By Geert De Clercq
One day, the weather could drive your domestic schedule. Your dishwasher springs to life at the windiest time of day. The washing machine starts spinning when the sun beats down
In such scenarios, algorithms in smart appliances automatically respond to price drops on wholesale spot markets caused by higher supplies of wind and solar power, saving households money and balancing the electricity market.
This may be many years away, but it is the future envisioned by the European Union, which wants to make the electricity system more efficient as the continent switches from predictable fossil-fuel power generation to intermittent renewables.
Most utilities have long offered cheaper night-time tariffs, but new EU rules expected in 2020 will require them to provide more flexible options that encourage customers to use power during sunny or windy periods, at varied times of day or when businesses are shut at weekends.
These kind of flexible “dynamic pricing” contracts are already widely offered in Spain and Scandinavia. But utilities in some of the biggest European markets like Britain and France are now beginning to follow suit in a shift that analysts say could disrupt the continent’s electricity retailing industry.
The nascent drive is enabled by the mass rollout of smart meters, which can precisely record energy usage patterns
“From now on, consumers in Europe will be able to seize more spot market opportunities as the rise of renewable power and the availability of smart meters and internet-connected appliances boost dynamic pricing,” said Jean-Marc Ollagnier, group CEO of consultancy Accenture Resources.
Newer, smaller players are offering the most experimental tariffs, selling power in hourly or even half-hourly slots tied to wholesale spot prices. The big, traditional utilities like EDF and Centrica are responding more gradually by offering variable time-pricing options.
Klaus-Dieter Borchardt, director Internal Energy Market at the European Commission, the EU’s executive, says variable pricing could cut power bills for a household by up to 400 euros ($470) a year.
It is early days in Europe, and in other developed power markets such as the United States and Australia. Utilities largely sell at fixed prices, regardless of wholesale swings or time of usage, and dynamic pricing accounts for a fraction of the market – but it is growing.
The number of customers on dynamic pricing rates globally is expected to rise from 4.5 million in 2018 to 75 million by 2025, of which 15 million will be in Europe, according to Navigant Research analyst Brett Feldman.
Experts say automation will be crucial for take-up.
The proportion of households with smart appliances is expected to rise to about 10.6 percent globally by 2022 from 3.5 percent now, according to market data provider Statista.
“Convenience is key,” Ollagnier said. “Users want to be able to ‘set and forget’ smart rules for their appliances.”
The Commission agrees. “To enable consumers to benefit financially from those new opportunities, they must have access to fit-for-purpose smart systems as well as electricity supply contracts with dynamic prices,” it said in a policy document.
An anticipated surge in electric vehicle usage will also bolster uptake of flexible pricing tariffs, analysts say.
STARTUPS LEAD WAY
British startup Octopus Energy in March launched an “Agile” tariff which sells power in 30-minute slots tied to wholesale spot prices. It also sends SMS alerts when prices turn negative and customers get paid for taking excess power off the grid, which happens a few times a year on sunny and windy ayds.
The two-year-old company, whose UK market share is about 1 percent, has limited the experimental tariff to 500 of its more than 200,000 residential customers. “We hit that limit quickly and are now assessing the impact before expanding further, which we expect to do next year,” CEO Greg Jackson said.
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