An integrated energy system

Dr Sara Walker, associate director of CESI and senior lecturer at Newcastle University and Brett Cherry, energy writer for CESI, Newcastle University, discuss the work of the National Centre for Energy Systems Integration (CESI).

An integrated energy system

The EPSRC National Centre for Energy Systems Integration brings together an interdisciplinary and international team of experts to gain a deeper understanding of a whole systems energy approach to the energy trilemma for the UK.

[image_library_tag 4e19fbc3-81f2-45f8-9c53-698d5ee58bd8 150×150 alt=” rett herry” width=”150″ ] Brett Cherry


Led by Newcastle University, it is a consortium of five research intensive universities and 34 public and industrial sector partners. CESI’s energy systems research includes smart grid control, demand side response, energy storage, energy systems integration, vehicle-to-grid infrastructure, energy policy, whole systems energy flexibility, and cyber security. It aims to develop a picture of the future of the UK’s energy system for 2030, 2040 and 2050 that incorporates multiple energy vectors: electricity, gas, hydrogen and thermal energy.

CESI has energy systems demonstrators and collaborations throughout the country. For example, we are a partner in the £65m Faraday Battery Institute on energy storage, and academic lead for a £30m integrated energy systems facility (InTEGReL) in partnership with Northern Gas Networks. We also host a £2m energy storage testbed facility and smart grid lab with industrial partners Siemens and Northern Powergrid, and Siemens’ MindSphere — a cloud-based, collaborative Internet-of-Things operating system.

The energy storage test bed and MindSphere are located within a building-as-a-power plant – the Urban Sciences Building (USB) based at Newcastle helix, the largest urban development in the country outside London – to understand how buildings can provide services to the energy network. MindSphere enables us to remotely control energy storage which we are currently trialling in the lab at the USB and will connect to the Integrel project with NGN. This allows us to be in the lab at Newcastle and run experiments at the Integrel site in Low Thornley remotely.

CESI is for the first time at a national scale studying the value of a whole systems approach to the energy system. What are the socio-technical tools, techniques and pathways for future energy systems? How do we make the energy system both low-carbon and resilient? Does a multi-vector energy system provide smarter and more innovative solutions to UK energy than our present system? These questions at the moment remain unanswered, but we have the multidisciplinary expertise to bring the UK closer to answering these and other questions about our energy future.

Today we have a largely fragmented, costly and ineffective energy system that is struggling to deliver a low-carbon energy future to the UK. We need a radical re-think of how we use energy infrastructure, and also urgently need to understand how we enhance it through the digital and big data revolutions.

One of the main aims of research at CESI is to focus on how changes in the way we use and generate energy will impact critical energy infrastructure locally and nationally. The intention behind a ‘whole energy systems’ approach is to resolve grand challenges that our energy networks currently face. These challenges include decarbonisation, the rise of renewable energy generators, cyber-attacks, securing energy supply, potential for city heat networks, repurposing the gas network, and integrating electric vehicles, all which provide numerous opportunities to the energy sector.


What’s the benefit and value of this approach?

An integrated energy system could make possible the delivery of multiple energy vectors together, such as power, heat and gas, in a more efficient and intelligent way. We also have available a variety of ways to store energy be it electrical, thermal, gas or a combination thereof. Each of these can work together in a whole systems approach. For example by converting excess electricity (from wind farms for example) to hydrogen instead of curtailing output we can make fuller use of the free, low-carbon fuel on offer from renewable resources.

Heat consumption in the UK is five times that of electricity. Only focusing on electrical energy will likely not resolve our current dilemma in decarbonising the energy system. We need to start thinking about how we use, recycle and store heat alongside our demands for electricity and energy for transport – this is something that a whole systems approach seems to offer. This is especially important if we consider the potential electrification of road transport as more EVs plug into the grid. With EVs becoming virtual grid assets vehicle-to-grid energy storage could become commonplace in the near future. This is why we are working with Nissan and others to deliver a £10m large scale trial of vehicle to grid technology.


What else does an integrated approach to energy offer?

For energy distributers it could mean sharing storage and other assets that could be spread across the entire energy system, along with customer demand side response, to balance supply with demand especially during spikes in energy usage. Long-term planning for energy infrastructure is also made possible by understanding dynamic changes within the energy system at multiple scales: from individuals to buildings, cities, regions and countries.  

Advanced modelling of energy flows improves forecasting and allows distributers to do more with less, increase system efficiencies and reliability. Energy could be made more affordable depending on customers’ actual need, since a flexible energy system can respond to different customer scenarios to ensure people receive the energy service they need when they need it. A smarter energy system with increased flexibility also means greater opportunity to end fuel poverty.

As energy supply evolves so does demand, one influences the other. Demand influences infrastructure and vice versa. Rather than looking at each in isolation CESI is studying the big picture to represent the interlinkages so we can better understand how they might co-evolve and develop over time. Because these different aspects of the big picture of energy interact together we need this systems view.

Taking into account these and other new demands placed on the energy system, a whole systems approach to energy is necessary for delivering the future of the UK’s energy infrastructure. The role of CESI is to work with our national and international partners and collaborators to play a decisive role in making an integrated energy system in the UK a reality.


Quantifying the certainty of the future

In our modelling of the energy system, backed by real-world data from our demonstrators, we are also tackling uncertainty in how our energy system works. This is of importance to policy makers, regulators and industry since an understanding of uncertainty in scenarios can enable more informed decision making.

Uncertainty is a major factor that is often unaccounted for in modelling the energy system. To respond to this CESI is working with the Alan Turing Institute, the UK’s national centre for data science, to incorporate uncertainty into all of our research.

If we’re going to move to an 80 per cent reduction in CO2 by 2050 then some decisions taken early on will likely influence the range of decisions yet to be made. CESI aims to provide as much information as possible to help inform those decisions.

Combining our shared expertise in energy infrastructure, supply, demand, demonstration and policy, we are securing an integrated energy system for the UK, and this has significant potential to serve as an exemplar for future energy systems.     


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