What is Grid Flexibility?

The energy ecosystem is undergoing dramatic change. Grid flexibility is a crucial component for navigating energy systems’ evolution. New solutions and technologies, like managed EV charging, provide crucial upgrades and lead to new opportunities for energy companies.

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Intermittent energy sources like wind and solar and rising electrification are leading to increased needs for grid flexibility.

New challenges and opportunities appear in the emerging new reality for energy companies and their customers.

The need for energy is growing, energy production is evolving, and electric vehicles are gaining popularity. So, how can utilities and the energy grid keep pace?

A large component of the answer revolves around grid flexibility.

Wind power turbines

What is grid flexibility?

When we talk about grid flexibility, we are talking about an electricity system’s ability to manage variability and uncertainty in both supply and demand. It includes adjusting energy generation, consumption, and storage in response to real-time conditions.

When talking about electricity in this context, it can be important to distinguish between the stress that power (Watts) and energy (Watt-hours) can put on the grid at a specific time or over a given period.

One helpful image is to think of a car (perhaps an EV) driving down a road. Here, Watts represents the speed at any given moment, while Watt-hours represent the distance covered over a given period.

What are the components of grid flexibility?

Grid flexibility covers many different components of an electricity grid. These include electricity production systems (power plants, wind turbines, solar panels, etc.), transmission (power lines and transformer stations, etc.), storage (batteries, pumped hydro, and possibly EVs), and consumption (homes, building complexes, factories, and more).

Other vital components include control systems for flexible generation, demand response, grid infrastructure upgrades, and software systems. Each element can help boost a grid’s ability to adapt to changing conditions.

EVs also play an active role in grid flexibility, as do home units through smart meters.

Distributed energy resources (DERs) and linked distributed energy resource management systems (DERMS) are also playing an increasing role.

Why do we need grid flexibility?

Grid flexibility components and solutions have a common goal of using the existing grid to the greatest extent possible. This has become increasingly important as the existing grid infrastructure is struggling in many places.

Grid infrastructure is challenged by increased electricity needs, more people producing and selling power to the grid, intermittent energy production from renewables, and more.

This leaves energy companies and grid operators with two options. One is to build out the grid, which will cost a lot of money. The other is to invest in innovative ways of increasing flexibility and capacity for the existing grid.

What are the main challenges for the grid today?

Traditional power production has come from fossil fuel power stations. They deliver a stable, predictable output. In contrast, renewable energy sources tend to fluctuate. While renewables are unquestionably a significant step forward, matching fluctuating energy production to energy needs can be challenging.

The energy grid has also not been designed for the surge in energy demand and the electrification we see across our societies. Put bluntly, if everyone uses heat pumps simultaneously charging electric vehicles, the energy surges could cripple the grid.

Grid flexibility is one of the tools for solving these challenges.

How does grid flexibility work?

Imagine a series of levers that energy companies and grid operators can adjust. This is how grid flexibility works on a basic level.

One example of a lever is the managed charging of EVs. Here, an energy company adjusts charging for groups of EVs in ways that lower stress on the grid. As a bonus, EV owners get cheaper (and often more climate-friendly) charging, and the vehicles are ready for use when needed. 

Another lever is smart meters and intelligent home systems that can adjust consumption to balance the grid during peak times. Again, consumers will generally see their energy bills decrease as a result.

Who can support – and benefit from - grid flexibility?

In short, we all can.

As mentioned above, grid flexibility covers many different solutions and approaches to making the best possible use of available energy and capacity in the power grid. This helps avoid expensive grid expansions that cost energy companies and their consumers.

By supporting grid flexibility, energy companies can increase operational efficiency, better integrate renewable energy, and enhance service reliability while opening new business opportunities in flexibility services and markets.

For power customers, supporting grid flexibility is an active way to support renewables, increase energy reliability for their own use, and help keep energy prices low. It can also, in some instances, lead to opportunities to participate in demand response programs that equal energy savings or even earning opportunities.

What are central grid flexibility trends?

Given the vast upsides, grid flexibility is developing rapidly, with new business models, solutions, and investments happening continuously.

One significant ongoing trend revolves around how to best integrate more renewable energy in ways that can also increase grid flexibility. The answer includes focusing on energy storage and incentives to move energy use to times when renewable energy production is high.

Another major trend explored by energy companies is using real-time data from sensors such as smart meters to support grid flexibility. This forms part of a broader digitalisation trend that includes virtual power plants (VPP).

Simultaneously, there is strong growth of distributed energy resources (DERs) and connected distributed energy resource management systems (DERMS) that ensure optimal operation of distributed energy production units like solar panels in a given area.

Finally, the rise in electric vehicle adoption holds vast potential for making the grid – and energy use – more flexible through advanced smart charging.

How do electric vehicles fit with grid flexibility?

Most EVs spend most of their time standing still, which is fantastic from a grid flexibility standpoint. By automating EV charging in ways that maximise renewable energy and support grid flexibility, energy companies have access to one of the most potent grid flexibility tools.

Using advanced smart charging, EVs can be leveraged for peak load balancing and peak load shaving and generally increase grid flexibility.

EV fleets provide a similar benefit, with their concentrated energy demands providing extra opportunities for grid flexibility.

How do grid flexibility, DERs, and DERMS go together?

Distributed energy systems, including solar panels and wind turbines, introduce variability into the grid. However, they also offer localised generation, reducing transmission losses and enhancing grid resilience.

When electricity is produced closer to the power customers, or even by the power customers themselves, it limits the distance energy has to move. It can also affect the power transmission needs (how big “pipes” are needed to transport energy)

In this way, prosumers participating in DER networks can help provide grid flexibility with their energy production.

This depends on the necessary infrastructure, including DERMS solutions and other software solutions, to support the integration of various distributed energy resources, provide real-time data, optimise their performance and contribution to grid stability, and more.

Conclusion

Grid flexibility is a cornerstone of the transition to a resilient, sustainable, and efficient energy system with renewable energy at its core. Its components, challenges, and opportunities illustrate that grid flexibility is a multidimensional undertaking that relies on turning challenges into opportunities.

One clear example is the rise of EVs. Without advanced solutions, grid operators and energy companies risk EVs becoming a roadblock for integrating more renewable energy and a risk to grid stability. However, the proper solutions change EVs to a core grid flexibility and stability asset.