In 2015, world leaders at COP21 committed to a 1.5°C target for global warming by 2050. To stay on course, science tells us that we must reduce our carbon emissions by 50% by 2030, and achieve net zero emissions by 2050.

Wind turbines in fields

Keeping the 1.5°C target within reach requires collective action across government, industry, and the scientific community to fast-track the development of solutions to curb our emissions and reduce overall demand for energy. COP28 arrives at a critical time, where strong displays of ongoing commitment are needed to further the decarbonisation agenda.

As the transition to net zero progresses, less fossil fuels will be used to generate power, and more clean power sources such as wind and solar will take their place. This transition means that we will no longer be able to rely entirely on the supply side to manage the operation of the power systems, and the constant matching between demand and supply. Increasingly, the demand side will have to play a more active role if we are to make the most of available generation and network capacity.

In recognition of this challenge, and to bridge the existing gaps in technical and practical knowledge, UKRI has invested in the creation of specialised research centres to pioneer research on demand-side solutions to keep the UK on track in the path to net zero.

UKRI-funded Energy Demand Research Centre

UKRI’s latest investment led to the creation of the Energy Demand Research Centre (EDRC) which was established in July 2023 with £15m of funding over five years from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). It is led by Sussex and Newcastle universities, with partners including Cardiff, Edinburgh, Imperial College, Lancaster, University College London, Leeds, Manchester, Reading, Strathclyde and Surrey universities.

EDRC aims to inform and inspire energy demand reductions that support an affordable, comfortable and secure net zero society. Collaborating with partners across policy, industry, civil society and academia, EDRC will deliver a world-leading transformative and interdisciplinary research programme that identifies and shapes evidence-based energy demand solutions for a sustainable and more equitable future.

Demand flexibility to meet energy needs – a gamechanger

EDRC’s research programme brings together five thematic strands of work, one of which focuses on energy demand flexibility.

The Demand Flexibility theme is led by Professor Jacopo Torriti at the University of Reading. This theme will assess the needs, impacts and implications of demand flexibility. Demand flexibility is the ability to increase, decrease or shift energy demand across time and/or space, so that energy needs can be met in different locations at different times of the day or the year. In particular, the theme will explore and help develop solutions that enable the effective and equitable deployment of demand flexibility, so that the benefits these solutions bring about can be shared by everyone.

Demand flexibility has the potential to increase the uptake of clean power sources, accelerate the decarbonisation of carbon-intensive sectors such as heating and transportation, and mitigate the need for costly network expansion and reinforcement.

Demand flexibility research will be a gamechanger in the transition to net zero. However, there is still much to be done to ensure that demand flexibility can be effectively used as a system-wide resource, deliver the envisaged benefits, and ensure that everyone benefits from it equitably.

Demand Flexibility Certificates

EDRC has already started addressing some of the issues around the development of new, fit-for-purpose policies to accelerate the transition to net zero.

In November this year, the flexibility theme launched a report that calls for the implementation of a Demand Flexibility Certificates framework to increase the visibility of demand flexibility at the building level, an essential step in the deployment of demand flexibility as a system-wide resource. The report outlines the proposed methodology for the issuing of Demand Flexibility Certificates, and discusses the benefits and potential use cases for the implementation of such a framework.

Jacopo Torriti is Professor of Energy Economics and Policy at the University of Reading. José Luis Ramirez-Mendiola is a Research Fellow in Flexibility in Energy Demand at the University of Reading.

The Energy Demand Research Centre is supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council.