store in the M&S estate is pretty different, in terms of size, location, building type, stock percentages, customer footfall, sales, peak times and many more.  Importantly and perhaps not so obvious is the difference in back of house equipment: fridges, freezers, air conditioning units, building management systems, lighting controls… the list goes on.   It’s no surprise then that every store faces different problems when it comes to cutting down their energy use and making the most of their equipment.

My work has been focusing on the use of standby diesel generators – the fact they are rarely used means that information on their running hours can be hard to come by making academic calculations tricky!  After 18 months of the project I managed to get to a maintenance test being run on a generator in London.  When accounting for time and cost of running generators, I had not considered that someone had to go round the store checking till monitors had been switched off!  Or that the generator may not be operating at full capacity.

It’s important then that my calculations reflect that things are different on the shop floor to how they look in an asset register.   One of the outputs of my work will be an estimate of how much standby generators could contribute to the future smart grid.  There’s no point providing an overestimate for anyone concerned.  There may be hundreds of generators across London in non domestic buildings but if none of them can be used due to a clean air initiative implemented by the Mayor’s office then it isn’t practical to assume that they will be part of a short term solution.

A lot of academic work looks to the future and work must be carried out to show what could be done if certain restrictions were lifted, or other constraints were removed somehow.  But when a company wants to know what it can do now, you have to be realistic in accordance with time, money, technology and other external constraints.   After all, you can’t jump straight to the future and we need intermediary steps to get there.  Working with industry certainly brings about a realistic look to how we get there.

Solutions can’t just be technically possible, they have to be practical for those concerned too.

photo credit: <a href=””>[ henning ]</a> via <a href=””>photopin</a> <a href=””>cc</a>




Have you ever thought about how when you use electricity might impact those people delivering it to you?

How about some other questions: do you remember waiting until after 6pm to make off-peak phonecalls?  How about paying for a cinema ticket in the day and being pleasantly surprised at the cost? The concept of ‘peak’ and ‘off peak’ governs so many of our goods and services.  Transport being the most obvious.  Commuters up and down the country are fully aware of the impact of travelling at peak times on their wallets, let alone their stress levels.  Moving away from prices that change throughout the day, seasonal ‘peak’ and ‘off peak’ is a well-known concept in the tourist industry, with low season prices for hotels and even flights.

There are many reasons why these pricing structures exist.  It may be a simple case of supply and demand.  It may be that low prices are implemented to encourage any clawback on expenditure such as staff and lighting when the demand is low.  It may be that providing a service at certain times of day simply costs more to those providing it – i.e more trains are required in the peak periods than the off peak.

But where does electricity sit in this concept?  Electricity costs more for the grid to provide at certain times of day.  In peak times, different power plants are used that may be less efficient or burn dirtier fuel and this means more money.  But domestic customers don’t see this reflected in their bills unless they are on a certain tariff like Economy 7.  This is different in the non-domestic sector.  Large companies are charged more at certain times of day – there are three different bands; red, amber and green.  This reflects how difficult it is, and how much it costs, to deliver electricity to their premises across the day.

So why isn’t this the case in houses up and down the country?  Why aren’t customers made to realise that boiling the kettle 10 minutes later might be cheaper and more environmentally friendly than right now.  Well, it’s partly due to the technology.  Larger customers have meters which measure data much more frequently than we do in the home – so it’s easier to determine when electricity is used.  But the new smart meter roll out means that by 2020 this should change.

In that case, it might not be long before we begin to engage with the costs of electricity on a time dependent basis.  ‘Time of Use’ (ToU) tariffs are an active area of academic research currently and while there have been problems with examples such as Economy 7 from a user perspective, if implemented correctly they could have a key role to play in integrating renewable energy into our grid system and reducing peak demand.   We might not all put on the kettle after the wedding in Eastenders or the penalty shoot out in the World Cup.  And we might think about when we put the washing on or cook the tea based on the price of electricity, just like we think of meeting our friends on the first off-peak train and try to avoid trips in the school holidays wherever humanly possible!

Electricity MeterAlthough the ‘smart grid’ means different things to different people, there is the general idea that it all means big change.  But the smart grid isn’t all about brand new technologies.  Managing and storing electricity from the intermittent renewables, our electric vehicles charging in the garage and our incredibly efficient appliances at the other end can just mean using what we already have in a better way.

Demand Side Management (DSM) is about managing intermittent supply with flexible demand but it sounds like something right out of a textbook – so what does it really mean?   It means that instead of making sure there is enough electricity in the system to meet your demand for kettles and fridges and phone chargers, in the future we will have to match the demand to the available supply.  That’s what DSM is all about.  It isn’t new and can be as simple as turning things off when the supply is low, when it is less windy for example.  But how simple is that, in practice?  Well, as many researchers will tell you, not very!  Being able to reduce demand on cue involves predictions of supply and demand in order to know when you need to drop demand – you can’t just ‘turn off the lights’.   So how else can we manage the levels of supply and demand?

Another aspect of DSM is to generate electricity and export it to the grid when supplies are low.  That’s where the humble diesel generator comes in.  They exist up and down the country as back up for companies in case of power cuts.  We have research being undertaken in the SEE ERL discussing the financial and technical benefits to using these generators in a more effective manner.  It can be as simple as moving pre-existing maintenance schedules to peak electricity consumption periods in the day which can help with network management and make the companies who own the generators money!   Generating more locally to the peaks in demand could assist in reducing transmission losses as well.

The principle of using what we have in a better way has to be a core principle of moving to a more sustainable society.   We can’t replace everything we have every time there is a new technological breakthrough.  You can’t knock down the 25million households in the UK because we have found a more energy efficient way to build them.  Instead we add insulation, advise residents on how to use them in the best, most ‘intelligent’ way possible.

The smart grid is about enabling consumers to use electricity more ‘intelligently’ – when there is enough supply available – as well as generating and transmitting it more ‘intelligently’ as well.  Consumers aren’t just in the home but in the commercial and industrial sectors too and here there is more scope to change electricity consumption patterns.  Some enablers may well be brand spanking new technologies but don’t underestimate the contribution of what we already have.  Let’s get teaching our old grid system some new tricks!

batteryMuch of our research within our lab has a focus on the low-voltage distribution network, the copper that runs through towns and cities across the UK and delivers energy into businesses and peoples homes. Along with other energy stakeholders talking about the use of energy storage, the distribution network operators (DNOs) are also considering how energy storage could be used to support the network at the street-level. DNOs are primarily concerned with keeping the lights on whilst avoiding exceeding operational constraints on voltage and current within their networks. If the volts vary, lights flicker; if the current gets too high, things start melting…

The impact that energy storage systems have on the voltage and current along a electricity feeder down a typical street is not immediately obvious and we have been running some simulations using an open source package OpenDSS to find out what might happen. In our relatively simple early tests, it appears that the location of the energy storage device has a big impact on the subsequent improvement of voltage and current along the feeder. For example, if you install a battery on a feeder and give it the simple instruction to charge in the middle of the night and discharge during the evening when everyone is at home cooking and watching TV with the lights on, then there is a pretty good chance you are going to reduce the peak energy that must be supplied from the grid to that feeder during that evening period –  it comes from the battery instead. Great. However, if what you are really worried about is whether the section of cable half-way down the feeder is going to fail because the houses connected just beyond that point have very high demand, then the battery ideally needs to go just beyond that point in the feeder… If you put it at the beginning of the feeder near the substation then you will reduce the power flow through the substation at peak time, but the same currents will still flow down the rest of the feeder to those houses with high demand and your high-risk section of cable will still see the same current and may fail.

Two things occur to me:

  1. In some contexts worrying about peak power through a LV substation, and increasing the associated headroom, is the right thing to do. However, from the point of view of the distribution network, and when primarily worried about voltage and current violations along a feeder, then (perhaps no surprise) it is important to think about the actual voltages and currents.
  2. The location of an energy storage system on a feeder, and in particular the location with respect to energy users with high demand or distributed generation, has a significant impact on the ability of that storage device to help the network.