USER Project to integrate AI technology with hot water cylinders to help manage grid demand

The humble immersion heater is being reinvented as an artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled smart grid technology, as part of a cutting edge trial that was unveiled this week.

A consortium of leading clean tech companies yesterday confirmed the USER Project has begun installing an AI system as part of a real world trial to deliver “smart hot water” that can help to balance supply and demand on the grid.

Government funding is supporting the project, which will see the system used to optimise a virtual community of 350 homes across the country.

The project aims to transform traditional hot water cylinders into “grid-interactive water heaters” that coordinate their operation in real time by switching on immersion heating elements according to what is most beneficial for each home, taking into account wholesale prices and the level of supply and demand on the grid.

The demonstration project is being undertaken with input from AI developer Levelise, heating specialist Baxi Heating, Ecuity Consulting, Heatrae Sadia, Energy Systems Catapult, and Durham University.

The organisations involved are optimistic that with nine million hot water cylinders in the UK, there is a huge reservoir of thermal storage capacity hidden in homes. At almost 100GWh, this capacity is equivalent to six million Tesla Powerwall units, the group said, adding that it could play a role in managing the increase in variable renewables coming onto the grid.

The hope is that homes participating in the USER trial can demonstrate how a typical household can play a key role in the clean energy transition, without having to change their own behaviour.

Dr Iván Castro, one of the Founders of Levelise, predicted “unlocking the demand side potential of hot water heating is a game changer for balancing the energy system, allowing for more renewables and helping millions of homes to use energy more intelligently”.

“Using AI, we are enabling hot water cylinders to autonomously learn how much each household uses at what time, and to decide which is the best action to take in order to produce lower bills whilst ensuring energy isn’t wasted,” he said.

The USER Project is set to roll out devices into the homes of 50 Social Energy customers in the coming months, while a further 300 installations are scheduled to take place before the end of the year. Although, like many energy projects currently, it remains to be seen how the coronavirus could impact timelines for the consortium.

The intention is that the project will be able to generate revenue from demand side response services, while the households will have the opportunity to benefit from daily fluctuations in energy prices.

Jeff House from Baxi Heating said: “Over time we expect energy efficiency improvements to reduce the amount of space heating needed to keep our homes warm and hot water will become a larger element of the household energy bill. We are extremely proud to be working on this project which contributes to our vision on the Future of Heat whilst bringing real benefits to consumers and the energy system.”