A new research consortium, co-funded by the government, has been established to find new ways of ‘keeping the lights on’ and decarbonising energy supplies across the UK, as demand increases.

Sustainable energy specialist ENER-G, and major industry partners Advanced Digital Institute, Flexitricity, Smarter Grid Solutions and UK Power Networks, have secured £100k of match funding from the Technology Strategy Board, the government’s innovation agency, towards exploring the development of next generation Virtual Power Plants. This involves using clusters of combined heat and power (CHP) systems to bolster supply, particularly to meet peaks in demand.

The project will investigate the feasibility of using networks of small ENER-G CHP generators, which have the flexibility and high energy efficiency to provide reinforcement of supply to the local network. This Virtual Power Plant system requires complex software and a central control system to ensure that it reacts immediately to local supply and demand requirements.

By including a large number of smaller scale CHP generators and associated loads into a Virtual Power Plant, the aim is to achieve improved flexibility and greater load balancing potential to reduce stress on the network. The project aims to improve resilience, enable and incentivise low carbon and lower cost electricity production, and reduce the need for utility engineering projects.

The project will perform business and technical modelling based on data from UK Power Networks’ London electricity network, using real ENER-G CHP systems to relieve the peaks in demand.

It will address the twin challenges of increasing demand, such as the move to electric cars, the growth of cities and rising summer temperatures, together with the UK’s commitment to reducing carbon emissions – targeted to reduce by 34% by 2020. Addressing these challenges is forecast to save the UK £8bn by 2020.

The project will also address how to maximise the potential for distributed heat and cooling through CHP, examining district heating, heat stores and technologies such as absorption chillers.

CHP – the simultaneous generation of electricity and useful heat – is typically 90% efficient for on-site energy consumption and is around twice as efficient as conventional power generation, where the generated heat is wasted and further losses of approximately seven percent occur in transporting the electricity from remote power stations to end users.

ENER-G technical director Chris Marsland said, “This project will investigate the feasibility of using networks of CHP generators to complement and reduce the need for reinforcement of the electricity network. The benefits could include greater use of clean electricity supplies, reduced domestic heating costs and less need for electricity infrastructure investments. This will benefit the industry and consumers alike, while reducing carbon emissions.”

He added, “It is an honour to work with some of the UK’s key Smart Grid industry players in addressing the challenge of future energy supply. While shoring up electricity supplies, the project will also examine new solutions for low carbon, low cost heat distribution. This could incentivise the UK CHP industry to provide more CHPs in areas where current UK government incentives have fallen short.

“The consortium believes that their solution could make an important contribution to a lucrative global market for Virtual Power Plants that, according to Pike Research, could reach $12.7bn by 2015. There is tremendous potential to export the UK know how to the rest of Europe and beyond.”