Consumers are expected to play a considerable greater role in smart grid deployment and it is crucial to boost their awareness of this more active role. Smart grid is a great opportunity for all consumers, whose involvement in demand side management will significantly speed up the development of a smart grid market. The way the energy is used has to be revolutionised and, to actualize that, consumers need to understand what benefits they will achieve and how to change their behaviour to gain those benefits. All the players in the electricity system need to learn how to engage and effectively educate consumers, and improve their trust. We do not know the best way to make this happen yet, but we do know the highly negative impact of inadequate consumer engagement on future deployment plans. Thus, control solutions and automation systems for demand side management necessitate taking consumers into account, their preferences, their needs and uncertainty in their behaviour.

The next-generation electric grid needs to be smart and sustainable to deal with the explosive growth of global energy demand and achieve environmental goals. To effectively smarten the grid we need to rethink the roles and responsibilities of all players in the electricity system. This smartening is a progressive and revolutionary process (Figure 1). However different settings will be around the world and deployed at different rates, the use of information and communications technology to monitor and actively control generation and demand in near real-time is indisputably a common feature. Therefore, control and automation are essential for enabling consumers to actively support the grid.

Figure 1. Smarter electricity systems (source: IEA, 2011) [Click on image to view larger version]

The increased control over the network can enable a wider, more sophisticated range of smart methods and innovative schemes, such as demand response and smart energy management systems for buildings, to facilitate local management of demand and generation. Demand response includes both manual and automated consumer response, smart appliances and thermostats, which are able to respond to price signals, or carbon-based signals. These smart devices are connected to an energy management system or controlled directly by the utility or a system operator. Smart energy management systems for buildings need to incorporate the user into the design and thus be responsive to their occupants in order to improve their comfort and allow smart appliances and heating systems to be on the market and respond to price signals to help decreasing the electricity bills. The benefits for consumers can be diverse, e.g., reduction of the electricity bill, improving of living conditions, supporting a more environmentally friendly energy behaviour.

In particular, smart energy management systems are required to be able to:

  • respond to signals from the grid and take action on this basis (e.g., decreasing energy use when prices are high or automatically shifting consumption to times when prices are lower);
  • manage local generation facilities, such as solar panels, and fed back into the grid any energy
  • optimally schedule storage devices, which can be used to balance out the smart grid.

Those advanced and innovative energy management systems make buildings smart and we can claim that a smart grid cannot exist without smart buildings. Hence, there will be more and more active roles for consumers of different sizes to play in a smart grid, for instance:

  • Residential consumers can choose among different tariff schemes and optimally shift smart appliance demand away from peak times through smart meters and energy management systems;
  • Industrial and commercial consumers can participate in the energy market through
    a wide range of demand response schemes;
  • Generator owners can participate in demand response schemes and the market by supplying needed energy to the grid.

Novel control and automation systems are becoming quite widespread, although standardised solutions are still not available, which means that expensive tailored configuration are required. This clearly limits the engagement of consumers, in particular small-scale consumers. In addition to designing and deploying control and communication solutions more affordable to a wider range of consumers’ sizes, effective motivational factors must be explored and thoroughly examined (e.g., environmental concerns, better comfort, control over electricity bills). The risk here is that consumers who do not make the savings expected from their behavioural change might consider the whole experience disappointing and frustrating.

Accurate, systematic and methodical research and evaluation are still needed to identify the optimal methodology to understand better the interaction between consumers and energy market, as well as the effect of enabling technologies for smart grid deployment.

A persistent behavioural change is vital to effectively enable smart energy technology development. We still need an answer to the following questions:

  • Is there an optimal mix of behavioural change, consumer feedback and automation technologies?
  • How much customer education is required and what are the best approaches?
  • Which types of automated demand response schemes are most useful to different types of customers (residential, commercial, industrial)?

Research groups, along with industry and governments, need to design and test more consumer-focused control solutions that can foster large-scale consumer behaviour change.


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Article provided by:
Alessandra Parisio
School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering
The University of Manchestervice
IFAC Technical Committee 9.3 (Control for Smart Cities)