It can’t be very often that an energy company blogs about its customers’ achievements. Last week it happened. Octopus Energy wrote a blog entitled “How to hack your home for cheaper, greener, energy with our open API” which featured the achievements of its customers, and Greening Me got two honourable mentions.
For those not familiar with geek-speak, API is Application Programming Interface which is a mechanism by which an app, webpage or computer program may give commands to, or receive data from, another program – often a web server. Such APIs are often closed (that is that they are only available for use by the creator’s own app or webpage etc), but in this case the Octopus APIs are open so that they can be used by others (including me) to create our own apps, webpages, or other integrations to get data from Octopus. That data may be future price information for a UK electricity region or the actual consumption from a specified electricity meter for example. Octopus document their APIs and encourage others to find innovative uses for them.
Other APIs that I use were either documented privately by the manufacturers of the equipment concerned, although the manufacturer has not put the API in the public domain, or were reverse-engineered by myself or others by looking at how the manufacturer used it or at the internet traffic that it generated and working out how we could use it ourselves for a slightly different purpose. Such purposes would include controlling equipment other than by the manufacturer’s own app, or collecting data into some non-supported form.
Greening Me’s first mention in the blog came under the Smart Electric Vehicle (EV) Charging section where Octopus wrote..
One of our own smart energy pioneers, Greening Me, has used a Raspberry Pi and an add-on circuit board with our API to switch his electric car charger on/off and set the best time for his hot water immersion heater to run. He also has solar generation and so he can direct his solar power to either his smart car charger or hot water.
Later in the “I’ll do it myself (tech level 🌶🌶🌶)” section after describing a group of “smart home pioneers” Octopus wrote..
Together with Western Power Distribution, Passiv Systems have also created something similar to Greening Me’s HEMS, which is currently being trialled and evaluated as another BEIS funded research project called MADE.
So it’s official – I’m a “smart energy pioneer” and a “smart home pioneer”. I also quite like the idea of being a “home hacker” in the positive sense of someone who makes their own home conform to their wishes. If you’d like to read the full blog post from Octopus Energy then you can do so here https://octopus.energy/blog/agile-smart-home-diy/.
Most of us are used to a simple world of electricity where we pay for what we consume. For most folks like myself based in the UK that’s typically a fixed price per kWh/unit consumed regardless of time of day, even through dual-rate tariffs have been around for decades – the best known being “Economy 7” tariffs. However as the grid gets smarter then there are increasing opportunities to save on, or make money from, electricity.
Conventional – pay for power.
This is the area with which most of us are most familiar. We all get the idea of paying for the power we consume. Most UK households pay a fixed price per kWh/unit regardless of the time of day. We have a competitive electricity market, so there are the choice of 70 to 80 different providers who will make different offers regarding standing charge (sometimes marketed as a subscription) and unit cost.
There’s also the opportunity to choose between a flat rate tariff or Economy 7 even on conventional meters that provide a discounted night rate for 7 hours.. These typically provide a discounted night rate, but may charge a little more during the day. They used to advertise these as ‘less than half-price electricity’ but that’s often not the case now.
Stepping up in complexity (and opportunity) smart meters provide the opportunity for a more diverse range of tariffs including different cheap night time periods, more than two rates at different times of day (in extreme 48 half-hourly rates), and a free day at the weekend (i.e. a zero rate of a weekend day) etc.
Beyond that my own tariff (Octopus Agile) not only has up to 48 different half-hourly prices/day that change daily based on that day’s market prices. That might sounds a bit scary but it can yield very cheap electricity prices – 4.48 p/kWh for me in April/May 2020 (for example) which is a third of what most people pay.
(The original version of this post wrongly had the table from my gas bill above and mistakenly claimed that I had paid “a quarter of what most people pay” rather than a third. Total consumption is untypically low at the present time due to limited miles driven.)
Agile – paid to consume
Top left on my initial diagram is Agile – paid to consume.
One of the features of the wholesale electricity market is that at times the market price for electricity goes negative. At such times the a significant excess of supply (typically because of high output from wind turbines) over demand (often but not always at night) yields a negative price so electricity companies looking to buy electricity are being paid to take it. Most electricity companies will continue to charge their customers the standard price in these circumstances but, with the octopus Agile tariff, the negative pricing is passed to the consumer so that you are paid to consume electricity. This is one of the reasons that my electricity costs are so low.
The above chart shows my electricity costs for Saturday 23rd May 2020. The blue line shows the half-hourly electricity price varying between minus 10 p/kWh and plus 15 p/kWh. The red bars show my electricity consumption in each half hour. You can see how consumption tends to be highest when the price is lowest leading to an average price paid of minus 6.22 p.kWh (i.e. they paid me to use electricity) – indeed they paid me 82.4 p to buy electricity that day.
Conventional export – paid to export
The next opportunity to make money from electricity is to sell it to the grid. Obviously that depends on having a source for the electricity typically a generating asset like solar panels or a wind turbine, possibly coupled with a storage device like a battery. It’s also possible with a battery alone, but I know no-one who does that as the economics are more challenging.
The UK currently has a scheme called Smart Export Guarantee (SEG) where you can sell your export to an electricity company. Prices vary enormously so it’s worth shopping around and not just assuming that your electricity company will give you a good offer.
There is also a smarter SEG option where Octopus offer a dynamic SEG based on market rates (Octopus Agile Export) which may at times offer a high rate, but also offers a lower rate at times, and is thus perhaps better suited to those with storage.
I myself am NOT on such a tariff as I’m on an older legacy Feed-in Tariff (FiT). Despite its name FiT is a generation incentive, not an export incentive. As a generation incentive FiT encourages self-consumption since each kWh that I consume myself does not reduce my income, whereas on SEG each kWh that I use myself (such as making hot water) would reduce export income. So, for example, if I use a kWh of electricity to make hot water that’s saved a kWh (or thereabouts) of gas at around 3 p/kWh, but if I was on SEG then I might have lost 5.5 p/kWh of export revenue to save 3 p/kWh on gas which is clearly an on-cost not a saving. There are other benefits of course because I’ve reduced my carbon footprint by using my own low CO2 electricity to replace a fossil fuel, but it’s not (in this case) improving my financial position.
A further area of research by others is V2X (V2H and V2G) – taking electricity stored in an electric vehicle and using that within the home (V2H) or exporting it to the grid (V2G).
Export penalty – penalised for export
A logical consequence of this smart grid that I’ve outlined is being penalised for export. If there are times when the market price for electricity is negative then if I were part of that market then I might expect to be penalised for export. This doesn’t actually exist in the UK, as the only model that links SEG payments to the market price, Octopus Agile Export, protects its customers from negative pricing.
Should consumers be exposed to this risk then a logical behaviours would be:
To manage self-consumption into the negative export periods, and potentially thus increase export in the positive export periods. For example disable diversion to an immersion heater or car when export price is positive, and then maximise self-consumption when the export price (and presumably the import price also) is negative.
To disable the generating asset to avoid the export penalty.
Some people like myself will find developments in the smart energy sector a fascinating and engaging topic with opportunities both the save money and engage in creating a cleaner and greener electricity system.
However given that many choose not to even participate in the competitive market for electricity supply created when the regional electricity companies were privatised in late 1990 (i.e. 30 years ago) then there will be a significant number who are not so motivated.
This then creates opportunity for a wider variety of smart offers. Some products, at the Agile Octopus end of the spectrum, giving the consumer the opportunity to benefit from their own decision making, while others look more like a traditional dumb tariff with a very simple price structure but potentially making the energy company a more active manager of the home appliances so that the consumer hopefully plays a lower unit rate while the energy company takes responsibility for managing the assets within the home.
Back in late 2018 I purchased a Hildebrand Glow Stick Consumer Access Device (CAD) to monitor my electricity consumption. A CAD is a consumer device that can be paired with domestic smart meters to provide the consumer with a means of reading the meter. All UK smart meters are supplied with a dedicated in-home display (IHD) to display energy consumption, which is also an example of a CAD. The Glow Stick pairs with the meters like the IHD but shares the data to the cloud from where it can be read either via an app (Bright) or another device using APIs.
Each smart meter effectively has two interfaces – a Wide Area Network (WAN) connection used for metering and billing and a Home Area Network (HAN) used for connection between meters (electric and gas), hub (embedded within the electric meter) and IHD. The HAN is also available for smart home devices.
“Network hub” including (from top to bottom):
Network switch providing additional hardwired connections to the internet, placed behind..
TalkTalk router providing WiFi and 4 hardwired connections to the external internet, placed above..
Network storage, placed above..
Immersun bridge (left) and Glow Stick (right and forwards)
When I initially installed the Glow Stick it provided a very useful tool to see current and historic energy consumption, but the equivalent cost displays were incorrect (at no fault of Hildebrand) because the CAD correctly read the meter costs, but the meter was not sufficiently sophisticated to store the complex Agile tariff (where unit cost changes every 30 minutes).
I recently learned that Hildebrand now had the ability to take the tariff directly from Octopus Energy via API, bypassing the incorrect tariff data in the meter. A quick support email to Hildebrand confirmed that this was not only possible, but also that the cost data would be corrected back to when I bought the Glow Stick back in 2018. A few days later and the conversion was complete.
These two views show today’s part-complete data:
The screenshot on the left shows today’s part-complete energy data. That on the right shows the equivalent cost data. Had the unit rate been constant throughout the day then the two profiles would have been proportional, but instead the screenshots show the magnifying impact of the higher unit rates in the four to seven PM window with equivalent consumption to the late afternoon resulting in rather higher costs.
I should emphasise however that my average unit rate is very low as I usually have much higher consumption in low cost periods than I do in high cost periods.
My electricity bill to May 2020
One of my recent electricity bills had an average of 3.49 p/kWh ex-VAT. Half-hourly rates varied between around minus 10 p/kWh (I.e. I was paid to use electricity) to plus 25 p/kWh. A low average price was achieved by shifting electricity consumption to when the price was lowest.
My next step is likely to be to use the API to get the real time household load for load management as an increasing number of electrical consumers (potentially a second car charger) risks overloading my supply fuse if all loads were on simultaneously.
I previously described how I had integrated the washing machine into the smart home ecosystem using a smart plug so that it is (re-)started by the HEMS when the cost to complete a washing cycle will be lowest, bearing in mind that my electricity supply is a combination of paid-for electricity where the price varies each half hour and ‘free’ solar. As the means to get the best from the combination of washing machine and smart plug has been the source of some confusion within the household then I thought I would lay out how to get the best from that combination.
Bosch Washing Machine
Starting the cycle:
Normally as found the smart plug should be on having been left on following the end of the prior load, but if not then turn the plug on using either (i) the button on the plug itself, (ii) the WIFIPLUG app or (iii) the Apple Home app.
Load the drum in the normal manner which is optional washing liquid tab first with colour-catcher if required and clothes on top.
Select and start the required cycle.
Almost immediately stop the cycle on the smart plug using the same options as in #1.
Put washing powder, fabric softener and water-treatment tablet (e.g. Calgon) in the drawer as required.
At the optimum time the HEMS will restart the cycle. Do NOT move the cycle selector dial on the washing machine while waiting for the cycle to restart or the washing machine may become confused.
WIFIPLUG smart plug
Adding more clothes while waiting for step #6 above:
Pull the drawer forward so that any water admitted to the washing machine will not take the contents of the drawer with it.
Turn on the smart plug as per step #1 in the ‘Starting the cycle’ list – our washing machine starts to fill with water at this point.
On our washing machine clothes may be added during the early stages of load by pushing the start button. Washing machine briefly displays “No” and then (i) stops the water flow, (ii) unlocks the door and (iii) displays “Yes”.
Extra clothes may then be added.
Once the extra clothes have been added, the door can be closed, the start button is pressed and then the washing cycle will resume.
Stop the cycle almost immediately with the WIFIPLUG using any of the usual options.
Close the drawer.
At the optimum time the HEMS will restart the cycle.
Ending the cycle is absolutely unchanged versus the washing machine without smart controls. The washing cycle finishes. The WIFIPLUG is left on by the HEMS. The door can be opened and the clean clothes dispositioned appropriately in the normal manner.
The dishwasher works similarly but more simply. The door can be opened at any time while awaiting the restart instruction from the HEMS and items removed or added as required.
CO2 production is increasingly of interest as the world struggles to limit man-made climate change. As we use different energy sources each represents a certainly amount of CO2 reflecting a combination of the energy invested to create that power source (e.g. the wind turbine may generate wholly renewable power, but its construction created some CO2) and the CO2 created as it generates energy once constructed (nothing for renewables but relatively high for fossil-fuelled generation).
I’ve previously shared this table showing the IPCC’s view of the embedded CO2 in different sources of electricity generation.
IPCC’s view of embedded CO2 in different sources of electricity generation
A recent question and resulting discussion in an on-line forum prompted me to think more about the area of embedded CO2.
My first observation would be that my rooftop solar panels do quite well on this scale with a CO2 figure of 41 gCO2/kWh.
The second observation would be regarding energy storage. My view would be that any energy storage device from a small scale domestic battery like my own to a large pump storage scheme can never deliver better embedded CO2 that the source of its energy. So, for example, if I charge my battery from my own solar at 41 gCO2/kWh with a cycle efficiency of 80% (the maker’s claim) then the embedded CO2 in the energy coming out of the battery cannot be better than 41 gCO2/kWh / 80% = 51 gCO2/kWh. Indeed it would be worse than that as this doesn’t account for the CO2 generated in creating the battery nor its operational life, but I don’t have figures for those.
Example of UK grid CO2 intensity
Thirdly, as my own embedded CO2 is relatively low whether exported directly from my panels or indirectly via the storage battery, then the CO2 intensity of the grid always benefits from my export. The 116 gCO2/kWh illustrated above is pretty low for the UK grid which varies widely but is still more than my solar PV directly or stored solar PV. Indeed had I exported onto the grid at the time illustrated above then my 41 gCO2/kWh versus the grid’s 116 gCO2/kWh would have saved 75 gCO2 for each kWh that I exported.
However if, for example, I export electricity but need to then buy more gas to make hot water then that too has a CO2 impact.
If I need to buy a kWh of gas to make hot water that’s 0.2 kgCO2/kWh or 200 gCO2/kWh even before I’ve accounted for the relative inefficiency of the gas boiler versus my electric immersion heater. If I assume that the gas boiler is 90% efficient then I will be responsible for 200 gCO2/kWh / 90% = 222 gCO2/kWh for a kWh used to make hot water. Thus, while exporting 1 kWh of solar PV may save the electricity grid 75 gCO2/kWh, it’s added 222 gCO2/kWh to gas consumption – a net deterioration of 147 gCO2/kWh.
Natural gas of course is the lowest CO2 of the fossil fuels listed above – if your home is heated by oil, coal or wood then the analysis is further skewed towards using your own self-generated power rather than exporting electricity and importing another fuel for heating.
The electricity grid’s carbon intensity also varies. In 2019 the UK average was 256 gCO2/kWh (a little higher than my estimate for gas) however this varies considerably through the year with the highest embedded CO2 in early winter evenings when I have little if any solar PV to contribute to the grid, and may well be lowest when I and others have surplus solar PV. My understanding is that the lowest grid CO2 occurs with a combination of high renewables (such as particularly windy weather) coupled with low demand (such as summer nights).
Thus my own strategy is to:
Maximise self-consumption of my own solar PV as my energy source with the lowest embedded CO2 (except in the event of an extreme plunge pricing event when the grid is under highest stress)
Make best use of storage to minimise consumption from the grid in the evening peaks when embedded CO2 is likely to be highest.
When a solar-shortfall is anticipated then buy electricity selectively from the grid at lowest CO2 (using Agile electricity price as a surrogate for CO2).