Octopus Energy urged its customers to consume more electricity over the bank holiday weekend, to help the grid cope with slumping demand.
Electricity demand has been down by up to a fifth across the UK since lockdown measures were implemented at the end of March to limit the spread of COVID-19. Consumption was projected to dive still further over the long weekend, matching the record low of 15GW hours seen during Easter weekend this year and well below the 18 to 19GW minimum levels seen during comparable weekends last year, according to National Grid Electricity System Operator (ESO).
Low demand and a surplus of supply from renewable resources, boosted by spring’s sunny, windy weather, pose a “significant operational risk” to the UK’s electricity system, making it more vulnerable to blackouts, National Grid said.
While the operator has assured the public that the energy supply is secure and that the engineers in its control room in Wokingham have experience handling any scenario, it has requested emergency powers to forcibly switch off wind and solar farms to ensure the grid isn’t swamped with excess energy.
Octopus Energy wanted to ensure renewable generators weren’t pulled offline and encouraged its customers to do their part by consuming power during periods of surplus. For the first time, the green supplier trialled paying households on fixed-rate tariffs to switch on their appliances on Sunday afternoon.
“This weekend, low demand for energy combined with lots of renewable energy means renewable sources might have to shut down,” Octopus said in a message to customers. “We’re running a special invitation-only trial to see if home customers can help.”
It sought 10,000 to 20,000 participants to use electricity between 2 pm and 3 pm on Sunday, as monitored by a smart meter. It intended to pay them between 2p and 5p per kilowatt-hour.
While Octopus has previously paid the 2,000 households subscribed to its Agile Octopus tariff to use power, including during a weekend in early April, this is the first time the offer has been extended to customers on fixed-rate tariffs.
Octopus co-founder Peter Miller said: “We’re trying to get a sense of whether everyday people on fixed tariffs have an interest in participating in helping balance the grid and being paid for it.”
Miller said the company’s experience with the Agile tariff has shown that customers don’t waste electricity when given an incentive to use it, but simply reschedule the energy-hungry tasks they would do anyway.
Dr Jeff Hardy, sustainable energy consultant at Imperial College London and an Octopus customer, told i he was planning to switch on his dishwasher and washing machine and bake bread during the window on Sunday.
“I’m not going to get paid much for this—maybe 50p,” he said. “But that’s not why I’m doing it. I’m doing it to give an indication to Octopus what people are prepared to do in response to a price signal.”
He explained that the intermittent nature of renewables means we all might be called on to adjust our energy consumption to balance a decarbonised grid in the future.
Octopus Energy recently became a unicorn—a startup valued over £1 billion—with a £300 million investment from Australian energy firm Origin.
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