Water and wastewater treatment is a really energy intensive process – power is one of our biggest operating costs – so we’re looking both inside and outside our business to see how we can work smarter. That means not just using less power and increasing our proportion of renewable energy, it means being flexible in the way we use that power. So, alongside installing 60 sites with renewable generation, including hydro, wind, solar and biogas fuelled CHP, and plans to generate one third of the energy we use ourselves by 2020, we’re increasing the amount of flexible demand we can offer to the National Grid.
The electricity market in the UK is shifting. Traditionally generation has been adjusted, minute by minute, to meet demand for power, with gas fired power stations kicking in whenever there was a surge in demand. As the UK moves towards intermittent renewable energy, we can no-longer generate power at the flick of a switch so the system has to become more flexible by balancing the equation the other way around: by adjusting demand to meet the power available.
Large energy users like water companies can identify which items of equipment are not time-sensitive in their operation. This equipment can then power up and power down within agreed parameters to provide a service to National Grid. We have lots of tanks and water storage so we can be flexible about precisely when we use our pumps.
By storing surplus energy for when it’s needed and by varying their energy demand in response to signals from the grid, organisations like ours are helping to make the energy system more stable and dynamic and can flex as renewable energy rises and falls. The National Infrastructure commission says this could translate into £8 billion of savings for bill-payers per year.
Demand-side response depends entirely on the actions of energy users, whether that’s an industrial manufacturer, a leisure centre or a retail store. Through demand-side response, we're becoming active participants in the energy system, rather than passive bill payers. The benefit for United Utilities is that we earn extra revenues in return. The benefit for the UK is that these changes in our own behaviour ripple out across the system, with the effect of improving and decarbonising the system as a whole.