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2022-11-10 11:43:22 By : Mr. Johnny Jin

As Britain continues to adopt low-carbon technologies as we push towards net zero, making the system smart enough, and flexible enough, to truly take advantage of this will be key.

That’s where smart transformers come in, allowing dynamic monitoring and control of network assets to accommodate more low-carbon technologies like electric vehicle (EV) chargers, solar panels and heat pumps.

In the latest in Current±’s Ask the Experts series, we talked to Dr. Irene Di Martino, CEO of Amp X about the company’s Smart Tx technology, its in-home digital energy management system Alice and its recent trial of the technology in the Energy Systems Catapult’s Living Lab.

Where did the idea for Amp X come from? What challenges was it developed to tackle?

Amp X was formed as a strategic response to the challenges of monitoring, controlling and optimally dispatching energy assets across different markets and segments of the grid, unlocking grid-edge flexibility at a large scale, accelerating the energy transition and enabling a fully transactive grid.

Leveraging artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities developed for the defence and aerospace sectors, Amp X’s digital platform monitors the health and performance of different assets, and uses proprietary algorithms to gain insights into system activity, from grid-level infrastructure to individual behind-the-meter appliances and electric vehicle chargers. The latent flexibility in those assets can then be provided to the system, sold into appropriate markets, therefore enabling new business models and revenue streams for different stakeholders across the grid (including consumers).

Could you tell me a little about your smart transformer?

The Smart Transformer, or “Smart Tx”, is a drop-in replacement for conventional transformers in the distribution network, addressing the grid-based challenges of the energy transition – such as voltage instability, frequency fluctuations, and lack of inertia – associated with the increased presence of distributed energy resources (DERs) at the edge of the grid, as well as the decarbonisation of the whole system through the decommissioning of readily dispatchable synchronous generators.

Historically, distribution network transformers have been passive assets, with no data-gathering and analytics capability. Smart Tx has on-board data gathering and processing capabilities, and offers Distribution Network Operators — including our highly-committed project partner, UK Power Networks — unprecedented levels of visibility of their networks.

Smart Tx is capable of providing dynamic voltage stabilisation and capacity optimisation of the distribution networks, maximising the penetration of distributed energy resources while improving grid stability and resilience within the distribution network. It can also optimise power factor, which will make the transport of electricity across the network more efficient and less costly and, when deployed as a fleet, can act in conjunction with other Smart Tx units to provide synthetic inertia into the system, hence helping it remain in balance.

How do you envision it sitting within the wider transition to low-carbon, smart, residential technology?

Trends such as the electrification of transport and heat, and the rapid proliferation of decentralised energy equipment like solar panels, wind generation, home battery storage and smart appliances mean that the number of assets connected to the system is increasing exponentially. However, the ability to monitor and coordinate the control of those assets has not developed as quickly.

If we can see what those assets are doing in real time, understand the impact they’re having on the grid, and control them based on market signals and grid conditions, then they represent a huge – currently untapped - resource for system operators in maintaining a secure, affordable and sustainable grid.

Smart Tx will be seeing its first deployment very soon on the UK Power Networks’ distribution network. Amp X has been working very closely with UK Power Networks since Amp X was founded three years ago, and this has enabled the Smart Tx technology to feature amongst one of UKPN’s Ofgem Network Innovation Allowance (NIA) programmes.

How big is the potential that demand side response offers?

Using technology, market incentives and transactive grids to incentivise consumers to shift their energy use away from high-cost, high-demand, high-carbon times of day has huge potential for cost savings, benefiting all the parties in the value chain. There have been plenty of studies into the possible benefits which have been estimated at around £8 billion a year by 2030, but currently less than 10% of monetisable flexibility in grid-edge assets is actually being used.

Network companies would have more tools at their disposal to manage constraints and voltage issues, and will also be able to use the enhanced visibility to maximise the use and efficiency of their existing infrastructure, enabling them to accelerate connections of distributed resources without the need for costly reinforcements.

The energy retail sector is currently seeing a huge amount of turmoil with all parties in the chain trying to pass the risk along so that it ends up being carried by the consumer, who has the least ability to manage that risk. Technology like ours gives retailers the ability to help their customers manage their price risks, which in turn also benefits the retailer. Companies that take a strategic view of customer care by offering this kind of solution will be the ones who win in the longer-term, rather than those who are looking to simply pass through costs.

How should digitalisation fit into this?

Our digital, grid-edge energy platform enables all forms of distributed generation and load to make a dynamic contribution in the energy markets, to provide increased system flexibility, resilience and stability at the lowest possible price.

The digitalisation of key elements of network infrastructure like transformers gives network operators unprecedented levels of visibility over the system, offering high-frequency insights into grid conditions and enabling them to anticipate and resolve grid issues like capacity, voltage and frequency fluctuations.

The granular visibility which digitalisation provides of sources of flexible and responsive assets means that grid operators have instant access to flexibility providers, offering them a cost-effective solution to grid congestion and instability.

Ultimately we envisage a transactive grid, enabling the active participation of each node in the energy marketplace where consumers/producers (‘prosumers’) can transact energy and flexibility within their distribution network, contributing to increased grid stability and the full decarbonisation of the system.

How do you empower the end-user to be part of the transition?

Consumer-centricity is at the core of our in-home digital energy management system, which we call Alice – the Agent for Lifestyle-based Intelligent Control of Energy. Alice harnesses the power of the Amp Digital Energy Platform in a user-friendly mobile-phone app, and has been designed to enable consumers to reduce the cost and carbon impact of their electricity, whilst accessing new revenue streams through provision of flexibility to the grid. Alice lets consumers take advantage of new cost-saving and revenue opportunities on offer without compromising their comfort, their choice and control over what happens in their home but – crucially – minimising the input and action required from them.

Through the Alice app, the user specifies their requirements to Alice, say for when they want the EV charged by, or when they want their tumble-drying to be ready. Alice then gathers data from a variety of external sources – electricity tariff, weather forecast, grid carbon intensity – and develops an optimised schedule to ensure that the user’s requirements are met using the lowest cost/carbon intensity electricity.

Over time, Alice builds up a data-rich picture of the household’s energy use and, through engaging with the user, refines the schedule to take account of observed or implicit behaviours as well as changes explicitly specified by the user.

As we move into a world with more dynamic half-hourly tariffs, Alice will be able to monetise the user’s latent flexibility – reducing household costs or even generating a revenue stream by selling flexibility to system operators, and ultimately leading to our vision of a transactive grid.

Could you tell me a little about your work with the Living Lab?

We deployed Alice in 60 homes in the Energy Systems Catapult’s Living Lab – a great facility where innovators like us can get open, honest feedback from independent householders on their experiences of using new technology products in “real world” conditions.

As well as wanting to understand how easy it was for users to integrate Alice into their homes and connect her up to their appliances, we were really interested in how willing they would be to allow her to undertake the scheduling of events in accordance with their instructions.

We created a proxy time-of-use tariff so that they could save money by allowing Alice to determine when activities took place, and we also simulated calls for flexibility from Distribution Network Operators with different notice periods to see how willing consumers would be to shift their load in return for payment (or free electricity in the case of a demand turn-up event).

Most of the flexibility opportunities offered to consumers involve day-ahead text messages requiring their action, but we simulated demand-response events through the app with short-notice – 20 to 60 minutes – to see what level of response we would get. We also simulated long-notice events – 12 to 16 hours – to assess the difference in response as a function of notice period.

The main highlights of the Living Lab trial are as follows:

1)33% of users responded to short-notice events, using or allowing Alice to reschedule the activity of their appliances.

2)75% of users responded to long-notice events, using or allowing Alice to reschedule the activity of their appliances.

3)Over the course of the six month deployment, Alice scheduled over 3,800 tasks for white goods and over 300 EV charges over three months.

4)Users adhered with Alice proposed scheduled tasks (i.e. without editing the parameters proposed by Alice) as follows:

5)On average users without EVs were able to save 26% on their bills against a flat tariff, and that rose to over 29% for EV users

6)Device-specific savings were as follows:

What was your biggest takeaway from this project? What are the biggest problems with accessing resident flexibility?

We found it hugely insightful, and also we were delighted that it validated all the hard work our teams had put into getting the technology up and running over the preceding two years. We had some great feedback from users – some of them didn’t want to give their Alice's back at the end of the trial and said that they would have continued using them even if there weren’t any financial savings.

One of the things we wanted to investigate was the “apathy effect” – how users will engage enthusiastically with a new piece of technology for a week or so but then lose interest – this is one of the issues with smart meters. Alice has been designed to work with that phenomenon – what we actually want is for users to begin to trust Alice to deliver all their requirements and not feel that she needs “supervision”. When they receive a notification from their phone that Alice has rescheduled an activity in order to save them money or reduce carbon, we wanted them to start ignoring it – and that was increasingly what happened over the course of the trial.

There are a few barriers to entering the market. Although plenty of government policy and regulatory strategies talk about the wish to have engaged consumers participating in the markets, this isn’t really followed up with any meaningful incentives.

Retailers own that relationship with end-consumers and would be best placed to create interest and demand for these services but obviously they will be preoccupied with the current crisis in the energy market. However, our technology provides a route to risk management for suppliers and consumers, enabling them both to reduce their exposure to peak prices and shift demand to lower-cost times of day, so we would like to think the more innovative companies will be keen to talk to us.

A number of Distribution Network Operators have highlighted the challenges with connecting distributed energy assets and managing the increased and dynamic demand profiles associated with them. We think there is a huge opportunity here for them to develop markets for response and flexibility from consumers.

Why is being technology agnostic so important?

Increased electrification of sectors like transport and heating means that consumers will have an increasing number of assets and appliances to manage, and a larger volume of electricity consumption to manage.

What they won’t want is an app on their phone for every appliance in the house – it’ll become too cumbersome to manage and we’ll end up with consumer apathy again. They simply won’t have the time or the inclination to manage these assets individually and manually, which means they won’t realise the level of savings they were promised.

BEIS has done some great work with the development of Publicly Available Specifications for energy smart appliances – we’d like to see appliance manufacturers open up their API to make it easier for technologies like ours to interact with them, so that consumers can gain the most benefit from the products. Interoperability of standards is a key requirement, in our view, to ultimately enable residential flexibility at a large scale.

Molly Lempriere is UK editor at Solar Media, responsible for its publications Solar Power Portal and Current±.

Ask the Experts Current± Asks the Experts amp x smart transformers energy systems catapult living lab machine learning ai

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