Once we harness energy data, what will our world look like? – by Dr Richard Dobson

Published: 15 March 2019

Energy data has massive potential to transform many aspects of our lives. Issues which have been viewed as a weakness in the past – such as privacy, security and commercial risk – are now seen as a strength and innovators are getting more access to the data needed to create better outcomes for consumers.

With greater availability of and access to high quality energy data, the sector will be able to reap the rewards of AI and data science. There are scores of data scientists keen 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?

Data will enable us to build a more optimised energy system. The impact of this will be felt at all levels, contributing to the breakdown of whole system silos across electricity, heat and transport, as well as improving efficiency and performance in local energy systems and at the level of individual buildings.

It could 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 Energy Systems Catapult, who published a planning framework for local authorities, energy networks and other key local stakeholders to take the lead of planning for decarbonisation.

Data will also 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 prominent in the energy sector too. 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.

Consumer-centric energy

At a consumer level, data will enable innovators to help consumers identify inefficiencies at home and take action to reduce their impact on carbon emissions whilst prioritising comfort. ‘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.

Perhaps the most visible change that will be enabled through the greater availability of data is a transition to a more consumer-centric energy sector. Initially, the pain 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.

Energy as a service

The biggest change, however, will almost certainly be via 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, Energy Systems Catapult has begun consumer testing ‘Heat Plans’, where an ESP uses energy data to deliver room-by-room, hour-by-hour temperature control to its customers. In a first-of-its-kind trial, the Catapult built a ‘Living Lab’ of 100 real-world homes kitted out with smart home technology 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 thermodyamnic 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.

Using anomalies to 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 impending proliferation 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. Run by Energy Systems Catapult, its aim is 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.

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 and stimulate a wealth of innovation which can benefit people and energy businesses alike.

Dr Richard Dobson is Technical Collaboration Consultant at Energy Systems Catapult. Working in the Catapult’s Digital team, he is focused on realising the value of data within the energy sector.

This article was originally published on Energy Post.