Last week we attended the Smart Energy Summit in Brussels. This year the focus was on prosumers and how a wider range of actors can make meaningful changes to our increasingly integrated energy system.
My key takeaway from the summit was the overwhelming sense to highlight the need for greater levels of system integration with active involvement from end users and within our energy system.
On this note, I believe it is important to highlight the context in which the term prosumer was used. There was a notable shift away from simply stating that prosumers operate in a closed system where one would generate and consume within their small, domestic system. Rather, prosumer was expanded to include commercial and industrial customers, larger residential complexes and to virtually trading generation over large, unbounded geographical areas. With the increase in digitisation and internet enabled platforms there is a growing landscape of prosuming across geographical regions. A person in the south of a country could be producing excess solar generation that is virtually shared with another person on the same platform in the north.
This idea of virtual trading was another key theme among presenters with talks from Glen Dimplex on enabling home participation, PowerPeers on local energy peer-to-peer trading and Siemens on smart building infrastructure. It is my opinion that these systems not only facilitate greater renewable energy integration and reduce the need for costly grid upgrades, but also increase the inclusivity on the grid. They begin to include those constrained due to where they live, the building infrastructure of their home, or budgetary constraints who would not traditional act as prosumers.
As part of the summit, Delta-EE director Jon Slowe was invited to facilitate a breakout session on community energy. The session focused on the idea of physical and virtual communities, the former being physical locations where generation and consumption are on the same site; the latter referring to energy communities that do not intend to match supply and generation within the same area. Rather, virtual communities share a common ideology or virtual network, with such communities ranging from a group of waste water treatment plants, to a group of like-minded households acting towards a common goal. Below are the discussion points from the session:
- Not all communities are driven to maximise economic value, rather non-economic values such as ownership, participation and location are important.
- Price signals for network congestion will help to provide the right price signals to community energy schemes. Should, for example, a new local energy system minimise its connection capacity with the rest of the grid? Or maximise it so it can maximise trade in services with the rest of the grid? Cost-reflective network pricing could help, although this raises equity issues if network costs aren’t socialised.
- Schemes will need service providers or organisations to support them and facilitate scheme development: in time, the market should respond to this demand – indeed, it already has in some cases. But in the short term, there could a role to play for policy makers and / or regulators to provide support to help such service providers to work with communities to develop this market more quickly than it otherwise would develop.
For me personally, this discussion draws attention to how we define community energy. SmartEn use the terms virtual and physical to categorise community energy. The Local Energy System Research Service here at Delta-EE uses a local energy typology with parameters focusing on ownerships models and levels of grid interconnectedness.
Traditionally, when one thinks of community it’s easy to see the quaint little village or the suburban estate. However, these definitions highlight the necessity to think of community energy on a spectrum - ranging from virtual to physical or off-grid to highly interconnected.
While the wide range of definitions is encouraging and necessary to develop the prosumer and community energy sectors, they create many as yet unanswered questions. Are all energy platforms that share a common ideology classed as community energy? Where do you draw line between community and a group of energy users sharing the same generation? Do you have to actively participate to be part of a community or is situation circumstances enough (being part of an islander energy network for example)? These are questions that form part of our ongoing research, and I welcome anyone’s thoughts and opinions.
Prosumers and community energy are establishing themselves across many European countries. While still small in compared to the overall energy sector, the SmartEn’s event in Brussels added more weight to my view – they’re set for lots of growth in the next years.