PV users help shine light on UK's future energy needs

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As part of its ongoing research, the U.K.’s largest smart grid project, the Customer-Led Network Revolution (CLNR), is conducting innovative smart grid trials with more than 400 PV customers taking part in an effort organizers hope will help pave the way towards a low carbon Britain.

The trials are part of a £54 million ($82.5 million, €63.3 million) collaboration between British Gas, Northern Powergrid, EA Technology and Durham University that is testing a number of innovative solutions to ensure Britain’s electricity networks are fit for the future and ready for mass uptake of low carbon technologies, such as solar PV, heat pumps and electric vehicles.

The CLNR is monitoring the electricity generation and consumption of solar PV users across North East England and Yorkshire. Durham University academics are studying data from homes and businesses to understand how much electricity PV produces, how much excess goes back into the network and whether this could be used more efficiently in homes, reducing local demand on electricity networks.

The results will signpost how to accommodate the widespread uptake of PV and other low carbon technologies (LCT), including heat pumps and electric vehicles.

"Solar power is an important part of our renewable energy mix," said CLNR communications manager Liz Sidebotham, adding that as more people install low carbon technologies, electricity networks not designed to deal with these technologies in high volumes face new challenges.

"Trial data will give us a better understanding of the U.K.’s future energy needs. Initial findings suggest that PV customers are typically more engaged and interested in their energy use than those without LCTs, and use more electricity during the day, during solar energy generation. This is interesting as they may consume less energy in the early evening, during peaks in electricity demand when networks are under most pressure," Sidebotham added.

U.K. electricity retails for approximately £0.13 per kWh (€0.15/kWh, $0.20/kWh); solar PV customers can sell their excess generation for nearly £0.05/kwh (€0.05, $0.07), making it economically sensible to use this "free" energy themselves, according to the CLNR.

The U.K.’s installed PV capacity reached 1 GW in 2012 following low carbon initiatives to encourage uptake, such as Feed-in Tariffs and the Green Deal. The CLNR suggests using more of this energy as it is generated would help alleviate the demand on local electricity networks.

"We are also trialing automatic load switching, whereby electricity generated by solar panels in the day is automatically used at home," Sidebotham added. "This could help move even more consumption into the day, reducing the early evening peak.

"Finding ways to manage peak demand is critical to accommodate high volumes of LCTs. We’re looking for the most practical, cost-effective solutions that give customers more choice over how they use and generate electricity and avoid the need for costly network reinforcement."

In May, the CLNR completed the first stage of its research into electricity consumption after establishing a series of on-going trials with 12,000 customers in Yorkshire and other areas across the North East.