Predicting and managing energy use in a low-carbon future

If effectively harnessed, increased uptake of renewable generation, and the electrification of heating and transport, will form the bedrock of a low carbon future. Unfortunately, these technologies may have undesirable consequences for the electricity networks supplying our homes and businesses. The possible plethora of low carbon technologies, like electric vehicles, heat pumps and photovoltaics, will lead to increased pressure on the local electricity networks from larger and less predictable demands.

Stephen Haben and colleagues from the University of Oxford and colleagues from the University of Reading are working with the distribution network operator (DNO) Scottish and Southern Energy Power Distribution on the £30m Thames Valley Vision project. The aim is to develop sophisticated modelling techniques to help DNOs avoid expensive network reinforcement as the UK moves toward a low carbon economy. In other words, what are some of the smart alternatives to “keeping the lights on” without simply digging up the road and laying bigger cables?

With recent advanced monitoring infrastructures (such as smart meters) we can now start using mathematical and statistical techniques to better understand, anticipate and support local electricity networks. The team has been analysing smart meter data and employing clustering methods to better understand household energy usage and discover how many different types of behaviours exist. This is turn can lead to improvements in demand modelling, designing tariffs and other energy efficiency strategies (e.g. demand side response). The researchers found different types of behaviour with varying degrees of intra-day demand, seasonal variability and volatility. Each of these therefore has different types of possible strategies in terms of reducing energy and costs. An important discovery is that energy behavioural use has very weak links with the socio-demographics, tariffs or houses size. Hence to really understand your energy demand requires the monitoring of data available through smart meters.

Forecasts can help DNOs manage and plan the networks in many ways, in particular by anticipating extremes in demand (e.g. large amounts of local generation on a sunny day). The researchers have developed a range of point and probabilistic forecasts for a wide number of relevant applications. Long term, scenario forecasts are generated using agent based models to simulate the impact of low carbon technologies. Shorter term forecasts have been developed to estimate daily demands and thus create appropriate plans for the charging and discharging cycles of batteries, helping to reduce peak overloads. These algorithms have been successfully used in silico and will soon be deployed and tested on real storage devices on the network.

Most recently the team are working on understanding limits to their models when monitoring data is unavailable or sparse. This is desirable since acquiring data and installing monitoring equipment is expensive. Can households be accurately modelled with only limited access to monitored data? If so, how much monitoring is really necessary? They have found that local energy demand is very dependent on the number and proportion of commercial and domestic properties. Such insights will be used to device workable solutions so that a DNO can choose the most appropriate (i.e. least disruptive but most cost effective) solution for different network types. Whether, for example, that is installing batteries, introducing monitoring or investing in infrastructure upgrades.

In summary, the extra visibility of household level demand through higher resolution monitoring equipment has created new opportunities for better understanding energy behavioural usage and highlighted the need for novel analytics. Demand at the individual customer level is irregular and volatile in contrast to the high voltage demands that has traditionally been investigated and thus current methods may not be applicable.  The methods necessary to reduce energy demand and promote energy efficiency sit in many areas of applied mathematics, data science and statistics. This requires mathematicians to be at the forefront of designing and creating new methods and techniques for the future energy networks.

For more information see a list of publications and the Mathematics Matters article.