At the end of March, the Energy Networks Association launched its new set of Innovation Strategies, focusing on a whole systems approach.
The strategies, put together after months of stakeholder engagement, took into consideration the success of the previous strategies released in 2018 and what is needed to drive innovation in the energy sector in the coming years.
Current± caught up with Randolph Brazier, head of innovation at the ENA, to talk about developing the innovation principles and where the next big innovation will come from.
From talking to the stakeholders, what's driving this need for full systems change?
Decarbonisation is certainly one of the key factors and if you looked at the stakeholder engagement feedback, everyone agreed on that particular principle. But I wouldn't say it was just about decarbonisation.
I think it was also driven by efficiency and customers ultimately, because we believe - and a lot of the studies have shown - that if you optimise the whole energy system, you can maximise your cost savings. That ultimately then gets reflected down to customer bills. So it is largely driven by decarbonisation, but I wouldn’t say that's the only driver.
When you say that's one of the principles everyone agreed on, were there any principles that there was more debate about?
Yes, there's always debate around what is actually classed as innovation and what isn't, and people have differing opinions on that.
A good example might be standards. Now, some people were saying that standards and innovation in standards is something that we should be focusing on. But, almost by definition standards aren't innovation.
I think in the end there was broad agreement with the five key principles and also the five themes that we came up with.
Some of your themes like flexibility form part of the themes from 2018, how far do you think the industry has come since then?
I think in terms of flexibility, we've come quite a long way. Back when these were published, flexibility markets were still in trial phase. Whereas now for the DNOs they're business as usual, which is quite a significant change in two years.
I think the focus of flexibility now needs to be on how you combine local flexibility markets with other energy and flexibility markets. How you combine local and national, for example, but also how you drive more liquidity into those markets and how you give them maybe a bit more of a customer flavour. But we've come a long way in two years on flexibility for sure.
Do you think innovation has already made steps into bridging that gap with engaging with customers?
Yeah, I would say definitely. But there is there is still a way to go. So a lot of the projects focus on how to get customers more engaged with the technology, how to design the interfaces so that they work well with customers and also focusing on vulnerable customers.
But there's still quite a way to go, because historically that hasn't been where the focus of innovation has been. The focus historically has always been the technology itself. Whereas I definitely think we need that more of a customer focus now, on how they use it the technology.
Is there anything that you look for in terms of innovative projects in particular?
I hear from companies interested in participating in network innovation at least once a week, probably more like two or three times a week. And in terms of the sorts of things we're looking for, projects that match our themes, but in particular, we want projects that we haven't done before.
We always encourage people to look at our networks portal and look at what has been done and where the gaps are. So we say to them, have a look at what we've done, if you've got a technology, process or a new piece of kit that we haven't looked at, we want to hear from you.
But also, we want to hear from companies that are interested in delivering that customer benefit, and particularly delivering it from maybe from a different energy vector or from a different sector, bringing in learnings from other areas, particularly outside of electricity or gas. That could be where a lot of innovation is that we are not experts in and we don't really have that much visibility of, so bringing in that sort of whole energy systems view would be something that we're definitely interested in as well.
Do you think that's something that we're seeing more of, that people are happier to collaborate across industries?
Yeah, I think so. I've even seen a significant shift within our membership over the last two or three years. Historically, members haven't really worked much together at all, but now gas and electricity is very close.
I used to spend 100% of my time on electricity. Whereas I reckon these days, I'm probably spending at least 30% of my time on gas as well. And I've seen that with the general industry.
So we've got new interactions happening with water, particularly on the gas side, and with the telecoms industry, who are becoming much more involved in the work we're doing and much more interested in the work we're doing. Also things like 3D printing are becoming big. There's a whole range of different areas that are coming in and that we're seeing are interested in network innovation.
I think there's a realisation from a range of different sectors that we need to work together. And yeah, a lot of it is due to decarbonisation. But I think it's customer benefit and efficiency as well that's driving it.