The UK faces a conundrum in the coming years. We have to cut carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050, yet our electricity demand is set to double by then.

The Institution of Mechanical Engineers has predicted UK energy demand could outstrip supply within just a decade.

© Open Energi
© Open Energi

While the energy market might be overshadowed by Brexit negotiations and global political turmoil, blackouts would inevitably plunge the UK into crisis. 

But rather than being paralysed by fear, a handful of tech startups are getting to work. Their focus: ensuring we use the energy we generate a lot more efficiently.

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An astonishing 54 percent of energy produced in the UK is wasted, according to the Association for Decentralised Energy. So how do we bring that number down?

One startup called Electron thinks it has found an elegant solution: blockchain.

The benefits of blockchain in this space is that the distributed ledger technology allows all players to exist on one platform without handing power to any single entity. This creates transparency, provides a framework for collaboration and creates an immutable, time-stamped record of trades and switches between suppliers, according to Electron cofounder Joanna Hubbard.

Electron has built two products on the Ethereum blockchain. The first is 'Demand Side Response' trading (which encourages sites to decrease energy use and sell excess energy back to the National Grid).

The second is a service that makes it about 20 times faster for consumers to switch energy suppliers than current rates, thanks to a register Electron has built of all 53 million supply point meters in the UK (which measure our energy consumption). It would let customers switch in two or three hours, rather than the current weeks or months.

"Blockchain is a great way to unravel customers and companies in the energy space. We're really trying to sell the benefits it can bring," says Hubbard.

"The idea is to be able to access all suppliers on one blockchain. The tricky thing is we need all of the suppliers to use it. We have to have everyone buying in. The government has been very supportive though," she says.

This reselling of energy - dubbed 'Demand Side Response' or DSR - is the most cost and carbon efficient way to balance the grid, according to Electron, letting us make best use of existing renewable capacity.

And Electron is not the only UK tech company working on this problem.

A more established player, Open Energi, was started a decade ago by a 'mad inventor' who had the idea that if every fridge in the UK could just be switched off for a few more minutes every day, it would save a vast amount of energy.

This proved too hard to monetise, so the company refocused on the industrial sector – water, utilities and aggregate companies, plus retail (Sainsbury's is a client).

"If there's excess energy we pay the balance back to the National Grid…some of these big utilities companies can essentially become energy suppliers," technical director Michael Bironneau tells Techworld.

Its technology, which consists of a small control panel used to increase or decrease electricity consumption, is installed at 500 sites across the UK.

Say a chiller or air conditioner is designed to be between 18 and 20 degrees. If Open Energi detects there is surfeit of power on the grid, it can switch the chiller on. If there's less power, it can switch it off – helping to smooth out demand and save the client money (while also making our National Grid more efficient), he explains.

This sort of DSR technology works for any sector with flexibility over energy consumption, Bironneau says.

"We're exploiting clients' flexibility on their behalf. It acts as a revenue share – we are paid by the National Grid, and we share percentage of that revenue with the client," he adds.

While laudable, clearly these companies can't solve the UK's energy crisis alone. It's a problem that will need government leadership, plus funding and support.

However what these startups do show is that technology will be a huge part of the solution to our energy conundrum. We just need the political will and imagination to solve it.