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Research programme aims to understand trends in residential energy demand

As the UK reduces its dependence on fossil fuels and decarbonises energy production, electricity demand will increase. This is typified by the changeover from petrol and diesel vehicles to electric ones: instead of filling up on gas at a petrol station, the country is going to be plugging their cars into the mains.

“Our electricity grids need to cope with whole new sectors of demand, such as transport, and even more so for heating homes with heat pumps,” Grünewald explained.

According to a 2022 analysis by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS), which has since been split into three to form the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero along with two other departments, by 2050 total annual electricity demand is estimated to at least double.

However, what isn’t known is how the transition to net-zero will impact patterns of residential electricity demand — the biggest driver of increased electricity demand during the peak winter period.

By producing a high-resolution, longitudinal data resource that tracks electricity use across 2,000 UK homes, Grünewald and Wilson hope to go some way towards understanding patterns in residential electricity use as the country’s energy system becomes greener.

At times when residential electricity demand is at its highest — between five and seven pm on weekdays during winter months — the National Grid can struggle to meet demand. And when it does it relies more on its most polluting, and expensive, power stations.

Reducing demand during these peak times is crucial to building an affordable and reliable zero-carbon energy system. But on our current trajectory peak electricity demand could even increase from 58 gigawatts in 2020 to over 130 gigawatts by 2050, according to the BEIS analysis.

Grünewald said that EDOL will allow the government to test whether policy decisions around reducing electricity demand at peak times are effective ones.

“Government should rightly be interested in whether their policies actually work, and so far policymakers have often had to rely on gut feel and conviction when it comes to energy demand policies,” he added.

The research programme, moreover, will see data made available to researchers around the globe. It will therefore reinforce Oriel College’s status — established by Professor Nick Eyre, the Frank Jackson Senior Research Fellow in Energy before Wilson — as a global centre of energy demand research.

As recently as 2022 the National Grid has introduced incentivisation schemes aimed at encouraging homeowners to use less electricity during peak hours.

EDOL will make it possible to evaluate the effectiveness of these schemes and to identify when there is a need for action to accommodate changing trends in electricity demand as the UK transitions to a net-zero energy system.

“If we observe problematic trends in the uptake of electric vehicles in a particular region, which threaten the stability of the grid, for example, we can mitigate these in good time,” Grünewald said.

“Either grids need to be reinforced or we develop incentives to discourage charging at the ‘wrong’ times. With EDOL we can test which alternative is cheapest and most effective.”

Funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC, part of UK Research and Innovation) , the programme is set to run for five years. It is a collaborative enterprise between researchers from the University of Oxford and University College London (UCL).

Based in the Department of Engineering Science, Grünewald is Research Director of EDOL. Wilson, from the School of Geography and the Environment, brings social science expertise in his role on the advisory board.