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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.

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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!