New ‘Energy Demand Observatory’ to help UK meet net-zero goals

energy data

University College London (UCL) and the University of Oxford have announced that they have been selected to lead an £8.7 million research project to establish an Energy Demand Observatory and Laboratory (EDOL) in the UK.

The five-year programme, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC, part of UK Research and Innovation) and working with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), will establish a national energy data platform to help facilitate the transition to net-zero carbon emissions.

Energy use in homes is responsible for almost a fifth of UK carbon emissions, and the biggest driver of increased energy demands during the peak winter period. If the UK is to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, domestic energy will have to stop using natural gas and transition to a low-carbon system. However, there is currently little information on how this will impact patterns of energy usage, and whether this will overlap with other changes to the UK’s energy system, including the increased uptake of electric cars and heat pumps.

EDOL has been set up to address this by providing a high-resolution data resource that will track energy use in real households (with informed consent of participants), enabling it to understand how, why, and when domestic activity is impacting energy demand and associated carbon emissions.

The aim is to then develop a range of innovative methods – including innovations emerging around AI and the Internet of Things – for monitoring not only the energy consumed by different appliances, but also the different energy-using activities that make up daily life at home.

EDOL will consist of three elements. Firstly, an ‘observatory’ of 2000 representative UK households equipped with sensors to record the energy used by occupants, their appliances, and their behaviours. The anonymised data will then be analysed by researchers to better understand patterns of energy demand in our homes.

Secondly, ‘forensic’ analyses of sub-samples of homes that have novel or lesser-known forms of energy demand (for instance, smart charging of electric vehicles), which could include detailed surveys, interviews, and in-depth monitoring.

And finally, ‘field laboratories’ of 100 to 200 households in which policies, technologies, business models, and other interventions can be tried out and compared to relevant control groups in the Observatory. This will allow the researchers to answer novel questions, such as: ‘How flexible is the time when people choose to charge their electric vehicles?’, or ‘Does installing a heat pump have unintended consequences such as increased tumble drying of clothes due to lower radiator temperatures?’

“In order to tackle the serious challenges facing our society such as fuel poverty, the energy cost crisis and climate change, we need accurate real-world energy consumption data combined with additional data-streams from, for example, sensors and smart home devices, to facilitate innovative research,” said professor Tadj Oreszczyn, principal investigator for the project. “EDOL is a major step forward in enabling research for public benefit using cutting edge technology and research techniques.”

The University of Oxford will lead on instrumentation and analysis, and qualitative research, overseen by Dr Philip Grünewald, from the Department of Engineering Science, and Dr Tina Fawcett, from the School of Geography and the Environment.

“EDOL will raise evidence-based policy making to a new level, by providing a scientifically rigorous demand observatory,” said Dr Grünewald. “This collaboration will be unique in providing a detailed, longitudinal resource of UK domestic energy use which will be available to scientists, industry, and policy-makers. The research will be dynamic, able to respond to a fast-moving technological and policy landscape, and will enable us to propose cost-effective smart data solutions and innovation in real-time and at scale.”

“EDOL is a really important, long-term investment in energy demand research, which will enable us to understand current and future household energy use as never before,” commented Dr Fawcett, who will lead the social research aspect of the project. “The experiments with EDOL households will allow us to explore who benefits or loses from different social, technical, and economic energy interventions. This will help provide the evidence we need to create a just energy transition.”

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