Behind the Meter Billing at Trent Basin

Informing residents about their energy consumption to drive behaviour change.

Last updated: 9th May 2021

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Innovation Lead: Professor Mark Gillott, University of Nottingham (ABC-RP)

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Summary

Behind the Meter Billing is a dynamic living lab, collecting data about active buildings at a community level to show how they can have far reaching benefits for households and for the grid. It builds on the Energy Research Accelerator and Innovate UK-funded Project SCENe (Sustainable Community Energy Networks), an existing active building housing development in Trent Basin. A team from University of Nottingham and SmartKlub set themselves up as an Energy Service Company, essentially taking over regulation of the energy supply from Ofgem. The project sought to streamline energy bills for residents. They made energy usage more visible to see if it could create positive energy behaviour and help people better manage how and when they use their energy supply and what they pay for it. This rich, real-time data also gives Ofgem insights into billing mechanisms and how community systems can help smooth out demand peaks for the grid, helping make energy more affordable for all.

Innovation type: Digital, Energy
Organisation type: Innovative SME, Research centre

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Project pioneers

Professor Mark Gillott leads the Buildings, Energy and Environment Group at the University of Nottingham (UoN), one of the foremost research teams in the UK concerned with delivering innovative low energy and low carbon homes and developments. He has been pioneering sustainable building design for over two decades, primarily through the Creative Energy Homes (CEH) a sustainable housing development on the UoN campus to test energy efficient and energy-generating technologies in real life settings.

The problem

Active buildings that use renewable energy sources represent a huge opportunity for communities, households and the grid as a whole to make energy supply cheaper and more sustainable. And yet the adoption of active buildings has been slow because there isn't yet enough data to show how active buildings at a community and household level can integrate with the grid to the benefit of all. There is also not enough real-world evidence on how improved energy cost signals (data that shows how and when energy is being used) could help trigger positive changes in behaviour so people engage more with their energy supply and manage, respond to or adapt their energy use.

Vision

By taking over the energy regulation of the Trent Basin housing development and live testing supply scenarios and active building technologies, SmartKlub and the University of Nottingham will have valuable data and insights about how renewable energy systems can create more affordable and more sustainable energy supplies at a community, household and national level. Greater visibility of energy signals - when energy is used, how much is consumed and what you are paying for it - has the potential to improve energy behaviours so energy use is more affordable for people's wallets and more efficient for the planet. When this is dialled up at a community level and national grid level, the benefits are even greater. Ofgem will be able to use the data to see how community systems can improve peak demands and the insights will create greater confidence in a subsidy-free community energy business model for local developers and local authorities.

Key Insight

The Creative Energy Homes (CEH) living lab at University of Nottingham had already demonstrated the potential for active and zero carbon technologies in homes. Building on this research, University of Nottingham and SmartKlub wanted to accelerate and scale adoption of renewable energy supplies and active buildings within community developments. They put forward a successful application for an Ofgem derogation to set themselves up as an Energy Service Company (ESCO) called Trent Basin ESCO ltd. This would allow them to test and trial different energy supply scenarios - something they wouldn't be able to do under an Ofgem regulated supply.

First step

The Transforming Construction Challenge connected the team with the Active Building Centre Research Programme and, together, they kicked off the Behind the Meter Billing experiment in October 2020. It's goal? To improve energy management at a household and at a community level through greater visibility of energy signals. They wanted greater flexibility of household energy systems so residents can optimise energy use. 24 households volunteered to take part and the project started to test how signals around energy price and supply could change behaviour, and compare the impact of different supply scenarios at a household and community level.

Barrier

Community energy systems have huge potential to reduce carbon emissions, but adoption has been slow in the absence of real-world data. This lack of certainty in the business model means housing developers are unsure of the return on investment, despite consumer demand for more sustainable housing and energy systems. Live trials like Behind the Meter Billing will provide valuable real-world evidence for the value of community energy systems to the national grid, and in a way that could encourage developers to adopt them at scale.

Digital Innovation

A key element of the Behind The Meter Billing project is to improve the ways occupants benefit from community energy assets. To flatten the curve of energy waste, Behind the Meter Billing encourages communities to take a data driven approach to their energy consumption. Solar electricity generation, electrical battery storage, and a planned thermal energy store can be managed using a digital platform and data to learn how the community and wider networks operate. As the community grows, the battery will then be used to match predicted demand and PV generation.

The team is testing four different energy scenarios for households that will go beyond the current-state-of-the-art of firm frequency response to the grid. The battery will then arbitrage between the firm frequency response operation, meeting private-wire demand and managing its own capacity to accommodate onsite generation.

The flexibility the community system creates is of increasing value as society transitions to an all electric future, creating the revenue to finance the community's energy assets.

Many energy projects rely on emulation software to simulate energy usage so teams can retrospectively analyse what might have happened to supply and demand trends. This project's success lay in its ability to test new digital technologies in real life settings and draw on live data capture.

The University of Nottingham provides the technical expertise and SmartKlub the operational experience. The ESCO is consolidating all the various supply options so the household only has to deal with one bill and one point of contact, testing both the business models needed to deliver such a service as well as demonstrating how an ESCO can interact with a licensed energy supplier and provide a quality service to consumers.

The University of Nottingham, as part of the Active Building Centre Research Programme, is evaluating and optimising energy flows using price signals and consumer activities and understanding how this impacts on consumption.

By bringing together various energy sources, including grid and on-site renewables and batteries, the team can tweak the supply and bill to each household engaged in the study and test a number of scenarios - from the standard setup of occupants only being supplied by grid tariffs and billed using flat rate or variable time-of-use (ToU) tariffs; to being billed for a blend of in-house and grid energy supply; right through to the occupant being supplied entirely by the community energy centre and essentially off-grid, and being billed by a half-hourly tariff fully broken down by energy source.

SmartKlub is consolidating the various supply options so the household only has to deal with one bill and one point of contact. This testing will show how an ESCO can interact with a licensed energy supplier and provide a quality service as well as comprehensive billing.

The team is collecting a whole host of data from the households and community assets to create a digital twin of the development. Data is captured about individual circuit energy and power usage; sensors record occupancy temperature, relative humidity, and CO2; and an onsite weather station records variations in the external environment.

The team has also experimented with different technologies such as voice-activated environment controls using Amazon Echo's Alexa technology, that will help occupants interact more with their own and communal energy assets, and make more informed choices about their usage. All the data is anonymised during collection but still provides property-level analysis and gives a more holistic view of the wider factors that may be impacting on energy consumption.

Whole life innovation

The whole premise of the experiment is to deliver long-term sustainability and whole-life value. Data from homes, combined with the interactive digital twin of the community, will help predict potential consumption and generate energy scenarios and allows households to learn from and interact with the community energy data to improve their awareness of the local energy systems. The ESCO supplies fully-transparent bills, either via a website, app or paper versions if they want them, and households receive a personalised monthly energy reports from the University of Nottingham research team which provides:

  • information on how the community assets performed (import, export, generation, efficiencies, carbon footprint, weather data)
  • comparisons about how their consumption sits within the community (how much other houses consumed, what the average was)
  • a breakdown of their own energy and power usage (per circuit, per day)
  • other in-home data (occupancy, temperature, humidity, CO2)

This feedback around their energy use, and comparing it to neighbours, helps people know where they are amongst their peers and helps them use energy at times of local renewable generation. The University of Nottingham, supported by the Active Building Centre Research Programme, is also running lifecycle occupant research to understand how this improved knowledge and understanding encourages energy-reducing behaviours. Flexible energy management at a community scale provides greater benefits by reducing the burden on the wider electrical energy network and generating income streams for the community by selling their energy supply back to the grid. The Behind the Meter Billing project is demonstrating how a viable local ESCO can operate. Now SmartKlub is offering this model to other developers, landlords or housing associations in the UK to help their residents save energy, carbon and money.

Collaborators

SmartKlub is an energy operations and service provider that helps communities develop local energy solutions. Its founder, Charles Bradshaw-Smith, is passionate about decarbonising the built environment and established SmartKlub to accelerate this through new collaborative ventures. It provides the skill, expertise and business modelling required to establish and operate community energy schemes on behalf of residents. The Buildings, Energy and Environment Group at the University of Nottingham is one of the foremost research teams in the UK concerned with delivering innovative low energy and low carbon homes and developments. They are a lead member of the ABC-RP consortium and the team is led by Professor Mark Gillot who has been pioneering sustainable building design for over two decades, primarily through the Creative Energy Homes (CEH) project at the University of Nottingham - a series of houses that act as a living lab to test energy efficient and energy generating technologies in real life settings. Igloo Regeneration is an innovative house builder who works across the UK to deliver progressive, cost-effective, low-carbon homes. They focus on delivering developments that promote community, health and wellbeing and formed a joint venture called Blueprint Developments with Nottingham City Council and People for Place Group to help deliver the Trent Basin development. Ofgem is the UKs energy regulator and provided special dispensation to trial new methods of energy supply to homes, exploring how changes to the UKs energy regulations can support innovative energy scheme deliver low-cost and low-carbon energy to homes.

  • Active Building Centre Research Programme (ABC-RP)
  • Igloo Regeneration
  • Nottingham City Council
  • Ofgem
  • People for Place Group
  • SmartKlub
  • University of Nottingham

Lead support

Active Building Centre Research Programme (ABC-RP) is a large-scale programme that brings the expertise of ten leading UK universities together to solve new and existing energy challenges. Without the support of ABC-RP (and funding through its commercially focused counterpart the Active Building Centre) through the Transforming Construction Challenge, the support for this development and the cutting-edge research that is taking place would not be possible at such scale. Through this support, the project is benefiting from direct investments in upgrades to the community energy network and control systems. The research at Trent Basin builds on the prior work funded by the Energy Research Accelerator (community energy demonstrator) and Innovate UK (Sustainable Community Energy Networks, SCENe).

Long Term Vision

A greater adoption of community energy systems will help the UK reach net zero by 2050. Real-life scenario testing like Project SCENe and the Behind the Meter Billing project will give the industry the evidence and confidence it needs to deploy communal energy infrastructure on new development sites. By testing different combinations of supply and pricing, more effective relationships between an ESCO and a licensed energy supplier can be developed. And flexible energy management at a community scale will reduce the burden on the wider energy network and importantly generate income streams for a community. The project aims to impact on future regulations, reducing the barriers to entry and improving competition, by demonstrating that a well-run ESCO can supply energy locally without the need for an often-arduous supply licence.

Human Stories

The project will help people understand energy use within and between their own homes so they can see and adjust their energy behaviours for the better and generate income streams for a community. So strong is the engagement that residents are now actively engaged in the operation of the ESCO through two non-executive board members. The model can be rolled out to other developers, landlords or housing associations in the UK to help their residents save energy, carbon, and money. Beyond the energy, the place-making focus of the development has helped foster an active Residents Association and a vibrant and supportive community spirit where new arrivals are welcomed with open arms and residents all contribute to seasonal celebrations. They are also developing community initiatives such as a recycling area and a library in a shared bin shed! This is shining a light on what is possible, both environmentally and socially, when diverse, collaborative projects work towards a shared vision.

Powerful Processes

Many energy projects rely on emulation software to simulate energy usage so teams can retrospectively analyse what might have happened to supply and demand trends. This project's success lay in its ability to test new digital technologies in real life settings and draw on live data capture. The experiment began in October 2020 and set out to learn how households with multiple energy supply options could be billed in a more innovative way so it would improve the management of their energy at a community level. It used integrated active energy, in-house technologies and sensors, and smart billing dashboards to see how signals around energy price and supply could change behaviour, and compare the impact of different supply scenarios at a household and community level.

Fascinating Facts

24 households have so far volunteered to take part in the project in October 2020. In 2019, the community's PV assets generated 152MWH of electricity, saving around 54 tonnes of carbon from being emitted. Early energy reports have already shown a 100 kWh / month or £20 monthly saving for one household alone. The significant saving was a direct result of them being shown where their energy was being consumed. In this case, it was from their towel rail being left on. The community battery has generated a surplus annual revenue by supplying back into the grid, equating to £100 per year per property which is being shared with residents.

Benefits

Active Energy
The site hosts what was once the largest community energy battery in Europe. This enables the storage of energy at times of peak renewable generation, from both onsite renewables and through the grid, so that occupants can draw down at times when onsite generation is lower or feed this energy back into the grid and times of peak demand. The community battery is supplemented in some properties with individual battery storage, further increasing the active capabilities of these homes. There is also a selection of solar PV arrays being used in novel ways. Prior to installation on houses, they are used to optimise yet-to-be-used building plots to contribute to the community energy centre.

Cost
The efficiency of the buildings and the local energy supply has led to the community battery generating a surplus annual revenue by supplying back into the grid. This equates to £100 per year per property which is being shared with residents. The increased awareness of their energy consumption that project participants have is leading to tangible savings already. One household has identified monthly savings of £20 per month (over the winter period) as a direct result of them being shown where their energy was being consumed. In this case, it was from their towel rail being left on.

Emissions
In 2019, the community's PV assets generated 152MWH of electricity, saving around 54 tonnes of carbon from being emitted. Early energy reports from the Behind The Meter Billing experiment have already shown a 100 kWh / month saving for one household alone. The significant saving was a direct result of them being shown where their energy was being consumed. In this case, it was from their towel rail being left on.

Whole-life Value
The engagement in the project from occupants is helping to highlight that there is a demand for low and zero carbon technologies and homes in the UK. This is a key barrier to wider deployment and integration within ongoing and planned new house building projects. The preliminary research findings are showing that occupants of such houses quickly see the value derived from improved visibility of energy habits and the technology that enables this change.