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"My dream: Households and communities being empowered to reduce carbon emissions through the flexible use of power at home"

Interview with Claire Knox, Project Manager Carbon Co-op

Claire Knox is a project manager at Carbon Co-op - a British energy services and advocacy co-operative that helps people and communities to make the radical reductions in home carbon emissions necessary to avoid runaway climate change. Claire has a vast experience in coordonating project management and system implementation services. Claire also has a strong passion for reducing carbon emissions and protecting biodiversity.

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Can you briefly introduce yourself? What is your role in the REScoopVPP project?

Carbon Co-op is an energy services cooperative based in Manchester, UK. Our role in the REScoopVPP project has been in the development of the Community-driven Flexibility Box (or COFYbox) hardware, supporting pilot sites with implementations, and we are also the UK demonstrator site for the COFYbox.

The REScoopVPP project is developing tools to enable citizens to lower their energy consumption and to use primarily renewable energy whenever available. These tools are being tested in five real-life environments. You are managing one of these pilot sites. Can you explain what your pilot site looks like?

Our pilot site is made up of communities and individuals within residential properties predominantly in the North-West in and around Manchester, but also further afield in Yorkshire, the Midlands and in the South of England. Our participants tend to be highly motivated by environmental concerns, would like to support the decarbonisation of our electricity system, and would also like to optimise their electricity usage so they can use energy when it is cheaper and greener.

What are the specific tools that are being tested in the UK and what are they aimed for?

We are testing within domestic settings with specific electrical devices installed: predominantly electric vehicle (EV) chargers, immersion heaters, and battery storage. The reason that we are interested in these devices as part of the UK demonstrator is to test our PowerShaper Flex service which enables explicit Demand Side Response (DSR): controllable electrical loads can be switched off or on automatically with prior consent in response to signals from distribution network operators (DNOs), to support the good operation of the local electricity grid.

More electricity generated by renewables such as wind and solar can mean a less constant supply in the grid. This, coupled with increasing demand for electricity as we move away from petrol cars and gas heating, means that the electricity grid needs to become more agile to respond to fluctuations in supply and demand, so DSR is a great way to support the transition away from fossil fuels.

How many citizens will be testing the REScoopVPP tools in the UK pilot site?

We will be testing the COFYbox in around 50 homes.

Which type of test-users did you select? What are the important criteria to be able to test the tools in the UK pilot site?

We selected test-users based on the types of hardware devices that we are able to work with, as unfortunately not all brands of EV charger or battery are interoperable, so we cannot connect with other devices as part of a smart home or with the COFYbox. This may be a conscious decision by the manufacturer, but we believe that open source tools and interoperability will be very important for the future of smart homes and sustainable energy. It will be essential to reduce obsolescence of hardware, as electrical waste has a huge environmental impact - I’m sure lots of people have a drawer of old mobile phones for example. This is a huge waste, so the ability for technology to be as future-proof, open, and connected as possible is needed.

How much commitment does the testing require from a UK test-user?

Not too much commitment is required from a UK test-user, although we have been working with some ‘super-user’ households within the pilot who have contributed quite a bit of time to our testing of new integrations (for which we are very grateful!).

However testing can be disruptive. The most disruptive part for participants is the initial installation, as it may be necessary for our electrical contractor to visit to install a relay switch to enable remote control of an immersion heater for example, or switch out an EV charger for an interoperable model. A Carbon Co-op technician then visits, or performs a remote setup of the COFYbox.

Once installed, the user can interact with the box as much or as little as they like - many of our users are very motivated to use the COFYbox functionality to set up automations, such as charging their car when tariffs fall beneath a certain price, or when solar production is above a certain kWh threshold.

For Demand Side Response events, users are alerted that an event will take place a week in advance via SMS text or email. If the user is happy to participate, they do not need to do anything, and their device will automatically switch off or on for an hour at a predetermined time - the user does not need to be at home, and this could happen in the middle of the night. If they would like to opt-out of an event, as it may not be a convenient time, this can be done with the click of a button via the PowerShaper Flex dashboard.

Once the testing and demonstration phase is completed, what will you do with the results? 

The key data we are looking for is to test how much flexibility can be provided by fleets of PowerShaper Flex service users participating in the DSR switch off and switch on events. As the future of DSR will be highly localised, for example a district or street connected to a substation, we are also keen to understand communities better, and generate interest and understanding around how neighbourhoods can be empowered to support the move to more renewable generation, at the same time as optimising their energy use.

What is the main added value of participation in this project for your cooperative?

Establishing PowerShaper Flex as an aggregator service means that Carbon Co-op, and other cooperatives, would be able to manage increasingly large fleets of flexibility providers, share financial benefits from DNOs for providing flexibility with Flex participants, and support the decarbonisation of the grid.

REScoopVPP aims to develop advanced technology solutions. Why do you think it is important that Carbon Co-op or co-operatives in general get involved in these innovative projects?

Co-operatives and all members can support each other in knowledge sharing and the advancement and adoption of technological solutions to combat the climate crisis, keeping climate justice and inclusivity at the forefront of our mission. Co-operative involvement in technological projects means members are in control of their data, and not being exploited or having their privacy jeopardised.

What is your dream after three years of REScoopVPP?

My dream after three years of REScoopVPP is to have a clear vision for localised DSR (Demand Side Response), with the rise of households and communities being empowered to reduce carbon emissions and contribute to the decarbonisation of the electricity grid through the flexible use of power at home. Introducing the tools developed as part of this project, and raising awareness of flexible electricity use are key to managing demand, and therefore reducing our reliance on fossil fuels for electricity generation.