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Getting the grid ready for net zero

Roger Hey

Roger Hey

Electricity System Manager at Western Power Distribution
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Western Power Distribution

Energy networks will play an integral part in getting the UK ready for net zero. Roger Hey, Electricity System Manager at Western Power Distribution, explains the task ahead.

Distribution network operators, such as Western Power Distribution (WPD), will be a key enabler of the decarbonisation of the country’s homes and businesses. While other industries have more time to adapt to net zero, it is not a luxury afforded to the electricity sector as we lead the way to enable others to follow. Crucially, we must build a grid that supports the decarbonisation of two key drivers of emissions; heat and transport.

Creating a smart and agile network

To achieve decarbonisation in the energy sector, it will be important to create a smart and agile network that is ready ahead of need. WPD has been forging this through the use of adaptive forecasting, flexibility services and innovation projects. 

In our soon to be published Low Carbon Heating Strategy, we have relied on forecasting in order to gather insight into the various connections that may be required for a range of low carbon heating options. This forecasting also looks at the potential impact that these options may have on the local network. 

This is part of our Future Energy Scenarios (FES), where we have created a number of routes to net zero and analysed the network investment required for each one. This is the result of extensive stakeholder engagement, including engaging with all 130 local authorities in our area to ensure their local energy plans informed our own forecasting. However, we have also embedded uncertainty mechanisms into the Business Plan so that we can flex our investment to meet the different speeds of decarbonisation across our network areas. 

It is through this robust yet adaptable forecasting that we are able to prepare for the mass uptake of heat pumps along with technologies that are not currently mobilised such as thermal storage and hydrogen.

But even with adaptive forecasting, there is a degree of unpredictability that comes with preparing for the mass uptake of electric vehicles and heat pumps. This is where flexibility comes in, by allowing WPD to manage the peak load without having to invest in a permanent upgrade to meet a temporary spike in demand. 

Overall, through taking a flexible first approach in the RIIO-ED2 period, we can assure our customers that all network upgrades are wholly necessary while saving them more than £94 million in avoided reinforcement costs.

Using innovation to unlock net zero

A key focus for networks to gear up to net zero is the mass switch to digitalising the networks and services. By utilising digitalisation across every aspect of the business, it’s possible to improve the efficiency of the network and empower both domestic and commercial customers. 

As an example, an online self-assessment tool can facilitate a same-day connection response for low-carbon technologies and help the network cope with the thousands of enquiries expected from customers per day. This will not only accelerate the decarbonisation of domestic heating but will allow homeowners to reduce their carbon footprint in a manner that suits them.

In the same vein, flexibility will help democratise energy by transforming customers from passive recipients to active participants who can help shape the net zero electricity system.

Innovation is also driving us forward as we seek to answer industry-wide barriers to decarbonising our transport and heat sectors. For example, WPD’s Take Charge project, where we have partnered with BRUSH Transformers and Moto Service. 

Here WPD has worked with its partners to specify, design, test and trial a brand-new pre-constructed and packaged solution for delivering large scale electrical capacity to motorway services, therefore enabling rapid car and van EV charging during peak times. 

The Take Charge solution provides the same capacity as a small town, to a motorway service station. By investing in adaptable and scalable technology like Take Charge, WPD is able to deploy solutions that can overcome barriers to our pathway to net zero.

Leading by example

While we are working to deliver a net zero grid for the future, it goes without saying that decarbonisation starts at home, hence why WPD are leading by example with an ambitious 2028 net zero target, aiming to show others how to operate as a business within a low-carbon economy. 

WPD’s comprehensive Environmental Strategy is built on the premise that the energy system has to work in tandem with environmental targets in order to achieve net zero. This is why we are committed to achieving zero waste landfill by 2028, while also ensuring that all new projects achieve a 10% biodiversity gain. On top of this, we are forging ahead with decarbonising our own vehicles with a target of 89% of our commercial van fleet being electric by 2028. By creating these ambitious company targets, we are demonstrating how businesses like us can rely on the grid to electrify their fleets and reduce their carbon emissions in a cost-efficient manner. This transition is already taking place.

To ensure that WPD can create this pathway to net zero, we have proposed to invest £6.7 billion across our network over the next regulatory price control period between 2023 – 2028 as we believe that investing in the network today will save money tomorrow. As outlined in our Business Plan, this proactive investment will allow our network to accommodate the 1.5 million electric vehicles and 600,000 heat pumps that will be on our network over the next five years while keeping our customers’ bills broadly flat.

Electricity will increasingly become the source that fuels our daily lives as we rely on the grid to heat our homes, charge our cars and store our excess energy. It’s therefore vital that the industry invests now to create a smart electricity network which in turn will pave the way to achieving net zero and allowing customers to meet their own individual climate ambitions.

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