Citizens as a source of flexibility

Citizens as a source of flexibility

In 2022 the FlexSys project partners performed research on what the views and preferences are of potential users with respect to future flexibility services. Two surveys were conducted; one amongst the cooperative members of Energent and Ecopower, a second survey was sent to a random sample of the general population. The results show a solid base for flexibility from the end-user perspective. In this article we highlight the main findings of these surveys, for more details this document can be consulted.

The survey results underline that people are interested in flexibility services and are willing to give control of their assets to a third party. The main drivers are the contribution to the environment, enhancing energy independence and the contribution towards stability of the grid. Of minor importance but still relevant is the level of monetary compensation. On average, respondents of the general population survey – who are not member of an energy cooperative – attribute a bigger importance to this compensation than the respondents of the cooperative members survey.

Flexibility programs contain interventions where assets such as heat pumps, electric vehicles, electric boilers and battery systems are controlled in households. In some cases, these interventions will impact comfort levels in households. In the surveys it is proven that end users demand higher compensations for interventions with bigger impacts.

A next step in the FlexSys project will be to evaluate whether the monetary compensations used in the survey are mutually beneficial for the end-users as well as the providers of the flexibility service.

Within the FlexSys project, a field experiment is rolled out in Ghent. Preliminary results of this pilot indicate that the durations and boundary conditions of interventions will also influence the energy capacity of flexibility. For example, the type of building (new vs retrofitted) appears to have a significant influence on the pace of temperature drops in case of heat pump interventions. When this field experiment is completed in 2024, further insights will be derived and published.

Policy recommendations for the uptake of distributed flexibility

The FlexSys project identified 3 types of barriers that impede the uptake of residential flexibility – technological, regulatory and economic barriers – and provide recommendations on how these barriers can be overcome. In this blog article we list them up briefly. The in depth analysis behind this research is available in this document.

The technological barriers encountered range from technical compliance to the ownership of data. For small assets for example, it seems to be a big challenge to meet the numerous technological requirements (real time data communication, prequalification procedures). We therefore recommend an increase in scalability and a simplification of data communication requirements. Next, we highly encourage the government to optimally inform the end-customer about the possible advantages of the digital meter for a household – however the end-customer first needs to activate the correct regime (SMR3) to enable energy sharing, peer-to-peer sales, dynamic price contracts and asset steering. In addition, the market for measuring and metering activities should be more open and protocols to connect to the digital meter should be standardized. To conclude on the technological barriers, attention goes to the current situation where the end consumer or owner of flexible assets do not have ownership of their data but the manufacturer of their assets (batteries, electrical vehicles, …) has. This is not in line with European directives that state that these data should be made available to the consumer without any costs. Moreover, it is advised to make relevant, non-private data publicly available to increase market and data transparency.

In the category of regulatory barriers, recommendations vary from more clarity on the framework for the transfer of energy on the low voltage grid to guarding free market competition.

A first barrier is the absence of a specific framework for the transfer of energy on the low voltage grid. The recommendation to the government therefore implies in developing one and to incorporate at the same time more clarity on tariff structures and responsibilities of all parties involved. A second barrier describes the position of certain grid operating parties that gained throughout the years too much decision power. A solution here lies in a more close follow up by the Flemish government, participation in relevant working groups and the organization of more cross-sectoral consultations from both the electricity and gas sector to support democratic decision making. Thirdly, looking at free market competition, guarding of official roles in the energy system and its corresponding mandates, rights and responsibilities seems vital to maintain the separation between the natural monopoly of grid operators and the market based activities. For example, there is no clear reason why submetering should be a regulated activity carried out by the grid operators, nor should behind the meter services be. Energy companies big and small already provide solutions for submetering, however it is stipulated as a regulated activity that needs to be carried out by grid operators.

The third type of barriers – economic barriers – handles which improvements that could be implemented in the current tariff structure for households in the retail market. The dynamic tariffs for instance, following the day ahead prices on the electricity market, are needed to create the price signals for flexibility valorization. However, only the largest suppliers are obliged to offer this type of contract, limiting many households in their choice. In addition, many households would not trust dynamic pricing, on the one hand because of the current energy crisis and the fear to be exposed to high price volatility, on the other hand because of miscommunication and lack of showcasing the advantages in marketing campaigns. It is therefore advised to the federal and Flemish regulators to consider the implementation of secondary EAN’s on which a second energy contract can be closed. This could help to increase the popularity of dynamic tariffs because households could spread risks and assign dynamic tariffs to the flexible assets. Secondly, emerging congestion problems are to be avoided in the future. The capacity tariff is one way to deal with these problems. Yet, flexibility provision can lead to injection or offtake peaks, which could be punished in the system of capacity tariffs. Especially owners of heat pumps and electric vehicles, technologies which are perceived to support and accelerate the energy transition, will be confronted with higher costs. This can be countered by making the grid costs more cost reflective as to moments in which congestion might occur. A potential way for federal and Flemish governments of doing so is the introduction of dynamic grid tariffs for offtake as well as injection. Thirdly, when preserving stability of the grid’s frequency by responding automatically, offsetting frequency deviations and stabilizing frequency at a stationary value (Frequency Containment Reserves) with home batteries or electrical vehicles, there are double grid tariffs and levies, i.e. on both offtake and injection, which could jeopardize the business case. This should be evaluated in the tariff structure design. As a last economic barrier, we draw attention to the challenge of fast and costless aggregator/flexibility service provider switches. Currently, contract cancellations by the client need to be processed within 3 weeks after request and after 1/1/2026 even within 24 hours. Moreover, it is not allowed to charge any costs for early contract cancellation. Although such regulation is likely to support competition and increase consumer interests in these services, it also makes it challenging to create a viable business case for explicit residential flexibility, especially because explicit flexibility requires the installation of specific hardware that enables asset steering. This hardware is costly to install and sometimes customized to communicate with specific asset types and brands. As such, it doesn’t allow for frequent contract changes. When designing the new retail market for flexibility, this challenge certainly should be taken into account as well.

FlexSys project preparing for practical testing

The FlexSys project is preparing for the practical testing of flexibility at household level. We are currently installing COFY-boxes that will make it possible to control different kinds of assets and use them as a flexible consumer. In this article, Nicolas Van Damme explains the composition of the site and the tests that will be performed.

Nicolas Van Damme is project manager at Energent – a cooperative founded in 2013 in Ghent and active in the fields of renewable energy projects, energy efficiency and energy services. Nicolas coordinates the FlexSys pilot site and organises the deployment of the COFY-boxes and other pieces of hardware in the houses of the participating end-users.

The FlexSys project is focusing on the possibility of flexibility on the end-user level, therefore a testing site is organised. How does the FlexSys pilot site looks like?

The FlexSys pilot site consists of 50 households with different types of assets. Each participant has solar panels on the roof in combination with a specific asset. We will mainly focus on battery systems and (hybrid) heat pumps, but also electric vehicles and immersion heaters for domestic hot water will be tested. Most of the homes are located in Ghent and the surrounding area and are typically single-family houses.

What are the specific tools that are being tested and what are they aimed for?

We mainly focus on the integration of different types of assets in the COFY-box environment. To make this possible, a variety of tools were needed. Some of them were simply available on the existing market, but some tools have been developed by the technical team behind the COFY-box, in which some of the partners in this project (EnergieID, University of Ghent, …) contributed. With these tools it is possible to monitor the (general) consumption of the household and the injection, the production of solar energy. In addition and even more interesting for the FlexSys project, it will be possible to control assets, such as a heat pump, and adjust the household consumption, depending on the situation on the electricity market. If these different households can be aggregated, there will be enough power to use as ancillary services.

Which type of test-users were selected?

Within the test site we focussed on battery-systems and heat pumps in combination with solar power, because of their possibility to be controlled and their power-use. These are the two most important criteria in testing the possibility for flexibility in small households: having enough power to work with and be able to control this power in a logic and safe way.

How much commitment does the testing require from a test-user?

First, the different hard- and software has to be installed in the people’s houses. Together with this installation, we will teach the participants how the system works and how they can monitor their own data. Specific tests will be organised in their houses and of course we will ask for feedback, because the willingness and the motivation of the end-user will be the key role in this project. Logically, in the end it is the goal that the end-users do not notice too much of the flexibility-testing, but in some case it could have an impact on their daily life.

Once the testing and demonstration phase is completed, what will happen with the results?

The final goal of this project is to propose a model to bring residential flexibility to the market and make it economical interesting for all of the stakeholder: end-users, suppliers and the community. The results of the FlexSys pilot site will show if this aggregation is technical feasible and how the participating end-users have experienced the different interventions. Together with the result of the surveys we will conduct together with Ecopower and the University of Ghent for the FlexSys project, we can extrapolate this to the community and conclude if there is a support base from the citizens. 

What is the main added value of participation in this project for citizen energy cooperatives?

As an energy cooperative, we can learn a lot by participating in projects like these. It’s interesting to know if we, as cooperative, can play a role in the selection, motivation and aggregation of participants in flexibility projects. And by doing so helping the energy transition. FlexSys aims to develop advanced technology solutions and motivate end-users in the energy transition. I strongly believe that the connection with the local cooperative members is an important aspect. It makes it easier to carry out such tests in the field and to get direct feedback from the participants. The cooperatives have a good understanding of what is going on at the local level, which is interesting to take into account in these projects.

Update October 2021

The FlexSys project has had its successful kick-off meeting, and a physical one nonetheless! The project planning, goals and deliverables were refreshed and presented to the FOD Economie. The coming months are a start-up phase, where staff will be allocated and internal planning drafted. The advisory board will be assembled as well. By the end of the year, the project will be steaming ahead.

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