When can we retire ‘demand’ and ‘supply’?

Electricity and energy industry models are starting to diverge from the centrally dispatched model dominated by large generators, and demand side response – although often an opaque term to users – is becoming a familiar part of the landscape.

Initiatives like Laura Sandy’s Recosting Energy present a very busy future energy industry with local markets, peer to peer trading and a complete rethinking of the industry structure.

But one thing hasn’t changed: at the centre of new structures are ‘supply’ and ‘demand’.

This has always been a fundamental split in the industry. But as we move towards a world of active customers, energy service companies, distributed generation and local markets, is it time to move on from these categories?

Many energy users are already both exporting and importing, at different times. Even the biggest power generation sites may import sometimes. EDF Energy’s West Burton B has both a gas turbine and a battery on site, so it may import power to charge the battery when gas plant is out of service. And even the biggest customer sites may export power from time to time – and even make it part of their energy strategy and a revenue line.

In future, in a really effective industry, most sites will have a much more complex relationship than is conveyed by being on the ‘demand side’ or the ‘supply side’.

So I hope that one day  we can retire those two terms.

What’s the alternative? I’m open to suggestions, but we might just say sites are ‘importing’ or ‘exporting’ – with the understanding that it is something that applies just for the moment, and only until it makes sense to switch over for a while.

It is important to remember that language sets expectations.

‘Demand side response’ sounds exceptional and is still a difficult concept for non-specialists, which presents a barrier to participation. And when customers talk about their ‘electricity supplier’ how can flexibility appear to be anything except as a failure on the part of that ‘supplier’ – and prompt talk of rationing?

Changing the terminology also raises the opportunity to talk about activity, to focus on users, and to give site owners a sense of opportunity. For example, instead of certifying a building on static energy efficiency, buyers or new users should be able to understand the building’s ‘import v export’ options and its history of energy activity. Does it have PV, onsite power, export capacity? What value could arise from them?

Talking about exporters and importers would help take the industry focus off generators, which still have more weight than customers in an industry evolving out of a ‘predict and build’ model.

And it would mean we can retire the concept of demand side response. Not because the activity is not important, but instead recognising that we are all on the same side: one where whether you are importing or exporting is not a fixed state but simply what works best for you at the time.

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