John Langley-Davis, Head of Technology, looks at how we focused on security, reliability, affordability and net zero carbon
We are in 2033. The energy crisis 10 years ago triggered a radical transformation of how electricity is regulated, traded, generated, transmitted, distributed and consumed. A decade of change has made UK electricity more secure, reliable, affordable and sustainable. Here’s how it happened.
THE LIGHTBULB MOMENT
The fraught winter of 2022-3 brought a dawning realisation that energy security, affordability and carbon neutrality could not be achieved with stop-start policies and short-term fixes, from subsidising power bills, to scrabbling for more fossil fuels. The issues were not competing for attention. They were inextricably linked. We needed a strategy to address the causes of the emergency, for the long term.
The government created a new Strategic Energy Authority. And it laid the foundations of a new 10-year strategy for the UK electricity industry by bringing together all parties and regional governments, Ofgem and key industry players. It quickly recognised that we already had most of the technologies and innovations we needed to transform the sector. We just needed to deploy them.
We already had most of the technologies and innovations we needed to transform the sector. Now we needed to deploy them.
The result was a realistic route map with actions and binding targets enshrined in law. Successive governments since then have implemented the strategy with little deviation, providing industry players, investors and customers with unprecedented certainty.
SUSTAINABILITY = SECURITY
One of the key lessons from the energy crisis was that UK energy security could only be achieved through a high degree of energy independence — less imported, more home-produced energy that was more reliable, affordable and less subject to the dramatic fluctuations in supply and price than the global fossil fuel market.
The strategists realised we had the potential to deliver security, affordability and sustainability together. The UK was blessed with abundant potential sources of low-carbon energy – wind, solar, hydro, tidal, wave, geothermal and more. And we had the engineering skills and talent for innovation that could harness them.
But in the case of electricity, we needed radical changes to how the industry worked, to deliver the key strategic imperatives: that sustainable energy must always be the best investment and the least-expensive consumer choice.
We needed radical changes to deliver on: ‘Sustainable energy must always be the best investment – and cheapest consumer choice’.
The necessity to tax carbon to fund public investment in renewables was only part of the approach. Major investment from the private sector was attracted through a range of incentives.
By 2023, it was obvious that the model of centralised electricity generation, with distribution to passive consumers and inflexible market trading arrangements, was no longer fit for purpose. Demolishing obstacles that prevented new ways of doing things was one of the first strategic priorities.
First to go were the hurdles which meant that, while renewable installations such as wind or solar could be built in a matter of months, the approval processes for getting them online could take years. The bonfire of red tape was only part of the story. Further obstacles in terms of physical connection to the grid and how the energy was traded were also overcome.
The new strategy encouraged and enabled more renewable generation at every level. For example, rooftop solar (plus better insulation and heat pumps) alongside local battery storage to avoid grid pressures became part of building regulations for all new properties where they were practicable, and realistic incentives for retrofits were reintroduced.
MICROGRIDS GO BIG
Microgrids of all shapes and sizes blossomed across the UK, as already proven models for their creation were refined and developed into templates which could be implemented quickly and economically.
As with commercial renewable installations, the obstacles of lengthy approvals and grid connectivity were overcome. Among the innovations, the adoption of contract-less peer-to-peer trading removed the need for commercial interactions.
The scale of localised grids now ranges from small communities to whole regions and local authorities.
The scale of localised grids now ranges from small communities to whole regions and local authorities. All use whatever generation sources are available in their area, including hydro, tidal and wave, for example, together with a range of storage solutions. Most local communities trade with the grid and many are capable of being wholly self-sufficient when needed.
THE ELECTRICITY INTERNET
The concept of ‘the electricity internet’ caught people’s imagination. Just as the net transformed communications from centrally controlled over narrow channels to an infinitely flexible platform that anyone could use, the idea of a plug-and-play grid gained traction rapidly.
But the electricity platform also needed stable base load. So new nuclear plants already in the pipeline continued to be rolled out, together with smaller modular reactors which were commissioned quickly. Some have been deployed as part of larger regional grids.
Offshore and onshore wind continued to expand, as did solar. Tidal barrages and lagoons, plus wave energy farms, geothermal boreholes and hydro are also playing their parts increasingly. Interconnects stretching from Norway to North Africa are further enabling us to play an active part in the expanding international market for green electricity.
Fossil-based gas is still with us, but it is the fuel of last resort.
Fossil-based gas is still with us, but it is the fuel of last resort, as the costs of renewables have continued to fall and storage provides most of our balancing and standby power.
GREEN HYDROGEN EXPLOSION
The availability of low-cost green hydrogen, produced in volume when there is a surplus of renewable electricity, has driven its widespread adoption as part of our energy mix.
Hydrogen’s versatility as a means of storing and transporting energy has led to a multitude of uses: in fuel cells, a new generation of clean internal combustion engines and in addition to the remaining natural gas network.
Above all, green hydrogen from surplus renewable plants maximises their effectiveness and delivers valuable returns for investors.
THE POWER OF STORAGE
The massive increase in our capacity to store and release electricity on demand has proved key for integrating intermittent renewables and balancing the grid. The old argument that ‘renewables don’t work when there’s no wind or sun’ has faded into history.
Storage is now deployed at every point on the grid, from industrial super-sites to part of local microgrids, to domestic houses.
Incremental improvements in battery technology over the decade have made them more affordable, more energy dense, longer lasting, and all with faster charging and discharge rates. They are increasingly deployed at every point on the grid, from industrial super-sites to parts of local microgrids, to domestic houses.
The 12 million (and rising) electric vehicles on UK roads are also an integral part of our electricity infrastructure. The great majority are connected to their suppliers via truly smart meters, providing a vast, interactive electricity storage resource and enabling the intelligent deployment of automatic time-of-use pricing and demand side management.
Batteries have not proved the only storage solution. Pumped water, phase-change materials and heat stores are all playing their part.
GRID UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT
The UK electricity industry has been re-engineered rather than physically rebuilt. Everything was on the table in 2023, from how electricity was traded and priced to how investment was to be justified and funded. The driver was simple: what do we need to do to make the 10 year strategy happen?
Existing players were given new, more flexible roles, which liberated their ability to embrace and deliver change. The model shifted dramatically from centralised generation-to-passive-customer, to distributed generation and highly interactive relationships with localised microgrids and individual customers. Many innovations that were proven effective at demonstration stage were fast-tracked into mainstream deployment.
DNOs completed their transition to DSOs, enabling them to do far more ‘other side of the meter’
Trading arrangements were reviewed and revised. DNOs completed their transition to DSOs, enabling them to do far more ‘other side of the meter’. And the universal roll-out of comms-enabled smart meters enabled DSOs and electricity retailers to work together to make best use of time-of-use pricing (TUP), demand side management (DSM) and microgrid resources for consumers.
FROM DUMB TO DIGITAL
So — how did we adapt a distribution infrastructure built for the old world, without having to start again and rebuild the whole thing at enormous cost? The answer was to make the existing grid a lot smarter, by overlaying it with wholesale digitisation and communication, then to use the new capabilities to roll out new ways to control and maintain it.
Digitisation and communication have enabled the application of automatic voltage regulation across whole networks, playing a key role in balancing loads from increasingly complex connections to the grid, from both supply and demand sides. The use of artificial intelligence and deep machine learning now enable operators to maintain voltages and reliable services automatically, and in rapidly changing situations.
Their applications now range from automatic voltage control to asset management, including predicting and fixing faults long before they cause outages. The industry moved from responding to failures to preventing them happening.
The industry has moved from responding to failures, to preventing them happening.
As usage patterns have changed, with more electric vehicles, heat pumps and photovoltaics coming on stream, the difference between minimum and maximum load has become increasingly diverse in terms of magnitude, location and time. This has driven the adoption of more active regulation of voltage throughout the network, in coordination with other techniques already being deployed.
REASONS TO BE CHEERFUL
Here in 2033, we in the UK are a lot less dependent on imported electricity – most of it fossil based – than we were a decade ago. The electricity we use is overwhelmingly home-produced, well managed and reliable. So we have a high level of energy security.
Our strategy of harnessing the UK’s abundant availability of natural forces to generate electricity has proven to be attractive to investors and the right long-term choice for industry and consumers. Our electricity is affordable and largely immune from the shocks of volatile international markets. And we are a long way further on the road to making Britain carbon neutral.
The UK electricity industry has changed from being a heavy cost to the national economy, to a vibrant sector with long-term, high-skilled jobs and growing energy exports. The technologies we and other innovative SMEs have pioneered in voltage control, digitisation, AI, control, automation and predictive maintenance are reaching international markets.
The UK electricity revolution is far from over. But there is much to celebrate in 2033.
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