Demand Flexibility: How to Steer a Flock of Birds and Make the Electric Grid Better

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Credit: Dirk Ingo Franke

Credit: Dirk Ingo Franke

The electric industry is expected to spend a lot of money, about $1 trillion, over the next 15 years on grid infrastructure. But it may be able to cut back on that bill through ‘demand flexibility,’  a term coined by the Rocky Mountain Institute.

Demand flexibility is basically using smart grid technology to better manage what you’ve already got, rather than building new power plants or transmission and distribution wire.

For utilities, microgrids and big energy customers this could mean efficiently configuring and using solar panels, wind turbines, batteries, combined heat and power, customer load and other assets in new ways and combinations so that they serve the grid.

The result is a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Or as described by Arthur (Bud) Vos of Enbala Power Networks, it’s a way to improve return on investment with a 1+1=4. This is especially true when demand flexibility nets revenue for providing services to the grid.

“The amount of flexibility that already exists on the grid is phenomenal. What you’re doing is using resources that are already paid for — perhaps already paid off — and you are using them for the benefit of the grid,” said Vos, who is president and CEO of the Enbala, a technology provider in British Columbia that specializes in demand flexibility.

Vos spoke to this week in Washington, D.C. at the 2015 Distributed Sun New Energy Summit. He described some fancy software moves by Enbala to serve the grid through subtle shifts in building operations. For example, Enbala might reset heating or cooling temperatures slightly to shift temperatures within a fleet of buildings. The buildings then become like a large battery that can serve the grid and collect ancillary services revenue.

The end result for the building is efficiency, savings and a revenue stream, all by way of a heating and cooling system, a “type of demand asset that exists everywhere,” said Vos.

The amount of flexibility that already exists on the grid is phenomenal — Bud Vos, Enbala

Enbala used the approach to help firm output from a 30-MW wind farm owned by New Brunswick Power. Often system operators make up for the variability of wind with conventional generators.  But New Brunswick had another idea.

“They came up with this very innovative concept which was, can’t we just chase the wind with load? Instead of chasing it with generation, let’s use the opposite of that,” he said. “That’s what our technology is doing. Every five minutes we are course correcting a whole network of loads and behind the meter resources.”

Like steering a flock of birds

Enbala worked with a fleet of 30 commercial customers that signed up for the volunteer pilot program. By carefully adjusting building temperatures at precise times within the fleet, Enbala was able to secure about 3 MW of demand flexibility for New Brunswick Power.

“What we’re actually doing is manipulating the load on the backside to counteract the variability,” he said.

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All power systems also require the capability to balance, in real time, differences between load demand and generator output. This balancing capability—which keeps system frequency at the level where it’s designed to operate—is critical to ensure the stability and reliability of the overall power system, for both centralized power grids as well as microgrids. In a centralized grid, fossil-fuel-fired generating plants typically will ramp up or down to ensure demand and generation output remains in balance.
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To the system operator looking at a computer screen, the performance looked exactly as it would if a generator were making up for lost wind power — it’s a flat line.

Of course, demand response and load shedding also can act as a virtual power plant of sorts. But what’s different here is the lack of drama that sometimes comes with those approaches. Demand flexibility, in this case, is imperceptible to the building occupants.

“We are no impact. We are not shutting off loads, we’re not shutting off processes and telling people to go home,” he said.  “We might move the temperature one or two degrees. But we won’t go beyond that. That’s all we’ll get out of that individual resource for that moment in time. But we have a network [of buildings] so we can tap another resource, and we can tap another resource…We are constantly moving.”

He likened the leveraging of assets to steering a flock of birds: “They never run into each other. They never crash and die. We never send anyone home from work,” he said. “What we are doing is steering the flock of birds in a very delicate pattern.”

Such optimization is relatively new — so new that Enbala is finding itself doing a lot of educating.

“Most customers, and frankly most energy providers, don’t fully grasp the availability of flexible assets that are already on the grid,” Vos said.

Not yet anyway. But with the electric industry in need of $1 trillion in upgrades — and the software technology available to reduce the cost — they are bound to catch on soon.

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About Elisa Wood

Elisa Wood is the chief editor of and She has been writing about energy for more than two decades for top industry publications. Her work also has been picked up by CNN, the New York Times, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal Online and the Washington Post.