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Jim Cardwell. Image: Northern Powergrid.
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‘Decarbonisation starts at home’: Northern Powergrid on delivering a net zero network

Jim Cardwell. Image: Northern Powergrid.

Delivering net zero carbon emissions is the biggest and most important challenge of our time. The Government recently announced its 10 Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution and with it, further set the UK on the road to net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

As a traditionally carbon intensive sector, energy has a huge role to play in enabling this future. Four of the 10 points directly relate to the energy sector and the other six relate indirectly. All of them impact our future.

Principally built in the 1950-70s, our current electricity network, understandably, wasn’t originally designed to support the transition to net zero. We are working to change this. Our lives will soon be powered by zero carbon energy; be that from the 40GW of promised offshore wind, a solar panel on top of a household roof or an electric vehicle getting you from A to B, and through the 2020s, our electricity network is being adapted to serve this different world.

Northern Powergrid is the Distribution Network Operator for the North East, Yorkshire and northern Lincolnshire. Our region is at the forefront of the green transition, with the North East quickly becoming the epicentre of the offshore wind boom, the green industry hub of Humberside trailblazing carbon capture and storage technology, and economic centers like Leeds and York pioneering innovative green city strategies.

From Sheffield to Sunderland and Huddersfield to Hull, over two thirds of local authorities in our area have a declared a climate emergency. We are listening and are committed to accelerating this cleaner, greener future for everyone.

Future business planning

In our current business planning period –RIIO-ED1 – we’ve already worked to lay the foundations for the additional capability that will be needed on our network to deliver decarbonisation. This period closes in 2023, when the next period – RIIO-ED2 – will begin.

In this next stage of our business plan, we can either maintain the status quo, or invest more to achieve decarbonisation more quickly in line with both the UK legal requirement, of net zero carbon emissions by 2050, and our regional stakeholders’ expectations, who, in many cases, are looking to quicken the transition to earlier than this.

We have already published our emerging thinking, including a range of delivery and price options for RIIO-ED2. Now, we’re looking to gather feedback from our customers and industry to help finalise our plans.

Low carbon connections

The UK electricity system must evolve to support a significant increase of low carbon technologies, such as heat pumps, solar panels and electric vehicles (EVs). As a regional network operator, we therefore want to make it as simple as possible for people to connect low carbon technologies to our network.

This is even more important as we work to build back better from COVID-19. To us, every new low carbon electricity connection marks a contribution to the green economic recovery.

At the same time, it is essential that everyone benefits from the energy transition – it must not be exclusively for those who can afford it. We want to use innovative technologies to drive costs down for those in fuel poverty and reduce power cuts for everyone including those who are most vulnerable (for example, those that are medically dependent on their electricity).

Flexibility first

Flexible electricity use and network operation will be the most cost-efficient route to achieve net zero for the region and for all our customers, and we are championing a ‘flexibility first’ approach to managing and developing the network.

Practically, a flexible approach could involve customers being paid by us to change when they use electricity. It also means we will use more innovative network solutions to operate a more active grid.

By capturing and harnessing increasing quantities of valuable data to make these solutions a reality, and using both customer flexibility and smart solutions, we can reduce the need for traditional network reinforcement.

We can also deliver additional benefits to more customers by making the energy system data available to other organisations. For example, an energy supplier could reward a customer flexing their electricity use to times when there is a surplus of green energy, such as during a windy night.

Decarbonisation starts at home

As well as directly supporting our customers, energy networks must also lead by example in the journey towards net zero and we’re pledging to achieve net zero in our own operations by 2050 at a minimum.

If our customers agree, we could also invest more to fast-track our net zero ambitions to 2035. The most ambitious option would cost each of our customers an average of 67p more per year. This would enable us to install renewable generation at 60% of our major substations and make over 65 fleet vehicles ultra-low emission every year.

Deciding the path to net zero

Decarbonisation is coming. The Government’s 10-point plan was another clear indicator that now is the time to accelerate towards net zero.

As a partner and enabler of green energy, DNOs like ourselves must be ready to work closely with stakeholders to understand their zero carbon plans and support by delivering any key network changes required to make this a reality.

And as an anchor organisation in the local economy, we must also be prepared to enable the transition with minimal disruption and maximum benefit to the communities we serve.

It is vital that we work to balance these priorities and our customers and industry peers can help with this, by offering their thoughts on our pathway to net zero to shape our next business planning period.

Northern Powergrid has a dedicated microsite that presents a series of suggested options for our customers to choose from, including an ambitious model that accelerates decarbonisation and delivers high levels of customer flexibility to significantly increase the amount of renewable power on the system, all for an additional £4.29 per year on each average domestic electricity bill.

The decisions we make today will impact our region’s ability to achieve net zero. This is a huge opportunity to deliver a cleaner and more reliable energy system for all, and transform the region into a low carbon economic powerhouse.

Jim Cardwell Head of policy development, Northern Powergrid

Jim Cardwell, is head of policy development at DNO Northern Powergrid.

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