Articles by lauradan

EngD student at the University of Reading Technologies for a Sustainable Built Environment Centre.

Working with Marks and Spencer and Matrix Control Solutions on issues surrounding energy use and remote control solutions to optimise it.

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!