It’s 9am and your staff are all (hopefully) sat at their office desks, or perhaps standing at their factory machines. The lights are bright, PCs booted up, equipment turned on - a process replicated at exactly the same time at offices and factories up and down the country. And it’s not merely at the workplace… consider the whistle that the blows for half-time during Saturday’s must-win derby tie, causing a mass stampede from couch to kitchen, just to get the kettle fired up for a welcome brew.
These sudden demands for electricity, or “spikes”, can create real problems for UK business electricity suppliers
who have to allocate reserves to manage such spikes effectively. Demand differs hugely across the day, tending to peak at key TV ad breaks, the mornings, and especially the evening, when we return from work and our children return from school. So how do business electricity suppliers cope with the varying demands of the National Grid? At the moment they simply “top up” via gas-fired power plants, that are only ever used to handle such spikes, and are otherwise dormant – in effect, a hugely expensive and inefficient “back-up” system. In an attempt to devise a more practical method, researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences have joined with researchers from our own University of Leeds to create a greener system, that might also reduce the fuel needed to cope with this extra demand by 50%.
The result of their research is a more integrated system that employs the existing power plants to store excess energy, rather like an immersion heater storing excess heat for later use. A separate unit produces “cyogen” – oxygen and liquid nitrogen – which can be boiled at times of peak use, using waste heat to generate the extra power, before releasing it to cope with the spikes as and when they happen.
And what does this laudable international cooperation mean for businesses in the UK? Well, one would hope such a system would lead, ultimately, to more efficient energy and therefore long-term savings. And then, the next time we reach for the kettle at half-time, we won’t need to feel so guilty!