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Welcome to the Realtime Carbon project

July 9th, 2009 by Jamie Andrews (AMEE)

In recent years lots of businesses and individuals have become concerned about the carbon emissions associated with their electricity usage, and increasing numbers of people are trying to do something about it. Reducing your consumption is the obvious thing to do, but it is also important to think about when you are using electricity.

Electricity is at its most green when it is being generated from renewables like wind and photovoltaics. Unfortunately, at present the total demand from UK electricity customers is so great that there’s never a time when renewables can provide all of our supply. Gas, nuclear and coal account for meeting the majority of our demand, and at times when the demand is really high (like in the morning when everyone puts their kettle on), the carbon intensity of electricty goes up as we push coal power stations to their full capacity, and even turn on some really dirty oil-fired ones.

If we could stop using so much electricity at times of high demand, and shift it to times of low demand, then the proportion of it generated from renewable sources would increase, and the amount of carbon released by the dirty power stations would decrease.

RealtimeCarbon.org uses data from the organisations who manage the ‘balancing and settlement’ of the electricity grid to determine which power stations or wind-farms are generating electricity at any given time. It then calculates the overall carbon intensity using coefficents for each type of generation (for more details on the methodology, visit the forum).

Because national demand fluctuates on a real-time basis, and it is constantly being ‘balanced’ by supply, the data is already available to get down to this level of detail. Web technologies can help us to disseminate and utilise it more effectively. One of the key ways we hope that the data can be used in future is to facilitate widespread take-up of Demand Response.

In its simplest form, demand response means using electricity at a time when it is either cheaper, or in this case, lower carbon. Instead of putting your washing machine on in the morning when everyone else is boiling their kettles, putting it on at night when everyone else is in bed is a basic example of user behaviour responding to demand.

In addition to people manually changing their behaviour in response to periods of high demand, there are also increasingly sophisticated technologies which can automate this demand response for us – for example fridges which turn off automatically for limited periods at times of high demand.

A crucial piece of the puzzle in all this is Government policy. With the right innovative policies in place, demand response principles can be applied so that for energy customers the best and cheapest time to use electricity is when it is low carbon. Despite big announcements in the climate change White Paper on Wednesday, currently there are no Government policies in place which use figures in this way, though there are potentially some that could.

The Carbon Reduction Commitment is a new policy which applies to medium-large commercial users of electricity – companies which use over 6000 MWh of electricity a year. It is a trading scheme where companies trade carbon allowances with each other in order to create cost effective net reductions in CO2, and it kicks off in 2010.

Many companies affected by the scheme have already switched to green electricity tariffs and hope that their carbon footprints as determined by the rules of the CRC will be lower. So far in the discussions about the policy, it seems that one conversion factor will be used for all electricity, regardless of when it is used (see Page 132 of the Government’s latest consultation on CRC).

RealtimeCarbon.org aims to catalyse debate in this area so that companies and individuals who want to do something about the carbon footprint from their electricity use can start to think about things in a new way. Government policies could be designed around these principles, and we hope that companies and policy-makers alike will enter the debate to help us refine the methodology and to formulate incentives for energy users to lower their carbon footprint effectively and intelligently.

We have created a forum so that you can discuss the methodology we used to determine the current feed. For the web developers amongst you, it’s also possible to access the feed by using the example code in this methodology paper.