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How DNOs are keeping pace with decarbonisation efforts

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Distribution network operators’ (DNO) work has changed a great deal over the decades. Responding to the changing regulatory framework and the new challenges of climate change, the role and responsibilities of DNOs have evolved over time as new technologies have come onstream. 

Network operators are not only relied upon for keeping the lights on in the homes, businesses and communities they serve, but are now increasingly essential to other vital services and infrastructure, including powering domestic heating, keeping vehicles on the road, and connecting distributed generation in dynamic new ways that were inconceivable in previous decades. 

Rather than just transporting power from conventional forms of generation, such as gas or coal power stations, we now operate a multi-directional energy system, delivering power from dispersed, renewable wind and solar farms as efficiently as centralised base load generators to power technologies like heat pumps and EV chargers in homes and businesses across the country.

While the energy landscape may be different now compared to the days when the old regional electricity boards delivered electricity, at National Grid our dedication to serving our nearly 8 million customers in our DNO business remains constant, while rapidly evolving our methods and technologies used to deliver power.

At National Grid, we are well aware of the rate of change within the energy industry. Not only has our role developed but our brand and identity has evolved over time. Following our acquisition by National Grid Group, Western Power Distribution became National Grid Electricity Distribution, or National Grid for short. But while we have a new name, our commitment to innovation and transforming the way in which we deliver electricity to our customers remains the same.

Delivering the decarbonisation of homes and vehicles through network changes

Innovation has always been at the heart of our company. Our industry leading innovation team has worked to facilitate innovative electric vehicle charging solutions – including vehicle to grid technologies and wireless charging – while our network flexibility team has performed revolutionary work rolling out more efficient and dynamic flexible connections to homes and businesses. 

These innovations have made a material difference to our customers’ experience while unlocking speed and efficiency in our connections and network design offerings. But as we look to the future, National Grid is continuing to pioneer a range of new technologies and approaches with the potential to make net zero more achievable, affordable, and rapid for our customers.

We have been working on two changes in electricity network design which will provide electrical capacity for customers in a more efficient and cost-effective way. The electricity network needs to be ready to accept additional demands as more and more of us look to connect low carbon technologies. At National Grid we build networks with a 50-year lifespan, so we are taking steps now to ensure that we build the right network to meet the demands of both our current and future customers.

The first change, one we made a few years ago, is the introduction of three-phase cabling as the minimum gold-standard for domestic connections. In the past three-phase cabling was usually only made available for industrial and commercial customers with higher electricity demands. Domestic customers were typically connected to a single phase, allowing for less power use in the average home, limiting how its load can be distributed. We now allow new domestic properties to connect to all three phases as standard, delivering a more flexible connection while aiming for a similar three phase approach when upgrading the supply of electricity to existing customers.

By upgrading the electricity supply by making three phase cabling as standard in domestic settings, we are facilitating the greater adoption of domestic solar, heat pumps and electric vehicle chargers by households across our network. Ultimately it is through network adjustments like this that the UK will reach net zero. When we work on our network, we want to touch once for 2050 and leave our customers with a connection that is fit for their future needs.

The coming influx of electric vehicles onto the UK’s roads will pose challenges to the energy industry. With the Government aiming for all motorway services to have at least six rapid chargers by the end of 2023 and wanting to see 6,000 high powered charge points on England’s motorways by 2035, there is an urgent need for service stations and all locations where EV chargers may be located to have the electrical capacity required for the large-scale installation of EV chargers. Our modelling work shows that most motorway service stations require the level of demand we would traditionally have allocated for a small town.

At National Grid we have invested over £1 million in conjunction with motorway services provider Moto, to design, test, and trial new technology to deliver the large electrical capacity required for rapid EV chargers to be installed at UK service stations at low cost and in a more compact solution. The Take Charge innovation project shrinks the solution to provide locations with the high levels of demand they need, helping to assist sites with the connection of high-powered low carbon technologies.

Our approach utilises a standardised, pre-constructed and pre-packaged ‘one size fits all’ solution that will provide 12,000kW capacity – the equivalent of powering 10,000 conventional homes – to enable large-scale, high-power, rapid EV charging at service stations. Importantly, it will cater for the projected levels of demand from increased EV uptake at these locations. Our solution also involves far less disruption for operators and customers than current methods which require complex traditional forms of electrical infrastructure and take up a significant amount of space. Instead, we are developing a ‘plug and play’ solution which delivers capacity for 80 rapid chargers per site.

We estimate that use of the Take Charge solution will save service stations almost half a million pounds for each site installation, compared to current methods. That means wider savings of approximately £33.3 million if it rolled out across just 75% of all existing service stations across the country. The trial in Exeter is now complete and we are exploring the possibility of rolling out the technology to other service station locations across National Grid’s network. We are sharing our learning with other UK DNOs to offer this as a UK-wide solution. This solution has the potential to not only accelerate decarbonisation of motorway service stations, but also reduce the emissions from UK ports, airports and other locations where significant decarbonisation demands will be seen.

Using data to improve customer experiences

But while there are obvious network and asset changes that will help deliver net zero, there are other pioneering innovations that will revolutionise how customers interact with the energy network, resulting in a more efficient and resilient experience. The use of network data is one such area.

For years, the creation and utilisation of network and energy data was kept within the virtual four walls of each business, hindering the progress of our energy system and true collaboration at a whole system level. Network operators have often fallen behind by other industries that have paved the way in harnessing data efficiently. At National Grid we have committed to a ‘data first’ mindset and a key part of this is our Open Data activity stream.

To fully harness the potential of energy data, collaborative working is needed. All parts of the energy system, be it operators, community energy groups, suppliers or Government need to work together in delivering net zero. Making network data available to a wider audience is key to achieving this collaborative method of working. At National Grid we have opened up large sections of our network data, making it accessible to these key stakeholders. This will help create an inclusive energy data community, where together all parts of the sector pool our resources to find solutions for customers and stakeholders that support the net zero transition.

An example of this in practice is how our network data is helping Octopus accelerate the development of onshore wind energy in the UK. The retailer’s ‘Winder’ app provides a platform for individuals to place requests for wind turbines in their communities and matches said applications with available land, wind data and grid capacity in order to find appropriate locations. Octopus says that localities that have voiced support through the app for onshore turbines could provide 2.3GW of clean electricity for 1.85 million homes. The app has integrated openly available data from National Grid through its application programming interface. This use of our network data is just one example of how taking an open approach to data provides greater collaboration opportunities for energy stakeholders and can help accelerate next zero for customers.

Over the next price control period, there is no doubt that the energy landscape will change even further. At National Grid our role is to anticipate the change in both technology and customer behaviour and prepare the network as appropriate. We will do this through both making network changes and making greater use of our network data and sharing openly and extensively to help stakeholders accelerate the pace of their net zero journey.

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