Low demand over the bank holiday could help get the public into the smart electricity system

National Grid ESO is quick to show how it reacts to changes in power demand – TV pickups after big sporting fixtures (then), or on a Thursday evenings when people put the kettle on after their regular applause for the NHS (now). Its predictive and reactive skills are impressive.

But why does this all go one way?

The SO is anticipating record low demand over the upcoming Bank Holiday weekend. Much like riding a bike extremely slowly, very low demand presents problems for the electricity system in avoiding wobbles, and it’s not impossible it could fall over. NGESO is preparing a range of potential stabilisers to keep itself upright, the choice of which is already the subject of much industry debate and will continue to be so.

The option that has not been taken up is to try to go faster: which in the case of the electricity system, means increasing demand. Not all the time: on a daily basis, demand varies in and out of peak hours. To help keep the system running faster, NGESO could ask domestic customers to run their most power-hungry appliances at a time that helps the system.  On the bank holiday, that’s likely to be early morning – which means a cup of early morning tea is the best thing you could do for the system.

NGESO could send out advice, as the weather forecasters do about pollen, on when users could most helpfully time dishwashers. Maybe no-one would respond, but as the NHS applause and ‘Mutual Aid’ has shown, most people are keen to ‘do their bit’.

To be clear there would be no direct financial benefit for most people who responded (although it could reduce overall system costs for everyone). And I’m not suggesting it would be a ‘get out of jail free’ and solve the problem. But it might ease the pressure  - and it’s a great opportunity to experiment: this is exactly the kind of response that will be fundamental in managing a renewables-heavy system in a decade.

What is more, it’s exactly the kind of situation that makes the argument for smart meters: ‘smart’ tariffs would offer free power at low demand periods and incentivise users to hike up their demand at that time. It’s a huge failing of the electricity industry and governance that we don’t have those financial levers available yet, but SmartEnergyGB could be using this as a real-world example of what we are aiming at.

In the past our electricity system was entirely managed ‘top down’. Enough supply was the issue and more plant was started up to meek peak needs. But demand has been progressively hollowed out by onsite generation like PV – well known to National Grid, but a process that has leapt forward by a decade because so much demand from business has disappeared. The system operator is learning a lot about how it can use the industry tools that are available to manage a low-demand high-renewables system.

Isn’t it time to get the public involved?