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Why the electrical grid needs to be more flexible to meet our future needs

Flexible Grid

To meet decarbonisation goals, the grid will need to be more flexible, explains David Hall, VP Power Systems at Schneider Electric UK & Ireland. 

We are at a critical impasse in the fight against climate change. Now equipped with the knowledge that revolutionising the grid is essential to significantly reducing CO2 emissions, it’s up to distribution system operators (DNOs) to realise this vision.  

The mass electrification of homes and industry means that electricity loads are expected to double by 2050, with the proliferation of EVs and heat pumps being key drivers. The National Grid is set to be loaded with 300,000 new heat pumps every year until 2050; meanwhile by 2040, there could be 36 million electric vehicles on the road. This means that the traditional one-directional energy model will no longer be able to withstand the demand.  

In order to meet decarbonisation goals, the grid will need greater flexibility. This means transforming the grid to balance supply and demand more effectively, and better account for load uncertainty. Moving to a dynamic energy system will facilitate the greater adoption of renewables, distributed energy resources (DERs) and energy storage systems required to meet the government’s ambitious targets to decarbonise the UK’s power system by 2035.

To get to this point, we need to reconsider our relationship with energy and ensure that grids of the future form a reliable, renewable base for supply. If the world is to meet its net zero commitments, utilities will need to double their flexibility by 2030. The path to an electric, digital future will be paved by adopting DERs, flexibility services and distributed energy resource management systems (DERMS).

Balancing the challenges and opportunities of DERs

Growing electrification, including the mass adoption of EVs and electric heat pumps, will require grid reinforcement and increased flexibility. The situation is becoming acute in the UK, with all new builds now requiring EV charging points as standard, a fast-approaching gas boiler ban, and a rapid rise in prosumers (customers, buildings, and businesses producing their own energy). This drives a need for fresh thinking and innovative solutions.

As well as accommodating the rapid growth of energy-consuming devices, the grid must adapt to an increase in unpredictable renewables and DERs, making it increasingly complex to provide stable, reliable, optimal, and secure power. Although these new resources can cause uncertainty and variability for DNOs when optimised, they allow them to balance supply and demand better, enhance the grid’s non-wire alternatives, and thus defer costly grid reinforcement.

For DNOs, it’s about freeing up capacity on the network to bring in DERs, changing to bi-directional power flows and ensuring that the grid can deal with drops and spikes in power. They need to ensure quality and continuity of service to end users, but this means disrupting traditional operating models and relinquishing some control. Integrating DERs across the network is a challenge rooted in visibility and control. It relies on modernising the grid with smart and connected tools, driving more effective analytics, monitoring, control and forecasting.

A sustainable grid means a flexible grid

To facilitate the introduction of DERs, power grid operation must now have flexibility at its core. This means balancing the grid from transmission and distribution to prosumer engagement. Flexibility services now provide the missing link between utilities and consumers, aggregating resources in specific local areas and working out how to best take advantage of them.  

With pilots by DNOs showing the potential of flexibility services and platforms, the challenge now is to deliver the same success at scale. For instance, Delta-EE’s BiTraDER project with Electricity North West is trialling a bilateral trading market that overlays market optimisation on top of the centralised control of assets connected to the network. Trials like this pave the way for DNOs and energy generators to trade amongst themselves, optimising their curtailment queues and enabling greater energy security.

This flexibility must also extend to demand. Residential demand-side flexibility means enabling consumers to become prosumers, not just adding extra network capacity. It’s about encouraging active participation in energy use and production, allowing consumers to store and sell energy back to the grid as and when required. Giving this bi-directional flexibility empowers customers, encouraging them to alter their energy behaviour and providing more flex for the grid to take energy back when needed.

Managing complexity with DERMS

As the grid becomes more flexible, it becomes more complex. Grid management technologies, such as ADMS and DERMS, become essential to ensure a resilient energy supply tailored to enable efficient planning, design, and operation of a dynamic grid. With these solutions, DNOs can leverage DER flexibility at every level, achieve seamless interconnection and more effective planning, and allow alternative grid planning scenarios.

Greater grid management also opens the door to more automation. In the past, the UK’s grid relied on centralised software with decentralised comms. Moving to a more centralised, integrated approach to grid data, DNOs can access and analyse huge amounts of information autonomously in real time. With embedded monitoring and control functions in DERMS, DNOs can improve grid awareness and scale up operations, identifying where would be most advantageous to implement new DERs.

Boosting resilience and power in the grid relies on a flexible approach from DNOs. Whether through DERMS, ADMS, or flexibility services, action is needed to ensure that the UK is ready for mass electrification. The grid is the key to meeting this demand and reaching decarbonisation goals, and it’s time for DNOs to drive flexibility forward and reduce energy-related emissions for good.

David Hall
David Hall
VP Power Systems at Schneider Electric

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