Regular readers of my newsletter will know that I take a pretty dim view of people who try to sell voltage reduction — or what they often misleadingly call “optimisation” –as an energy-saving technique (see footnote for more details)
One of my readers was therefore surprised to read an Observer article on the Guardian web site in which a network operator, Electricity North West (ENWL), was touting the benefits of voltage reduction as a way to cut customers’ bills. The article correctly stated that customers’ kettles would take longer to boil because of reduced power output, but suggested wrongly that their consumption would go down as a result. In fact, it will slightly increase because the longer heat-up time increases the duration of heat loss from the kettle, and that extra heat loss needs to be made up from extra electrical energy input (the amount of heat put into the water is the same, so no effect on consumption there). This same perverse result – higher consumption at lower voltage – will apply to all thermal appliances operated on intermittent cycles.
I looked at some research that ENWL had commissioned on parts of their network, which had shown that a 1% drop in substation voltage had resulted in a 1.3% drop in power to connected customers. That is plausible but not the whole story. It’s true that for some unregulated appliances like incandescent lamps and toilet extract fans, reduced power will have resulted in reduced output (which nobody noticed) and hence lower energy consumption. But for thermostatically-controlled appliances like space heaters, ovens and immersion heaters, lower power will be compensated for by increased run times and there will be no saving. ENWL’s public-relations people have confused power (kW) with energy (kWh).
In reality ENWL probably have a different agenda and I think that the research behind their conclusions is part of a lobbying effort to get the legal limits on voltage relaxed, which will make it life easier for them in a world of distributed generation. When customers’ solar panels are generating at their peak, they tend to push the voltage up on the low-voltage network; and conversely being able to drop the voltage maximises how much solar power can be absorbed. Pretending that lowered voltage saves money is part of their pitch.
Different types of electrical equipment will respond in different ways to reduced supply voltages. In short:
1. If the equipment is regulated in any manner, either in terms of its output or internally to maintain set voltages for electronics, don’t expect voltage reduction to save energy.
2. If it is unregulated and you don’t mind reduced output, voltage reduction will save energy.
3. If it is a thermal application used on an intermittent cycle, voltage reduction will have a perverse effect, increasing energy consumption.