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LCNI Conference 2019: the DNOs leading the way

Last week Delta-EE attended the 2019 Low Carbon Network Innovation conference in Glasgow. It was a great opportunity to learn more about the range of innovation projects DNOs are currently developing and to discuss our transition to a low-carbon energy system.  

The growth of distributed renewable energy is widely regarded as a positive step towards the UK meeting its 2050 net-zero climate target. However, whilst this goal is necessary there is no escaping the challenges it presents for the electricity networks. Distribution networks in the UK are being required to accommodate ever increasing amounts of intermittent renewable generation such as solar PV, and wind. At the same time, they have been called upon to support the electrification of heat and transport with rapidly increasing demand for EV charging and heat pumps. Both present challenges.  

With the rise in distributed energy, questions around system integration are never far away.

Consequently, the idea of the UKs electricity network being a network of smaller system that are highly integrated, or a ‘system of systems’ if you will, is increasing in prominence due to the possibility to increase resilience and facilitation of greater support to remote locations.

A range of ideas were presented at the conference including Project LEO, a virtual system in Oxford run by SSEN, and Northern Powergrid’s microresilience project, aiming to create four islandable microgrids on the LV network. Although these are only two examples, they stand to highlight the trajectory of thinking within the industry. It may be that, rather than necessarily being an issue to overcome, the growth of properly integrated distributed energy system assets can aid in increasing resilience, and possibly even reduce the need for costly grid infrastructure upgrades.  

National Grid, SPEN and TNEI are collaborating on revolutionising the approach to black-start capabilities in the UK. Presently the UK keeps traditional large-scale fossil fuel plants on standby in case they are needed for black-start purposes. However, with this new project, Distributed ReStart, the aim is for a range of distributed sources (natural gas turbines, biomass generators, hydro power, wind and solar) to be used collectively to restore the country’s electricity supply following a total system failure.

There remain, of course, many questions that need answering. For example, what would be the level of automation required to co-ordinate so many distributed assets? How can networks be effectively segregated? However, this project may signal an alternative approach to black start, replacing our dependence on conventional, carbon intensive assets.

My third and final takeaway resonated throughout all conversations and presentations at the conference: the rise of data.

Data and the subsequent knowledge and control that it provides will undoubtedly be critical in networks’ ability to navigate towards a more decentralised, renewable energy system. Data will be critical in the implementation of both a ‘system of systems’ and distributed black-start along with virtually every other innovation. We have moved away from a system dominated by few large generators, to one that is littered with flexible generation. Whilst this presents many opportunities, in order create the most value, the role of data and data management will need to be fully developed.  

Islandable energy systems are a key topic we are exploring here at Delta within our Local Energy Systems research service. If you would like to learn more about this fascinating area, please get in touch. 

Overall there was a resounding sense that change must take place; gone are the days where short term measures will suffice. To borrow a metaphor from the conference, rather than arguing about how high the mountain is whilst sitting at the bottom, why don’t we start climbing and work it out along the way.

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