Monday 29 April 2013

An interesting piece in the Sunday Times today headlined “Grid to get switch to your fridge’ nearly caused me to choke on my coffee. It starts with the sentence, ‘Fridges, freezers and ovens could be automatically switched off in homes across the country as part of new plans to reduce energy consumption’ before going on to explain that proposals to the European parliament will ensure that appliances are fitted with remote switches that will enable them to be switched off remotely when ‘the UK’s generators struggle to meet demand for electricity’. David Davis, the Conservative MP apparently told the Mail on Sunday, ‘There is a Big Brother element to this and it shows the energy suppliers passing down their incompetence to the customers. They should be supplying energy as customers need it, not when they want to give it.’ So what is it all about and should we be worried?


Proposals to remotely control appliances to manage demand have been around for decades as part of so-called ‘smart grid’ initiatives. Managing demand to match supply is already practiced in industry and commerce through market mechanisms whereby consumers are paid to switch off load at times of peak demand – so called load management or demand response. Paying consumers to switch off load is cheaper overall for the system than increasing supply at times of peak demand and therefore benefits everyone. It also has an environmental benefit as units of power not used (‘saved’) don’t have any environmental impact whereas units generated by standby generators, or power stations on hot standby have a relatively high environmental impact. Through market mechanisms the benefits are shared between producer and consumer.


Fridges and freezers are thermal stores and can be switched off for short periods without any significant impact on the internal temperatures. In any future electricity market regime we need to see greater balance between the supply side (generation) and the demand side (energy efficiency and demand response) and ‘smart’ appliances that can be controlled remotely could play a significant role in this. At times of peak demand millions of fridges and freezers could be turned off for short periods (subject to internal temperature over-rides) without anyone noticing any effects or any food safety issues. The technology is relatively straight-forward, the rationale is clear – what is missing is an attractive business model that makes it stack up and attractive to consumers. The business model could be based on cheaper or even free appliances (subsidized by the demand response payments from the grid) or selling appliances with a cheque paid to the consumer every time demand response is triggered. Such business models would prove highly attractive and involve people in their energy system much more than at present.


The right business model requires the right regulations in place and this is why energy efficiency and demand side advocates are still working to ensure there are demand side mechanisms in the Electricity Market Reform (EMR). If the regulations are appropriate then new business models could appear.


So, is having a remote switch in your fridge or freezer really a sign of Big Brother on the horizon? Well it could be if there was no choice in when the switch was used or if the consumer does not share in the benefits but that seems highly unlikely. With the right regulation and the right business model it could prove to be a very popular business proposition.

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Dr Steven Fawkes

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