Future projects which aim to help communities reach net-zero could take valuable lessons from ongoing efforts to decarbonise the Orkney Islands, researchers say.
The ReFLEX Orkney project, led by the European Marine Energy Centre, was launched in 2019 with £28.5m in funding from UKRI and private investment.
Its aim was to create a Smart Local Energy System, or SLES, by interlinking local electricity, transport, and heat networks into a single virtual energy system capable of real-time control of sustainable energy services for the community.
The ambitious project represents an opportunity to address fuel poverty on the island, secure its energy resilience, and unlock local wealth generation by recovering funds from the tens of millions of pounds the island spends every year on importing energy.
Through a coordinated deployment of new battery systems, green hydrogen technologies, and smart electric vehicle charging technologies, ReFLEX worked with the community to generate and control its own locally-produced power to meet the islands’ growing energy demands.
Researchers from the University of Glasgow and colleagues in the Netherlands have delved into the data from ReFLEX to identify key successes and barriers which could help future SLES projects achieve their goals.
Their research, which included a literature review and data analysis, has helped inform a new decision making framework developed by the team to help guide successful implementations of future SLES projects. That framework is outlined in a paper in the journal Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews.
Dr Benoit Couraud, a research associate at the University of Glasgow’s James Watt School of Engineering, is the paper’s corresponding author. He said: "In the 20th century, centralised power systems were designed and built to deliver energy from fossil fuels.
"As nations move away from that model to tackle climate change with more decentralised sources of renewable electricity, we’re faced with new challenges. The shift towards electrification is expected to double the amount of electricity we generate, but demand for electricity is expected to double or even treble by 2050. Balancing supply and demand will require our new energy systems to be smart and flexible, and the expectations and behaviour of end users will need to evolve with them.
"The Smart Local Energy System model is a promising one to help deliver the scale of change we need at a community level. The ReFLEX project is the largest SLES of its kind, and we can learn a lot about future decarbonisation from the work that has been done there to date."
The paper notes that ReFLEX initially planned to install 500 energy kits, consisting of solar panels, batteries and heat pumps, in community homes within three years, along with hydrogen assets to provide decarbonised heat and power through fuel cells.
While it fell short of those goals due to unforeseen regulatory issues and an increase in the market cost of hydrogen, the project still provided the researchers with a wealth of data and new knowledge about the challenges and opportunities of coupling local and community-centric energy transition requirements to national infrastructure and markets.
Building on the outcomes of ReFLEX, the researchers propose an adapted version of the Smart Local Energy System, which they call the Smart Local Energy Architecture Model.
It recommends future projects take a whole-systems view of the layers of regulation, business, behaviours, functions and services, information and communications technology and physical components that will be required to effectively decarbonise electric, transport and heat at a local level.
The paper also proposes a comprehensive list of metrics and key performance indicators to help future decarbonisation projects ensure that they are are performing efficiently and working to reduce community carbon emissions.
Those indicators propose gathering a wide range of data to track the project’s impact on energy, the environment, society, the economy, resilience, assets and infrastructure, data management, regulations and policies and extension and replication.
David Flynn, Professor in Cyber Physical Systems at the James Watt School of Engineering, is the academic led of ReFLEX. He said: "The ReFLEX project is an important national asset as a community energy observatory. The work done on Orkney over the last four years has given us a wealth of data to help us develop a future energy system and market tailored to the specific needs of the people and place.
"That will help us de-risk future energy services through improvements in accessibility, resilience and sustainability. It also creates new opportunities for distributed economic development through local energy markets.
"ReFLEX has faced challenges, which are to be expected when attempting to build a new form of community-led energy revolution. However, those challenges are useful lessons as we seek to build an effective and timely response to the climate crisis by pushing for decarbonisation wherever we can.
"A vital part of that transition is finding ways to integrate communities into the decision making process and making sure that the energy transition is something that happens with them, rather than to them. We hope that this paper will help provide a useful guide for stakeholders in future decentralised decarbonisation projects, which are critically important in helping us reach net-zero."
Researchers from the Dutch National Research Institute for Mathematics and Computer Science and Delft University also contributed to the research.
The team’s paper, titled ’Responsive FLEXibility: A smart local energy system’ is published in Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews.