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Partnership announcement: CNZ x The Alan Turing Institute

Ryan Jenkinson   •   28 October 2021

What does the rise in electrification mean for the grid as we decarbonise — and how can we ensure that it is future-proof and resilient?

Answering this question is critical to a successful energy transition. As low carbon technology adoption accelerates (such as electric vehicles (EVs) and heat pumps), doomsayers are shouting louder about the threat of apocalyptic ‘energy blackouts’. Clearly, protecting people from any potential fallout from overburdened grids is at the heart of current and future strategies that energy network providers are pulling together — but there’s work to be done to build a comprehensive understanding of the challenges and opportunities that the rise in electrification presents.

Our current knowledge is incomplete: we’re yet to confront the levels of load demand of the future. The grid was built in the decades where household electricity demand was modest compared to the electrified future, so our understanding of how increased power needs will impact the grid is limited, particularly for some parts of the network.

The electricity grid is an interconnected system with the Energy System Operator (ESO) — National Grid — monitoring high voltage transmission and the Distribution Network operators (DNOs) monitoring lower voltage levels. To date, we haven’t had to rely on the lowest levels of the distribution network, which connect houses and local businesses, to offer grid flexibility; higher voltage networks offer the most obvious route for the grid to rebalance supply and demand.

Yet as we begin to electrify and adopt more low carbon technologies, low voltage networks will be placed under unprecedented load demands. Our new project collaboration, with researchers at Newcastle University and The Alan Turing Institute (the national institute for data science and artificial intelligence), will model the impact on the lowest levels of the grid. By understanding the conditions at which the grid is most at risk of having the load breach capacity and statutory voltage limits in rural and urban areas, we can help the grid and its operators to plan ahead.

Leveraging our relationship with Octopus Energy, we can provide real world data in the form of anonymised smart meter readings from customers with low carbon technologies in rural and urban areas. We will look at usage on different types of days (weekday vs weekend) and across seasons.

Our partners, researchers Dr Myriam Neaimeh and Dr Matthew Deakin, will use different combinations and slices of the profiles to run through their model — which was created as part of the Supergen Energy Networks Hub — to generate insights around the variability of load conditions across seasons and day types.

Our research will enable network providers to understand the variability and resilience of the grid under different low-carbon technology penetration levels across the seasons. For example, we’d expect to see heat pump usage increase in the winter compared to the summer; EV charging is likely to be higher on weekdays when people are commuting compared to weekends. Whatever the outcome, this analysis will enable energy network providers to better manage increased power needs and build a grid that’s fit for everyone in the future.

Our ambition is that this project can help push both research and narratives around the grid forward — by encouraging more open sourcing of relevant datasets and by spotlighting the potential of the low voltage network as a key flexibility asset. For example, the electricity network models used in this study will be made accessible as part of an openly available cloud-based tool being developed as part of a vehicle-to-grid innovation project funded by OZEV and BEIS, ‘e4future’ and the Turing’s data-centric engineering programme grant from the Lloyd’s Register Foundation.

In practice, there is a lot of variability amongst lower voltage networks that depend on the DNO and the locality. It’s our hope that the outcomes of this collaboration will encourage DNOs to open up datasets on low voltage (LV) network capacities for research. Recently, UKPN (the DNO for London, East Anglia and the South East) open sourced their data portal. Whilst it doesn’t contain specific information about the LV level, it’s a step in the right direction towards sharing key data with researchers who are trying to learn more about the impacts of electrification.

We also want to raise the level of ambition for what is possible when it comes to the future of the grid. The outputs of this work shouldn’t inevitably result in a focus on the investment required to reinforce networks and infrastructure. If everyone adopts EVs and they can intelligently shift load, then the grid can make much better use of its current infrastructure, without necessarily needing to spend large amounts on reinforcements.

However, the grid needs to know what levels of electrification constitute a ‘tipping point’ (e.g. of EV ownership) whereby a typical rural and urban network would be placed under significant strain. It’s our ambition that this research will answer that question, and help the grid to plan more effectively.

By planning, we mean:

  1. Scoping and building a more progressive LV flexibility market to enable load shifting, to minimise the requirement for network reinforcements.
  2. Engaging with researchers to identify network pinch points (moving beyond the ‘average’ network topologies in rural vs urban).
  3. Supporting the government with policy implementation, such as making it mandatory that all EV charge points have smart charging capabilities.

We’re kickstarting work in Q4 2021 and look forward to sharing outputs with interested parties in Q2 2022.

This project exists because we believe that flexibility has a big role to play in a fair, fast pathway to a decarbonised electricity grid. In order to design a grid fit for the future, we need to better understand how the built environment and local planning can interact with energy and flexibility services. If you also have ambitions in this space, we would love to hear from you!