Complex Adaptive Systems, Cognitive Agents and Distributed Energy (CASCADE): a Complexity Science-Based Investigation into the Smart Grid Concept

Lead Research Organisation: De Montfort University
Department Name: Institute of Energy and Sustainable Dev


It is widely acknowledged that the power industry faces a number of serious challenges including infrastructure, capacity constraints and the need to reduce greenhouse gas and other, but more complex issues have arisen from deregulation in many countries. This has resulted in a form of balkanisation that tends to cause additional stress to the legacy electricity grid, which has a structure based on centralised command and management of large scale generating plant, long-range high voltage transmission and local low voltage distribution networks. A number of interrelated problems on varying scales and at different levels need to be addressed, including the need for expensive standby capacity to meet peak loads, high capital cost and long lead-times for new plant, vulnerability to energy security threats of various kinds, and non-technical barriers to distributed energy resources (DERs) and more flexible and sophisticated energy services that might lead to greater energy efficiency.There are signs that a new paradigm for the modern electricity industry is being defined with a decentralised model based on recent and expected advances in DERs and electricity storage technology and, in particular, rapid developments in information and communication technology that will enable the wide scale deployment of smart devices. Particularly in the USA, this new concept - known as the smart grid - is attracting large scale investment and policy recognition, with some commentators comparing its development to that of the Internet and predicting change on a scale that could represent a paradigm shift of a similar kind for the electricity industry and its end-users. If this indeed occurs, then centralist theories, laws and techniques will at some point cease to be valid as the means of control.As well as being a new paradigm for business, the Internet has been considered to be a paradigm case for complexity theory and the parallel with the smart grid concept indicates the appropriateness of this new science as the means of articulating and answering the challenges it sets. The existing structure and organisation of the power industry provides the essential starting point and context for meaningful research into the mechanisms underlying the envisioned evolution, which may represent an example of a punctuated equilibrium. Complex systems thinking and modelling is all about the occurrence of such major, structural changes and the possible ways that the system may evolve under different policies and interventions. These factors combine to offer a unique opportunity to gain important insights into the emergence of self organisation and the evolution of complex adaptive systems in scenarios with extremely high relevance for a range of vital policy issues affecting energy security, carbon reduction and fuel poverty. Complexity science offers both a synergistic conceptual framework for the research questions raised and provides a set of tools and approaches particularly suited to their solution. This research will be based primarily on agent-based modelling, which enables simulation of the complexity arising from many non-linear, dynamic, history-dependent, multi-scale interactions with feedback effects that would defeat traditional equation-based and statistical modelling. Techniques not typical of previous modelling and simulation of this kind will be developed to reflect the special features of the problem domain, in particular the close coupling of socio-economic and technical systems, in which human and artificial intelligent agents are modelled and simulated together, and the need to find appropriate levels and forms of cognitive representation. The models will be based on evidence from the wealth of previous research into energy usage and supply issues and in particular from recent examples of small scale deployment of the technologies and mechanisms identified as key to the evolution of the smart grid as a complex adaptive system.
Description The main objective was to design and develop a new agent-based modelling framework capable of supporting investigation into the potential of the smart electricity grid in relation to key aspects of current UK and international energy policy. This was achieved and the developed framework was used as the basis for published findings by the project showing: 1) how automated demand response for dwellings (with heat pumps, electric vehicles and smart energy controllers) can satisfy renewable electricity generation and network constraints simultaneously through the development of a novel method allowing demand to be predicted and shaped; 2) the potential of this approach for balancing conflicting interests between electricity consumers, suppliers, and distribution network operators; 3) the likely influence of high penetrations of distributed intermittent power generation on the electricity balancing mechanism based on a new model of the operating decisions and control mechanisms of the system operator and the functions of various trading entities within the electricity market; 4) the impact that micro-generation adoption, in particular photovoltaic panels, will have on energy consumption in a smart grid context, particularly the geographic location of distributed generation as compared to consumption and urban centres.
Exploitation Route With further whole system development - for which funding has been obtained - the CASCADE Framework could be used directly by industry or provided by the developers on a consultancy basis to model and elucidate complex aspects of the smart grid, particularly those requiring a whole system solution. Given the fundamental relationship between this industry and government and its central importance it is expected that the Framework could be used to give insights into key drivers of energy policy and to assist in the formulation of integrated initiatives. The potential of the research for exploitation is apparent in the Summary of Project Findings. The applied nature of the research and its firm basis in industry relevant concerns can more specifically be exploited through close consultation with electricity industry partners, the industry regulator and policymakers. Successful workshop events have been hosted involving E.on UK, Ecotricity, Western Power, Ofgem and DECC. It is clear that the focus of the research is very close to current policy interests and has the potential for adoption by industry in various ways. Further funding has been obtained for three years giving the opportunity to further test and pursue these and additional ideas energetically in close collaboration with these key players.
Sectors Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software)




Description The modelling framework developed was used to develop an algorithm for domestic demand response. This forms the basis for the winning entry to the NESTA Dynamic Demand Challenge by Exegy Devices in 2014, assisted by CASCADE.The work has led to real world trials in an Innovate UK funded project. The trail from industrial partner to the acadamic output linked to the project can be followed form this url:, which describes the algorithm "Demand Shaper" developed using the CASCADE framework. The Energy Local website also refers to this work:
First Year Of Impact 2014
Sector Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Energy
Impact Types Societal


Description Agent-based modelling of electricity networks (AMEN)
Amount £561,836 (GBP)
Funding ID EP/K033492/1 
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2013 
End 03/2016
Description An agent-based and object-oriented modelling framework to support research into smart electricity grid issues. 
Type Of Technology Software 
Year Produced 2013 
Open Source License? Yes  
Impact The framework has been used to develop a demand-side response concept currently being trialled by the CEGADS project (EPSRC/Innovate UK). This concept was also the basis for the Nesta Dynamic Demand Challenge 2014 prize winning entry. 
Description CASCADE: Complex Adaptive Systems, Cognitive Agents and Distributed Energy 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience
Results and Impact This is the CASCADE project website, which conveys up to date progress information on the project including outcomes and background information
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2010