Renewable energy generation is being rolled out across Europe at unprecedented rates as the shift to green energy gathers momentum. But what happens when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining? Sim4Blocks, a project funded by the EC’s Horizon 2020 funding programme, is aiming to increase the flexibility of the grid to accommodate the unpredictable nature of renewables by testing out innovative systems for demand response — when consumers adjust electricity use to match what is available.

The Renewable Energy Directive requires the EU to fulfil at least 20 per cent of its total energy needs with renewables by 2020. However, this doesn’t just entail the building of wind and solar farms. The unpredictable output that comes from solar and wind energy means that the electricity ecosystem needs to become more flexible.

 Why is flexibility needed?

 Electricity grids must always maintain a stable frequency (50Hz in Europe), which is done by matching the supply and demand of electricity. This used to be a simple task when electricity was produced from sources such as fossil fuels and nuclear power, as output could be easily controlled to meet levels of demand, allowing frequency to be maintained.

However, recent years have seen renewable energy become an increasingly large component in the power supply, and the intermittent nature of renewable energy sources makes it more difficult to maintain a stable frequency. In worst-case scenarios this can lead to either power outages or having to wastefully shut down generation from renewables.

Demand response – use power when the wind is blowing

This decreased ability to regulate the frequency of the grid from the supply side means that new methods are needed. One way of doing this is to create systems that encourage consumers to match their demand with supply rather than matching supply with demand. This is known as demand response – when consumers adjust their use of electricity to match what is available at the time. Typically this involves shifting electricity use from times with little renewable electricity production in the grid to times when there is more i.e. use power when the wind is blowing. Consumers thus play a more active role in the operation of the electricity grid.

Demand response reduces the need to temporarily shut down generation from renewable sources (wind turbines or photovoltaics) and complements the generating capacity of peak load power plants that are used to meet demand during peak hours.

Sim4Blocks is a four-year project funded by the EC’s Horizon 2020 programme that will develop innovative demand response services for residential and commercial applications. The project will combine decentralised energy management technology at the blocks-of-buildings-scale to enable demand response. The project, which consists of a consortium of 17 partners from across Europe, began on April 1st 2016 and will run for four years.

The demand response systems and services will be applied to three pilot sites in Germany, Spain and Switzerland, and tested together with interfaces to ensure that they are intuitive to use. The pilot sites are blocks of highly energy-efficient buildings with diverse energy systems and, most importantly, the infrastructure necessary for testing demand response strategies.

Overall, Sim4Blocks will help to increase energy flexibility in the electricity grid in order to accommodate the fluctuating renewable energy sources that are so important for the decarbonisation of the power sector. It will also encourage better user engagement and awareness in energy use at home, and hopefully introduce cost savings for consumers as well.