There’s an urban myth that the National Grid once crashed after everyone put their kettle on at the end of EastEnders.
It’s a funny story, especially as it’s partly true. The two minutes of advertising that follow popular TV programmes always prompt an increase in electrical demand – a phenomenon known as TV pick-up.
In the early 2000s an episode of EastEnders really would cause a pick-up of around 660MW.
And it still happens today when there are exceptional events like the Olympics, or the Royal Wedding in 2011 which caused a surge of 2,400 MW.
The pick-up occurs because electricity is provided to us through a network which has to be in balance.
Supply has to equal demand, and vice versa. When relative levels of supply and demand are unequal we start to see major problems – including huge costs.
We don’t think about this when we flick a light switch or put the kettle on. But if we can start thinking about it – or maybe get a programme to think about it for us – we’ll be able to save money and benefit the environment by reducing energy use.
This is what we’ve been working on. Alongside our partners at Adlink, we have developed a Building Management System (BMS) for Citylabs 1.0, part of Manchester Science Partnerships and Bruntwood’s St James building.
The BMS makes the buildings as energy efficient as possible – and in this blog post, I’m going to tell you how.
Understanding energy usage rates
The main thing we’ve been trying to achieve with this project is to understand the usage patterns of commercial buildings.
If we can understand when a building is at its most active, we can control energy consumption so that less is wasted.
One part of this involves managing the way the building interacts with the National Grid. If we understand usage rates properly, we can limit the amount of unnecessary energy the building takes from the grid.
Gaining a better understanding of the buildings across the Bruntwood and Manchester Science Partnerships portfolio will help us to understand and manage all commercial buildings. The solution we’ve tested in Manchester can be applied across the board – meaning we can make all buildings more energy efficient and cheaper to run.
Smart energy procurement
The workings of the National Grid are very complex. The basic idea is that electricity is more expensive when it there is greater demand.
The BMS is capable of working with the fluctuating demand in the market. When the electrical network is under stress, it will send a signal to the Siemens controller in both test-bed buildings.
The controller then sends a signal to all the devices in the building, telling them to turn up or down – whatever is needed to create equilibrium within the network.
This can mean drawing more or less power from The Grid, because there are times when the amount of electricity in the network is unexpectedly high. This can happen when it’s been an especially windy night, and the wind turbines have generated more power than anticipated. In this case it’s best to draw more energy out of the network, to balance it out.
And in reverse, on occasions when the turbines haven’t generated as much power as expected, devices will need to be turned down.
Buying and selling electricity from the grid in this way is known as smart energy procurement. It helps reduce the carbon footprints of the buildings by preventing the over-procurement and generation of electricity and supply of gas.
And there’s a bonus: the buildings can use their energy flexibility for revenue, by selling stored energy back to the marketplace when it’s needed.
A long road from concept to testing
The project started in July 2016. Our initial goal was to demonstrate that the BMS technology would be effective in a real-life setting, so that in future we can take it to market.
To that end we are currently completing a white paper that outlines the cost and benefits of the BMS. We’d then like to submit it to a university for an independent review.
We’ve faced some real challenges as we’ve moved from concept to testing.
First among these was ensuring that users of the buildings wouldn’t experience detrimental impacts, such as drastic temperature changes within the building.
Looking at it from the perspective of the building users was really useful. It showed us that our solution was far too developer focussed. We needed an accessible way to present the building information to the people who would be using it.
So now we’re developing a digitalisation tool that can interpret the building data and display it democratically as a model and visualisation graph.
We also had the issue of security to consider. We needed to ensure that we could send secure messages from the site of the building to the cloud.
Equally, we had to tackle some challenges when it came to production. The solution we developed needed to be scalable; this was tricky, since it meant we had to work with a range of different devices to ensure the BMS could interact with them all.
The future is energy-efficient
As the country grows, and as the international supply of energy becomes more uncertain, there will be an increasing demand on the network.
We will have more renewable energy resources to fall back on – but unfortunately, this will only add to the unpredictability of the market, since solar and wind power doesn’t always behave as expected.
This means we will have to find a cost effective way of managing our energy usage at times of unexpected high or low demand.
The answer lies in the Building Management System. When our buildings are capable of providing flexibility for the network, we’ll see a huge reduction in energy cost and waste. And as every building gets smarter, cities will get smarter too.