The UK’s energy system is changing. There is now more low carbon generation from renewable sources than ever before, and this is only going to increase as generators strive to meet the UK’s climate change targets and net zero commitment.
This move to renewable energy means that the grid of the future will also need to adapt to be low-carbon, smarter and more flexible than it is now.
In a recent webinar episode of Energy Talks, Sebastian Van Dort, BSI’s Associate Director of Energy spoke to John Parsons, Director of Digital at BEAMA. BEAMA is the UK’s trade association for manufacturers of electrotechnical products, including providers of energy infrastructure technologies and systems.
John shared valuable insights into how the grid of the future could develop. We’ve distilled his key observations on the key milestones for success, potential barriers and the role standards can play in innovation and digitalization.
Sebastian Van Dort: What, in your view, is driving this change to the energy grid?
John Parsons: There are three key drivers behind all this. There is a move away from huge coal-fired and, to some extent, nuclear power stations, towards renewable sources which are more decentralized. Energy from conventional power stations is generally predictable and reliable, whereas energy from renewable sources such as wind and solar is intermittent, and therefore more unpredictable. This means that, if we’re to harness renewables effectively, we need to reshape the grid to accommodate them.
Another major factor is the move towards electrically powered vehicles, which the Government is backing, and more heat switching from gas to electric. This will mean major loads from transport and heat shifting on to the grid, increasing the burden on the network.
The third factor behind changes to the grid, and a key enabler, is digitalization. There are now many digital tools, services and products that network operators can call on to provide the flexibility that the switch to renewables demands. Recent years have also seen an increase in the availability of data engineering software skills to support the uptake of digitalization in the energy sector.
Sebastian Van Dort: Looking ahead, what are the significant milestones that we need to hit to have a fully flexible grid by 2030 and 2050?
John Parsons: A lot of basic rules governing how the new system will operate need to be sorted out and various organizations are looking into how these might work. For example, the Energy Networks Association (ENA) has its Open Networks Project that is looking, amongst many other topics, at the relationship and interactions between the Electricity Network Operators (ESOs) and the Distribution System Operators (DSOs). There are questions such as, does the ESO contract for flexibility from the residential sector or should they always go through the DSO?
Planning and market rules need to be put in place that give DSOs and Distribution Network Operators (DNOs) the right incentives and the right mechanisms to purchase residential flexibility that will allow them to maximize their use of renewable sources. For flexibility services, ideally this would be a simple, standardized approach that would make it straightforward for the stakeholders in the energy sector. A system for pricing and network charging also needs to be defined to create the right incentives for all parties.
Then there is the major issue of access to data. In 2019 a report commissioned by the Government, Ofgem and Innovate UK found that energy data is often of poor quality, inaccurate or missing and data that is valuable is often restricted or hard to find. It made recommendations for implementing an integrated data and digital strategy to modernize the UK energy system and drive it towards net zero.
Linked to data is cyber security and resilience of the system. With an increasing use of remote control and balancing services, network operators, generators and energy users will need to be reassured that their data is safe and secure and that the networks are protected against cyber attack.
On the customer side, users will need to invest in appliances with smart capability so that they have the necessary functionality to interact with a new, flexible system.
Sebastian Van Dort: There are a lot of key enablers and milestones. Are there any barriers that we have to overcome and address?
John Parsons: It is essential to make sure that innovation isn’t stifled. There is a lot of useful innovation going on in this area and it’s a tricky balance to get right between bringing in a level of standardization that facilitates the development of a new system and one that blocks innovation. If you standardize too early you can stifle innovation. However, if you standardize the right things you actually create platforms that open up a market.
We also need to develop the right kind of market model that incentivizes all the different stakeholders in the UK energy market to support innovation. With so many stakeholders in the UK energy market, this requires a level of openness and cooperation that might be difficult to achieve.
Sebastian Van Dort: What do you feel is the role of standards in supporting the shift to the smarter, lower carbon and flexible grid?
John Parsons: There are two key roles that standards have. One is in spreading best practice, for which standards are critical. A lot of new companies are innovating but they don’t want to invent everything from scratch. Using standards saves a lot of time and trouble providing reassurance that a business is, for example, using robust and up-to-date technologies.
The other is interoperability. You could have a thousand people doing different versions of flexibility but it will cause huge issues with customers when they want to change providers or buy kit for one system rather than another. Standards make this so much easier, as they ensure that there aren’t multiple versions of something all trying to do same job. This helps to accelerate the growth of the market as well.
Sebastian Van Dort: Finally, does AI have a role in supporting all of this?
John Parsons: The role of AI could be quite interesting and relates to important issues. The way networks are developing means it is going to be beyond the ability off a control room operator to make decisions fast enough. It is therefore quite likely that AI systems will end up running networks.
That however, requires operators to have the confidence that a system run by AI will react in the right way under all circumstances. The risk is that if you use AI for an operational system, and it goes wrong, you potentially bring the network down. There will need to be a lot of work to ensure that this technology can be used without the risk of unforeseen and unintended consequences.
Click below to watch the full episode of Energy Talks: The future, flexible and low-carbon energy grid.