Local Energy Communities: Addressing the Energy Systems Challenge

Published 22 March 2021

By John Nwobu, Research Engineer for Grid and Storage Solutions at ORE Catapult

Our Energy System landscape is continuously evolving, and the last 30 years have seen an acceleration in clean energy alternatives. With the UK Government’s commitment to achieving Net Zero carbon emissions by 2050, the UK’s offshore wind industry is in pole position to contribute to these ambitious targets and pave the way within the energy mix towards cleaner energy generation.  With the rise in renewable energy, we must now transform our energy systems away from the traditional methods of generating, transmitting and distributing electricity.

Local Energy Communities (LECs) will be an essential element of any future energy system, enabling communities to be directly involved in the decision-making of how local energy generation and distribution is used within households. LECs typically refers to the cooperation among consumers to satisfy their community’s energy needs by using locally produced renewable electricity from sources like wind farms.

These LECs can benefit communities in a variety of ways, including:

  • Reduced emissions: The local energy production and distribution in communities is renewable energy, contributing to net-zero targets by 2050.
  • Energy security improvements: With the closure of power generation plants from coal and fossil fuels, there is a need to prioritise local energy systems to secure the UK energy needs and avoid future loss of power (black-out) scenarios.
  • Local economic growth: Local energy communities that hold the key to their own generation and storage will require highly-skilled expertise and job creation on the spot. They will also have the ability to sell off excess generation, barter and trade energy with other communities.
  • Innovative solutions: In the case of green hydrogen, the process of using renewable energy to create easily storable and transportable hydrogen, we can use existing fossil fuel infrastructure – such as some gas pipelines and domestic heating systems – in order to avoid funding an entirely new infrastructure from scratch. This will revamp household heating systems as part of transitioning the local gas infrastructure to hydrogen.

Introducing CLUE

As part of my role here at the Catapult, I’m thrilled to be at the forefront of the company’s LEC work through the Concepts, Planning, Demonstration and Replication of Local User-Friendly Energy Communities (CLUE) Project. The purpose of CLUE is to acquire knowledge on the optimised design, planning and operation of LECs and will develop a tool kit for planning and operation as crucial elements for successful replication and upscaling of LECs

As part of the Scottish regional project (SCOT-CLUE), ORE Catapult’s 7MW Levenmouth Demonstration Turbine was chosen by the European Union’s ERA-Net Smart Energy Systems fund, as one of four locations for its CLUE living-labs to prove future concepts around LEC within the Fife area.

Powered by the world’s most advanced grid-connected offshore wind turbine dedicated to research and technology innovation, SCOT-CLUE aims to build a local energy community based upon an innovative platform that combines multiple energy vectors to supply electricity, heat and transport to the local community. It will also seek to solve the integration challenge presented by renewables to the grid through an innovative cell-based energy system approach. This ‘web-of-cells’ concept has only been tested in laboratory conditions to date and promises to match renewable energy supply to demand.

My Role and Research

Despite efforts to date on smart energy systems, there are no established tools to manage LECs’ system operation across a range of different environments. Development and utilisation of such tools require coordination between newly emerging data streams, such as smart meters, and the capability to inform system operation in a timely manner. There is currently no approach to how other energy vectors, such as wind power from offshore wind farms and green hydrogen production from electrolysers, would contribute to this mix.

My role in the CLUE project is to support the technical research team in the planning, development, and demonstration of a user-friendly local tool that combines cross energy vectors and can be used for LECs across the UK. I also lead the delivery of cross-cutting energy systems collaborative activities between the project partners of different countries. This consists of knowledge transfer regarding technologies and tools, their experiences from national demonstration sites, as well as the expectations of stakeholders and need-owners.

The outcomes from my research will add new understanding to the different challenges, prerequisites, and approaches to deploying local energy community schemes, including integrating offshore wind in the UK. It also aims to give an initial approach to how the gas network (hydrogen) and electricity network can be integrated into a local energy community.

I consider the LECs project to be a starting point for economic regeneration across many areas of the country, where the growth in renewable energy provides an opportunity for these areas to capitalise on the green economy recovery post-COVID-19. Through projects such as CLUE, ORE Catapult wants to build public awareness and acceptance of the LEC concept, outlining the benefits to local communities, the environment, and consumers and stimulating further interest in LEC collaboration among energy industry players and local authorities across other areas of the UK.