Digitising power

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Dave Roberts, director at EA Technology, explains how the OpenLV project is meeting the challenge of keeping the lights on whilst decarbonising the future.

The UK energy system is undergoing a transformation towards a decarbonised, decentralised, and digitalised future. Our response to the emergency on climate change has resulted in radical shifts over the last decade in the way we generate electricity, away from a small number of centralised power stations, to many renewable generators distributed throughout the land. This allows us to use low carbon electricity for new purposes – like powering the cars we drive, or the way we heat our homes. 

Indeed, the wave of plug-in electric vehicles is starting to build at an increasing pace with changes in policy, coinciding with increased customer choice and lower price points from the car makers. The 2020s are expected to be the period of rapid consumer transition, which will put pressure on the one million Low Voltage underground cables and overhead lines that deliver power to our homes and businesses. 

These silent, and in many cases aged, bits of infrastructure are critical to our society – providing the backbone to our very economy. Yet few of us even notice, or care, when we plug in our devices, or switch on new loads. These networks have done a fantastic job since they were installed, but they are constrained. Each cable has a finite capacity, which, if operated above this, causes damage; ultimately resulting in the lights going out – not great as we become more reliant on electricity as our main energy vector.

Meeting the demand

We know that one electric car uses about the same electricity as one home in a year. That’s a big deal if we are trying to charge our vehicles at the same time as we are using energy in the house. Bigger networks will be needed in some areas but shifting the demand away from the evening helps tremendously – and has been proven to work. Quicker to roll out, and in many cases cheaper than building new infrastructure, the ability to ‘flex’ the demand (for example, smart charging for plug-in electric vehicles) will become more and more important to keep the lights on and costs down. 

The trouble is, we are all different, and the networks that serve us are also different. The peaks and troughs in power vary across the country, dictated by our activity as users. The demands are therefore highly specific to an individual street, and it’s not obvious to any of us when these occur. And unfortunately, smart meters alone can’t help.

The simple answer, then, is to provide an automated link from these networks to users (or organisations wishing to ‘bundle’ services to users), to encourage us to draw power at a time that works for our lives, and for the power network. 

But it’s not quite that simple – only a tiny fraction of the 500,000+ low voltage distribution substations are monitored. And those that are monitored use different systems and can’t easily talk between vendors. We need a low-cost, flexible and secure way for this to be provided at scale. 

Working in real-time

This concept is starting to gain traction. The OpenLV project, run by EA Technology and Western Power Distribution, is combining low cost monitoring hardware for local substations, with an open but secure software platform, to provide visibility of the network in real-time, and allowing multiple apps to be developed and deployed by multiple parties (analogous to the ones on your smartphone).

We are making local electricity data available, and open. We are trialling the Low Voltage Common Application Platform (LV-CAP), in 80 substations, to provide decentralised control, enhanced network monitoring, and enabling a new industry to develop apps for new services.  

Two years into the project, we have successfully engaged with a range of communities, businesses and service providers. With limited marketing, we have everyone from lone activists seeking to educate their street on local energy use, through to major data organisations who have run global competitions for that ‘killer’ app. Strong evidence suggests that once deployed, the market will be able to offer a range of solutions, at competitive prices.

Scaling up

With confidence building, we are now looking to scale beyond a trial – it needs to be everywhere. As mentioned, to get to all 27 million households in Britain, you need to tap into all the 579,000 local substations. EA Technology’s LV-CAP/Visnet ecosystem can be delivered for around £2.10 per year per household.

We are already working on specific offerings to distribution companies, to help them manage faults, and get units deployed in substations as part of their business-as-usual. 

We then see three critical steps for further expansion:

1. Specify a national, open platform. We believe our LV-CAP would be perfect, but we do recognise that a wider choice, albeit tightly specified, might create more momentum in an open market. Open is the key point here – the way apps work with the platform needs to be published to allow app developers free reign to deploy (think Google’s Android or Apple’s iOS)

2. Agree a timeline. Partial deployment will not unleash the benefits that we’ve talked about. We need rapid, ubiquitous roll-out from John O'Groats to Land’s End, and ideally within five years. The Distribution Network Operators hold the keys (to their substations), the energy regulator, Ofgem, can support/encourage deployment through some light standardisation and an agreement on funding

3. Agreement on data ownership. We need clarity on the data – it's for society’s benefit. We need ownership to be consistently applied across the country in an open access, easy-to-use format, with suitable levels of cybersecurity. 

We believe this solution is the right one to unlock the electricity networks and catapult them forward for the next 50 years – so let’s now make this happen.