The Living Grid is a community of people and organisations
forming a new energy system
Taking inspiration from living ecosystems to convert, deliver, store and use energy
What is the Living Grid?
The Living Grid is a community of people and organisations who believe we need to look beyond technological innovation if we’re going to decarbonise our electricity network. We’re working together to demonstrate a new and better energy system that behaves like a living ecosystem. We’re doing this by drawing on smart technologies to contribute actively in the UK electricity system: no-longer passive consumers in a static grid, we are active participants in a dynamic network. We exist to spark a change in the design of our grid to make it more efficient, resilient and adapted for renewable energy.
Our diagnosis of the current electricity system is that we need to make our lifeless grid more interactive and able to flex in response to ebbs and flows of renewable energy so that it behaves like a living system. If we can change the dynamics of the system – not just its individual parts – we will have a better chance of generating, storing, delivering and using electricity in ways that serve the interests of citizens.
As our electricity network is part of living ecosystems that have been converting and cycling renewable energy for 3.8 billion years, we think there’s no better inspiration. That’s why where we’re looking to the complex systems in nature to understand how we can shift the identity, role and relationships we hold in our electricity network.
What principles can we learn and adopt from nature, that can help us evolve our grid to form an efficient, resilient and low carbon whole? What can we learn from the rest of life on Earth to help us redesign our network so that it better-serves citizens’ interests?
Why is this project important?
- We don’t talk about the design of our electricity grid yet it is a significant factor in shaping our energy future yet: it influences the amount and the mix of energy needed to keep the lights on.
Media commentary depicts a need for more power, but this ignores the complexities of how the energy system works. Many of our power stations spend half their lives turned off because they’re only needed when the demand for electricity peaks. The UK is on course to miss our renewable energy targets in 2020 yet we paid £90 million to wind farms not to produce electricity when the wind blew in 2015, because the surge of power would be too much for the grid to handle. To relieve our straining power supplies we don’t simply need more energy, we need to be able to use power more intelligently.
- The design of our electricity grid is out of date.
- The controls we’ve been using to keep the system stable by balancing electricity supply and demand are no longer delivering what we require. As we electrify heat and transport and as we reduce carbon emissions, we’re asking our sixty-year old network to do things it was never designed for. This mismatch is pushing up running costs, increasing the risk of blackouts and forcing unnecessary trade-offs between tackling climate change and improving the affordability and security of the system.
- We need a new energy paradigm if we’re going to have a future electricity system that serves the interests of citizens and society.
- Renewable energy generation is not compatible with the way our static, linear, centralised network operates. Rather than radically change this, we’re investing in nuclear and diesel generation because they fit with the dynamics of our legacy grid.
- We’re so used to our post-war network designed to optimise fossil fuels, that it’s hard to imagine an alternative design that could work better.
- If we’re not imagining a better energy future, how are we going to create one? If we were designing an ideal electricity from scratch today, it would be inherently low carbon; it would be interactive and flexible so that it can optimise fluxes of renewable energy and it would be adaptive so that it can evolve as a whole. When it comes to our energy system, we must dream better.
- It’s the users of energy – bill-payers, citizens, households, communities, businesses, other organisations – who’d gain most from cheap, renewable energy and who’re losing out on the current trajectory: paying the financial, health and social costs.
- We’re at an inflection point in the history of our grid: will we use digital technologies to do old things in better ways or use them to do fundamentally better things?
Now is the moment to shift the dynamics of our energy system. Smart and emerging technologies are making it possible for us to interact in new and more sophisticated ways. The imperative to act on climate change couldn’t be stronger or more urgent.
Let’s evolve our electricity network for the future energy mix we want, not let the legacy system and thinking limit what is possible.
What we’re doing
Forum for the Future is convening diverse collaborators to develop and grow the LIving Grid. Through joint research, communications and by using interactive, smart technologies a pioneering community of people and organisations is coming together to interact and use energy differently. By acting collectively in this way, we’re showcasing a better energy system in action; how quickly it can form and how well it can work.
Our shared objectives are to:
- Develop a community and build peer-to-peer relationships between corporate energy users and diverse stakeholders.
- Find ways of joining-up and making sense of emerging technologies in ways that enable our electricity grid to behave more like the living ecosystems we’re part of – from demand-side response and storage, to artificial intelligence.
- Develop a campaign for system change that unleashes the agency and influence of energy users to evolve our grid for an energy future that’s radically better.
Forum for the Future launched the LIving Grid in 2016, with Open Energi and pioneers in intelligent demand-response technology: Aggregate Industries, Sainsbury’s, Tarmac and United Utilities. Since then, we’ve been talking to other organisations to explore the part they can play in taking the LIving Grid to the next stage of development.
In 2017, SmartestEnergy is ushering the Living Grid into its next phase. Our collaboration is starting with an online conversation that asks, ‘How we might design an energy system that can continuously renew itself?’