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ENA publishes major innovation strategy for future electricity networks

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Image: National Grid

The Energy Networks Association (ENA) has set out its strategy for how innovation can be used to future proof the UK’s electricity networks in the wake of rapidly emerging trends in the country’s energy system.

Published jointly alongside a similar innovation strategy for gas networks, the ENA’s electricity plan sets out how network companies can best utilise and share the learnings from innovation projects for the development of the wider UK grid system while also benefiting customers.

Electricity networks are already undergoing significant changes in the wake of a growing decarbonisation, digitisation and decentralisation energy system.

The ENA says the new strategy is needed to accommodate the shift of generation assets on the grid, which are expected to be mainly renewable in the near term; changing energy demands and behaviour from more engaged, active customers; policy drivers such as the Clean Growth Strategy; the emergence of a smart, flexible energy system and distribution system operators (DSO); and the uncertainty and challenges faced by network companies as a result of all of these factors.

The association’s strategy therefore sets three key objectives for innovation that it hopes will play a role in overcoming these concerns:

  1. Identify opportunities for the continuous improvement of our networks and deliver improved value to our customers;
  2. Find new ways to make our service more reliable, more affordable, more accessible, cleaner and safer, and;
  3. Provide us the flexibility to better respond to the changing requirements of our customers, both today and tomorrow.

Within these goals, the ENA has identified five key areas in which innovation can be used to address specific issues in need of action, beginning with network improvements and system operability.

The goal of this theme is to use innovation to further develop asset management strategies able to minimise the costs of managing ageing assets and network risk. This area of work will also include further development of active management of generation output based on network constraints to reduce the time needed to connect new assets.

The strategy structures proposed activity within each themed section across three broad areas, with the network improvements section charted out to 2022 and beyond.

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The second key theme is how innovation can be used to take on the transition to a low carbon future, specifically by providing “essential” flexibility to networks. Demand side response was held up as one of the main elements of this work to assist in allowing for faster network connections.

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Next, the ENA argues that new technologies and commercial evolution will need to be addressed if the future electricity network is to be a success. It argues that the variety of new technologies deployed on the networks will require the system to be interoperable and adaptive such that new solutions can be readily integrated.

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Shifting the focus of network companies towards one of ‘outstanding customer experience’ is also intended to be aided by innovation in the networks, with a goal to deliver the strategy in the most economic and efficient manner whilst operating the network in a safe and reliable way.

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Finally health, safety and environmental projection are also included in the strategy, with work set to revolve around the delivery of environmental and social obligations; protecting public and workers; reducing carbon emissions; reducing the visual and noise impacts of the assets; and ensuring the workforce of the future is equipped with appropriate knowledge and skills.

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Combined, these key themes provide the ENA’s plan with three strategic focuses, namely to innovate, implement and collaborate.

The first will place high priority on opportunities with fast results, including improving network visibility and controllability; efficiently facilitating the adoption of low carbon technologies and enabling flexibility; boosting cyber security; and facilitating new commercial business models and behaviour change.

Implementation will see these methods of proven innovation transferred into 'business as usual' divisions to begin to realise the full benefit for customers. Some of this work is already underway, but further improvements will require a combination of investment, new capability development and cultural change, as well as ongoing measurement to track benefit delivery.

The final strategic focus sets out to enhance strategic collaboration by increasing project partnerships, improving the dissemination of knowledge, and using industry forums more effectively.

There will be renewed emphasis on the need for and benefits of collaboration in developing and deploying innovation across the electricity sector and beyond into gas networks.

Commenting on the launch of the joint electricity and gas strategies, ENA chief executive David Smith said: “Decarbonisation, digitisation and decentralisation are driving revolution in the energy sector, and our energy networks are on the frontline of delivering the kind of world-leading innovation that is making that happen.

“The publication of the first joint Network Innovation Strategies is a major milestone and we look forward to working with our innovation partners to ensure our network infrastructure, our wider energy system and our customers benefit from new technology, business models and unique opportunities.”

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