Oxford University to co-lead £8m Energy Demand Observatory and Laboratory to help UK reach net-zero
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 very 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.
The EDOL will address this by providing a high-resolution data resource that will track energy use in real households, enabling us to understand how, why, and when domestic activity is impacting energy demand and associated carbon emissions.
EDOL will develop a range of innovative methods – including innovations emerging around artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things (IoT) - for monitoring not only the energy consumed by different appliances, but also the different energy-using activities that make up daily life at home.
The EDOL will consist of three elements:
1. 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.
2. ‘Forensic’ analyses of sub-samples of homes that have novel or lesser-known forms of energy demand (for instance, smart charging of electric vehicles). This could include detailed surveys, interviews, and in-depth monitoring.
3. ‘Field laboratories’ of 100-200 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?'
The University of Oxford will lead on instrumentation and analysis, and qualitative research, overseen by Dr Philip Grünewald (Department of Engineering Science, University of Oxford) and Dr Tina Fawcett (School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford).
EDOL builds on the University of Oxford’s large portfolio of work related to zero carbon energy systems. Oxford has over 200 senior researchers addressing the major technical, social, economic and policy challenges of providing secure, affordable and sustainable energy for all (see our Oxford Energy Network).
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. It will provide insights into the myriad influences on energy demand - from housing conditions, energy prices and heating systems to personal values, capabilities and behaviours.
Dr Tina Fawcett (Environmental Change Institute)
Dr Grünewald said: ‘EDOL will raise evidence-based policy making to a new level, by providing a scientifically rigorous demand observatory. 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 builds on Dr Grünewald’s previous research to develop tools to collect high-resolution electricity and gas readings from UK households. This has already identified key opportunities to reduce peak energy demands from UK homes. For instance, demand reductions of over 20% could be achieved by people shifting or avoiding the use of cooking appliances to prepare hot meals during the most critical two hours.
‘Much public attention is focussed on the 'average user' with an 'average bill' of £2,500 pounds. In practice we find that the top 10% use ten times as much electricity as the bottom 10%’ Dr Grünewald added. ‘Understanding these discrepancies better will be important in reducing fuel poverty and ill health resulting from poorly heated homes.’
Dr Tina Fawcett (Environmental Change Institute), who will lead the social research aspect of the project, added: ‘I am delighted to be leading social research in this new collaborative project, working with my colleague Professor Charlie Wilson. EDOL will enable us to ask questions about the roles of new technologies, policies and social norms in reducing both total and peak-time energy demand. Experiments with EDOL households will allow us to explore who benefits or loses from different social, technical, and economic energy interventions. EDOL will help provide the evidence we need to create a just energy transition.’
EPSRC Director for Cross-Council Programmes, Dr Kedar Pandya, said: ‘Accurate, high-resolution data will be crucial to understanding energy usage across UK households and informing new forms of energy usage. With support from Government, the Energy Demand Observatory and Laboratory will build on the work of the Smart Energy Research Lab to address this need. It will offer unprecedented scale in providing this data, which will support the decisions needed to help us to reduce carbon emissions and make the switch to Net Zero.’