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Meeting the LV challenge: how networks can become future-ready


  • 15 June 2021

  • Mark Sprawson

2021
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Successfully meeting the challenges facing networks today is about transformational rather than incremental change. And the process of becoming future-ready has huge impacts on how the business operates and how it makes decisions. In reality, a lot of this change is happening down at the low-voltage end. We take a look at some of the key issues...

Beyond the need to still have “transmission for the transition” for large-scale renewables, many challenges come from the need to accommodate domestic customers’ adoption of low-carbon technologies (LCTs). Whether people are connecting their electric vehicles (EVs) and electrifying their heating, or they’re connecting their behind-the-meter storage systems and everything else… down at that low voltage end is where we’re seeing the most significant change at the moment.

Readiness for mass EV uptake

How do you meet that domestic demand? It’s about being ready for the bow wave. There should be millions of EVs on the road in the UK by 2030. But we’re coming from a low base of 200,000 EVs at the moment, so how do you know the best time to get yourself ready for that and, as a network operator, how do you make sure you have the systems in place so that you’re not essentially acting as a barrier?

At the moment, we have a situation where we need to ensure that networks are a huge enabler of the drive towards net zero, rather than inadvertently acting as a blocker because of the lack of systems in place to enable that transition.

The role of data

So what sort of systems are involved? There’s a lot around data and digitalisation going on right now, which needs to continue. There’s been some great work in the UK by the likes of the Energy Data Taskforce, talking about the presumed open nature of data. There’s a lot here that we can share across from the UK into other countries about using open data to facilitate best choices both from a network investment perspective and a consumer perspective. That means sharing with the consumer what’s going on to allow them to make their own choices in an informed way, rather than trying to force certain decisions upon them.

Embracing what we might call a distribution system operator (DSO) role moving forward,rather than a distribution network operator (DNO) role that we have today, is about creating dynamic operating envelopes. Increasingly, we need more “joined-upness” between the network side, who understand how many amps and volts they’ve currently got in their system at a particular point and the other players in the market.

The aggregators and virtual power plant (VPP) operators, for example, have people lined up who are willing to offer flexibility services to the grid. There needs to be something in the middle that then communicates between those two parties and says: here’s what we need, here’s what we’re looking for at the moment – what can you do for us, and how can you ensure the integrity of the network is maintained?

Interleaving those two different systems and engaging with the broader players in the value chain to enable that to happen is a huge opportunity area – and it's going to be absolutely key for DSOs to be successful.

Enabling net zero – moving on from 20th-century tools

On the network side, it’s not just about operations and managing the network in real-time; it’s also about planning. So, if we’re going to have this bow wave of EVs and modern technology, not standing in the way and not slowing down the process for getting those EV charge points connected is going to be crucial. Having better tools and systems that can enable you to fast track those applications will be a key component of this.

We’ve recently had good news with an announcement from Ofgem of the £300M fund to enable green recovery, which is looking at getting more EV infrastructure into service stations and trunk roads, amongst other things.

We’ve also seen some network operators improving their tools and making the customer engagement side of things easier. For example, Northern Powergrid has introduced its Auto Design proposition, a project delivered by EA Technology. Auto Design lets people simply log on through a web portal, fill in their connection details and get an instant quote as to how much it would be to connect their EV charge point, their heat pump, their new house – whatever it might be. This is a significant improvement on having to write to the DNO and wait for all the studies and the response to come back. All those kind of tools that are enablers to do things more quickly are going to be critical to a successful net zero transition.

Energy and transport working together

Finally, it’s about bringing together the energy side and the transport side. Particularly with EVs, it’s about understanding the modelling, not just of amps and volts, but also of transport flows and dwell times and all the things you need when thinking about using charge points. One great initiative in this area, on which EA Technology is a partner, is SP Energy Networks’ Charge project, which brings those two circles of the Venn diagram together, and interleaves them into one all-encompassing tool that will vastly improve outcomes for charge-point operators, customers and networks.

Do you have an energy challenge that needs our advice? Please get in touch!

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Mark Sprawson
Director