Around the UK, both transmission and distribution networks are undergoing rapid development to ease grid connection concerns.
Network operators are looking beyond traditional upgrades to how enhanced flexibility measures and smart technologies can increase the capacity of the system.
In the latest instalment of our Current± Explores: The Grid Connection Conundrum, we spoke to Alex Howard, product manager, Distribution System Operator at UK Power Networks about how the network is rolling out flexibility.
How much flexibility has UK Power Networks tendered since 2017, and how far has this gone to reducing the need for infrastructure expansion?
Since our first tender, we have awarded more than 850MW of flexibility contracts across more than 200 zones. The primary use of this has been to defer needs to upgrade the network
This experience of procuring and dispatching flexibility provided the learning and confidence to make flexibility a central part of our latest business plan (covering 2023-28) – deferring more than £400 million of new infrastructure that we would otherwise expect to be required.
We are currently running our biggest flexibility procurement to date – seeking more than 500MW across more than 1,000 zones.
We have come a long way building a flex market from scratch and we are continuing to work with flex providers to develop new products and a more commercially attractive marketplace.
How is technology helping to negate the need for network upgrades in the short-term?
Data and technology have been key to our success to date and are a big focus of our future plans. Key examples include:
We have developed a world-class Distributed Energy Resource Management System (DERMS), which enables us to monitor constraints in our network in real-time. It means we can offer highly accurate flexible connections and manage the available capacity on our network in an intelligent way.
We have built an unrivalled picture of what is happening on our low voltage network thanks to our ongoing investment in Low Voltage visibility and drawing on data from a wide range of sources. This means we have a really granular understanding of network utilisation, enabling us to fast-track connections applications where we know there is spare capacity.
We use a software platform called Piclo to advertise our flexibility requirements and allow flexibility providers to record their capabilities and pricing. We plan to extend this ‘market platform’ capability – focusing on better user experience, more automation and greater use of APIs to ensure flexibility works seamlessly for the whole energy system.
How important is collaboration to driving network flexibility, for example through UK Power Networks’ Open Data Portal?
As the UK decarbonises, collaboration is absolutely critical. This needs to bring together many different types of organisation – from system operators, to flexibility providers, developers, local planners and energy consumers.
Collaboration has been fundamental to growing a successful flexibility market – we have co-designed and co-created products with the industry from the outset.
Our Open Data Portal includes one of the UK’s biggest sets of information about the electricity network. It also includes links to some of the most useful third party datasets to support local net zero planning. Data is accessible to everyone, and where it is UK Power Networks data it comes with an open license that allows stakeholders to use freely for their own purpose.
We are part of Microsoft’s global Industry Data for Society Partnership (IDSP), which is a first-of-its-kind cross-industry partnership to help advance more open and accessible private-sector data for societal good.
There are a number of other critical collaborations that we would highlight:
- Collaboration with the ESO – to ensure that resources connected to the distribution network can also help to resolve transmission or national issues. For example, we are currently working with the ESO on Regional Development Programmes in the South East and East of England to accelerate the connection of renewables and battery storage in the face of constraints on the transmission network
- Collaboration with other Distribution Network Operators through our trade body the ENA’s Open Networks Project
- Collaboration with local authorities – to develop coherent place-based Net Zero plans across electricity, transport and buildings
How are projects like UK Power Networks’ Smart Connect system helping to streamline grid connections?
Thanks to Smart Connect we are now processing over 9,000 low carbon technology (LCT) connection requests every month – a 300% increase in volumes in less than one year.
In 2022, 85% of applications to connect low carbon technology to our network were processed autonomously by Smart Connect, with 80% automatically approved.
Smart Connect is an online connections portal we have developed to provide installers and customers with a more efficient way to connect their device to our electricity network. It is a free service that can currently be used when connecting one or more new low carbon technologies at an existing single dwelling/premise (domestic or non-domestic) with an existing electricity connection of up to 100amps per phase.
With the RIIO-ED2 price period set to start in April, how important is the increased network investment for net zero?
Demonstrating the leadership to make Net Zero a reality requires us to recognise that aspects of the future cannot be known with certainty. Whilst the target of Net Zero by 2050 is clear, the pathways to get there are uncertain.
We need to ensure that our networks do not block the path to decarbonisation, but we also need to protect consumers from unnecessary bill increases – the importance of this has been heightened by the tough economic conditions resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic and recent energy price rises.
Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
In April we are launching the UK’s first ever independent Distribution System Operator (DSO). This will give us the transparency, speed and independence needed to unlock the benefits of a thriving flexibility market and deliver more than £400 million of benefits to customers by 2028.
Our DSO will be overseen by an independent Supervisory Board. The Board will help ensure we act transparently and demonstrably in the interests of customers.