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Why flexibility is key to the future of the UK’s electrical grid

Sotiris Georgiopoulos

Sotiris Georgiopoulos

Head of Smart Grid at UK Power Networks
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Sotiris Georgiopoulos, head of smart grid at UK Power Networks, explains how game-changing developments in the electricity distribution industry are combining the use of technology and data to facilitate net zero and reduce costs for consumers.

A smarter, more flexible electricity network is key to reaching the government’s net zero target by 2050. That’s why UK Power Networks is promising to go further and faster than any other electricity network to create solutions and build a smart grid that will deliver a sustainable future for all. 

For years the energy sector has been working in the background to decarbonise energy generation and this is well on its way, with emissions in producing each kWh of electricity in the UK down 50% thanks to the rise of renewables.

In order to meet net zero by 2050, we must now decarbonise two other vital areas that are closely linked to our daily lives – transport and heating. The 2020s are the decade in which we will see decarbonisation begin to make a visible change in our daily lives. The number of electric vehicles on the road is forecast to rapidly rise, and more and more homes and businesses will turn to electric heating.

Alongside transport, heating homes and businesses is one of the three largest greenhouse gas contributors in the UK, accounting for about a third of total emissions. 

We estimate that by 2030 there could be over 700,000 electric heat pumps and 4.5 million EVs on the road in London, the South East and East of England. More than 90% of all EV charging currently happens at home, delivered through our network, meaning we have a vital role to play in facilitating the transition to electric vehicles. We have an established role in enabling renewable energy and are on our way when it comes to electric vehicles, next we must decarbonise heat. 

In 2020, we published our Heat Readiness Strategy, becoming the first UK electricity network to outline how we plan to facilitate decarbonised heat for all customers. This year, we also published our 2021 Distribution Future Energy Scenarios forecast about the uptake of low carbon technologies. The research mapped out different scenarios up to 2050, helping us understand what the future might look like so we can innovate, plan, prepare and invest strategically.

What is Flexibility

The UK can reach net zero by 2050 if the right action is taken, such as installing solar panels for almost 400,000 more homes in London, the South and South East by 2030. 

As more people opt for low carbon, electric alternatives, the demand on the electricity network will rise and greater capacity will be needed on the network at peak times. Either we can create that capacity in the traditional way, by building more infrastructure and putting more cables in the ground, or we can purchase that capacity as a service to smooth out the peaks in electricity demand. This is known as Flexibility, using data and technology we can harness the power of energy assets from electric vehicles to large-scale industrial heating to support the network.

We have seen huge growth in the Flexibility market, opening up access to capacity as a service from providers and benefiting customers by reducing cost. UK Power Networks is the first distribution network operator in the world to demonstrate that flexibility on the low voltage network can provide an alternative to traditional reinforcement.

Much of the flexibility on our low voltage network is coming from domestic customers, such as those with solar panels on their homes or electric vehicle drivers with smart chargers who are willing to reduce their demand at peak times in return for lower energy bills. 

With new technology such as Vehicle-2-Grid, we are changing the relationship between the customer and the electricity network. Customers can move from being a consumer of energy to a generator too. Unlike kettles and TVs, electric vehicle batteries can be discharged and the owner can return the energy back to the grid when the car is not being used, what’s more they get paid to do it. 

It doesn’t stop there either. To enable more low carbon technologies to connect as demand increases, we are developing solutions to make it easier, quicker and more cost effective for anyone to connect to our network. Traditionally, those installing low carbon technologies would make the time-intensive, laborious application on behalf of the domestic consumer to the network operator. The new Smart Connect portal helps customers go electric faster and easier than ever before. 

As the first self-service platform of its kind, it streamlines the application process and automatically assesses and provides an outcome for the customer straightaway, cutting down the whole process to a matter of minutes.

These are game-changing developments, combining the use of technology and data to facilitate net zero and reducing costs for consumers, making it more economical to get more low carbon energy and transport connecting to the network.

We are all going to have to make changes to reach net zero by 2050. At UK Power Networks it is our mission to keep the lights on and our aim is to do so whilst making it as easy and cost effective for our customers to go electric in other parts of their lives as it is to flick the light switch. Through increased digitisation of our network, we can use data and technology to ensure greater visibility and make better decisions at a lower cost providing the best solutions for our customers and facilitating net zero.

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