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Ofgem awards £58m to highly ambitious flexibility and hydrogen projects

Image: Electricity North West.

Image: Electricity North West.

Ofgem has awarded up to £58 million to five projects designed to support the UK’s transition to net zero.

It announced the 2020 Network Innovation Competition winners, with two focused on decarbonising the gas network and three on boosting the electricity grid’s flexibility.

These include project Constellation from UK Power Networks (UKPN), project QUEST from Electricity North West (ENW) and project RICA from National Grid Electricity Transmissions.

Jonathan Brearley, chief executive of Ofgem, said there was a high level of ambition shown by all the bidders in this year's competition, which was “hugely encouraging” showing that the “energy industry [is] getting behind the challenge of net zero.

“The winning projects were those which showed the most potential to make the game-changing leaps in technology we need to build a greener, fairer energy system at the lowest cost to consumers.”

Project Constellation – making substations smarter

UKPN’s project Constellation has been awarded £14.38 million by Ofgem, and will look at developing new platforms to digitally upgrade electricity substations.

Powerful computers will be installed at a series of substations that are capable of communicating with each other using the 5G network. These will be able to analyse millions of datapoints, tracking how the network is running and allowing it to configure itself to enable higher volumes of electricity to flow.

Ian Cameron, head of customer service and innovation at UKPN said it is creating a platform that will allow the solution to be rolled out through the country, enabling “more renewable energy to connect quickly and efficiently.

“We already have smart control rooms and grid edge devices such as smart electric vehicle chargers, and now having smart substations in the middle pulling it all together is a logical next step.”

UKPN hopes the solution will release 1.4GW of capacity, and save consumers more than £750 million by 2050 should the project be rolled out nationwide.

This year’s funding is likely to come as a particular win for UKPN, after Ofgem rejected its 2019 project, questioning the robustness of its methodology and implementation. Last year only two projects received funding – Western Power Distribution’s DC Share and Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks’ Resilience as a Service project – leaving nearly £55 million unspent.

Project RICA – paving the way for ultra-high voltage networks

National Grid Electricity Transmission managed to secure £8.12 million of funding from Ofgem’s Network Innovation Competition for its project RICA (Retro-Insulated Cross-Arms).

It is designed to develop a new method for upgrading overhead lines to allow 275kV lines to be increased to 400kV, and potentially 550kV in the future.

This will include removing the suspended insulators on overhead lines, and insulating the cross arms instead. As such the wires will be able to be held higher and further apart, allowing for increased voltage.

David Wright, director of Electricity Transmission, said the company was “super excited” to bring new engineering solutions to “deliver the transition to clean energy and meet our environmental challenges.

“This project demonstrates that the key to success lies in innovation and that National Grid is well placed to deliver on net zero.”

By upgrading lines in this way, existing lines will be able to carry 45% more. It could deliver up to £286 million of efficiencies to consumers, according to National Grid Electricity Transmission, and open the door for ultra-high voltage networks in the UK in the future.

Project RICA is expected to commence in early 2021.

Project QUEST – creating a ‘self-balancing’ network

The final electricity project to win funding is ENW’s QUEST, which has been awarded £7.95 million.

It will look at integrating standalone voltage control schemes into a single system to create a “self-balancing” network. This will unlock capacity and reduce the need for network reinforcement, the DNO argued.

ENW will develop a novel, fully coordinated, overarching system using its Network Management System, reducing cumulative design margins.

Dan Randles, head of Network Innovation at ENW highlighted that customers are increasingly turning to low carbon technologies such as heat pumps and EVs causing additional demand, meaning DNO’s need to develop advanced voltage management techniques.

"The funding we've been awarded is crucial for allowing us to trial a highly innovative system to coordinate existing technology on our network.

"Through optimisation, QUEST will boost the benefits currently available and enable people and businesses in the north west to embrace low carbon technologies helping to cut emissions and support the transition to net zero."

By releasing circa 2200MWA by 2050, project QUEST could save consumers £51 million by 2030, and £266 million by 2050. Releasing the capacity would additionally allow for more low carbon technology to connect to the network, and connect quicker than through network reinforcement, aiding decarbonisation.

Supporting green hydrogen

Both winning gas projects focused on hydrogen, with the regulator pointing to heating causing almost a third of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions with around 85% of the population still relying on gas boilers.

As such, H100 Fife – which won up to £18 million from Ofgem, triggering a further £6.9 million investment from the Scottish Government – will see a first of its kind 100% green hydrogen generation, storage and distribution network installed. This will provide hydrogen generated using offshore wind to 300 homes.

Welcoming Ofgem’s funding, Paul Wheelhouse, Scotland’s energy minister, said he saw the project as a “critical step towards understanding our decarbonisation options for heat and will deliver a purpose built end-to-end hydrogen system.”

The second gas project will build a hydrogen test facility using decommissioned gas transmission infrastructure. The HyNTS FutureGrid Project will run by National Grid Gas Transmission, and has been awarded £9.07 million to develop understanding of how hydrogen interacts with existing network transmission.

Green hydrogen is increasingly receiving support in the UK and beyond, with up to £500 million announced to trial its use for heating within Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s recent ‘Green Industrial revolution’ plan.

“The Government’s Ten Point Plan has set out a bold ambition for a green industrial revolution that will support a cleaner energy system and allow us to meet our net zero emissions targets,” commented Kwasi Kwarteng, energy minister.

He continued that he was delighted to see the support given by Ofgem through the Network Innovation Competition as we must “continue driving forward the new low-carbon technologies”.

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