Northern Powergrid are working to try to ensure customers receive the right level of voltage in their electricity supplies, to help avoid unnecessary consumption of energy and avoidable carbon emissions. Nothern Powergrid provide an overview of the Boston Spa Energy Efficiency Trial (BEET), which could be expanded to help benefit four million customers across Yorkshire and the North East.

What is the problem Northern Powergrid are trying to tackle?

Voltage is the pressure that drives electrical current through a circuit, enabling the current to bring electrical energy to appliances.

The ‘nominal’ voltage in the UK is 230V, and distribution network operators (DNOs) are legally obliged to ensure the voltage remains within limits; with the lower limit being 216.2V and the upper limit being 253V. DNOs ensure compliance with these legal limits by a deliberate and cautious approach of running the system at the top end of this range to ensure that voltage does not fall below the minimum legal level when demand surges. This has been the case for decades, as (a) DNOs have not been aware of the actual voltage customers are receiving, thus warranting a cautious approach, (b) there has been limited capability to improve on this approach, and (c) there has generally been no clear reason to operate any differently when this cautious approach complies with legal requirements (i.e. it works).

This does, however, mean that homes and businesses across the UK are currently receiving voltages which are in excess of the nominal voltage (230V) for the majority of the year. It has been confirmed from multiple projects that a higher voltage (e.g. higher than 230V) results in a higher than necessary consumption. In short; if DNOs provided a lower voltage to customers, there would be a corresponding improvement in the energy efficiency ‘behind-the-meter’, reducing consumption, and therefore saving customers money. In addition, the avoided energy use from this behind-the-meter efficiency translates to lower carbon emissions.

Clearly, there is a case for DNOs to provide this improved, or optimised voltage, given that there is a financial and environmental benefit for each and every customer. In addition, customers’ appliances will continue to operate safely down to the lower voltage limit. The question is therefore, how can DNOs ensure customers receive the ‘right’ voltage? This is where smart meters enable the ‘smart grid’ of the future…

What is your proposed solution?

Smart meters are being installed in homes and businesses across the UK to help consumers and DNOs save money and create a more efficient network – there are already over 11 million (electricity smart meters) installed. Smart meters can regularly submit voltage readings to DNOs and close consideration of this data has revealed that most customers are receiving voltage within a range between 230V to 250V.

Northern Powergrid is planning on using real-time smart meter readings to monitor voltage as part of an innovation project. An innovative, new piece of technology will use these readings to vary the voltage up and down according to real-time network conditions. This will ensure that voltage in homes and businesses (a) remains within the legal limits, and (b) is never higher than it needs to be.

The purpose of this technology is to optimise the voltage for the benefit of customers, the climate, and the DNO to get the best outcome for everyone.

This new system is being trialled in the Wetherby area outside Leeds as part of the Boston Spa Energy Efficiency Trial (BEET) led by Northern Powergrid with the support and cooperation of local residents and businesses.

The project emphasises the importance of smart meters in helping to make the electricity network more efficient.

What are the benefits of this approach?

Lowering the voltage customers receive across the UK would benefit both the customer and the planet.  

Many studies have confirmed that a reduction in voltage will cause a reduction in energy across the whole system. It is estimated that customers would save four per cent on electricity bills due to a reduction in energy wasted if the voltage was lowered by four per cent – this comes to £500 million per year for the country as a whole.

Reducing the voltage would also have an effect on emissions – an estimated reduction of potentially between 200,000 and two million tonnes of CO2 each year.

As well as carbon emissions, a reduced load on the system would create more network capacity that could ease the transition to new green technologies such as electric vehicle charging.

What are your next steps?

This pilot is currently a localised trial. When the trial is concluded it is expected that the initiative will be expanded to four million customers across Yorkshire and the North East. The learning outcomes will be shared with other DNOs from across the UK and internationally, so that the whole world can benefit from voltage optimisation.  

What do your customers think of it?

Keith Jackson is a local resident of Boston Spa. He said: “The problem and possible solution came to me after I suffered excess voltage at my home. Before my retirement I had been an operational engineer in the UK electricity supply industry. I found that the present regulations which govern the monopoly network companies do not include any incentive to trim the voltage. This is unfair for customers and causes excessive emissions from the power stations.

Northern Powergrid listened to my findings and warmly accepted the challenge by assembling a project team to investigate voltage optimisation. The work is underway now and shows great promise. This really will be a win for customers, a win for the planet, and a win for Northern Powergrid.”


Photo courtesy of Keith Jackson