Bringing innovation to life: a whole-system approach

David Smith, chief executive of the Energy Networks Association (ENA), discusses the importance of a whole system energy approach and looks ahead to this year's Low Carbon Networks & Innovation Conference (LCNI) in Telford.

Bringing innovation to life: a whole-system approach

Over nearly three decades now the electricity and gas networks have been working hard to keep their costs low for their customers and to provide them with an excellent service. In that respect they have delivered: costs are 17 per cent lower since 1990; customer service scores are at record highs of around 8.7 out of 10; the public have 59 per cent fewer power cuts and their duration has reduced by 84 per cent while gas networks are so reliable that customers would have an unplanned interruption to their supply once every 140 years.

The networks’ roles, however, have already been changing as they manage new technologies that help them to manage their networks more efficiently and at lower cost to the public. They have also been enabling successfully the low carbon transition: a quarter of electricity generation is connected to the distribution network while over 90 sites have been built to produce green gas.

We know that the major challenges include further decarbonisation, digitalisation and decentralisation. As new products and new services are picked up by consumers it is vital that the energy networks are able to respond in ways that deliver value and place the public, and especially those who may be vulnerable, at the heart of their thinking.

The National Infrastructure Commission published research in March 2018 showing that a joined-up approach to the decarbonisation of our energy infrastructure could save £55bn by 2050, as much as £2,000 for each household in Great Britain. The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has also noted the importance of taking a whole-system approach i.e. considering both the UK’s electricity and gas networks in tandem, rather than in isolation.

If our electricity, gas, heat, transport and waste sectors are all interdependent, then so must be the solutions for their decarbonisation. A whole-system approach means looking at optimal investment and operational decisions for the whole energy network, not just the individual parts (gas or electricity; transmission or distribution) in isolation.

It also means considering interactions across energy vectors (e.g. heat networks, energy storage or transportation) so that comprehensive options and distributed value can be taken into account. Decarbonising our gas network alongside the electricity network is the cheapest way to meet our carbon commitments, both for consumers and the UK economy.

There are vital strategic decisions to be made. With that in mind it is important that Ofgem and the Department for Business, Innovation and Industrial Strategy work closely to align the upcoming RIIO-2 price control regime and related innovation funding with the UK Government’s strategic, long-term policy objectives the whole-system approach.

The Energy Networks Association and our members have been taking important steps to facilitate these changes. Firstly, we have launched the first ever Call for Ideas for the Network Innovation Competition (NIC).

Up to £90 million of investment is available for Britain’s leading energy innovators. Successful applicants will work with network companies to compete for up to £20m of funding available for gas network projects and up to £70m available for electricity network projects.

The annual competition is designed to support a range of large scale energy innovation projects in communities across the country. Run by Ofgem, network companies and their partners will compete for funding for the development and demonstration of new energy technologies that will help run energy network infrastructure in a smarter, cleaner and more flexible way. The Call closes on 26 October and we would encourage interested applicants to find out more on ENA’s website.

We are also are inviting all energy stakeholders, innovators and pioneers to join us on 16-17 October at the Low Carbon Networks & Innovation Conference (LCNI) in Telford. As innovation in energy is moving so quickly, this is the best place for stakeholders from the world of energy and beyond to come together to share ideas, best practice and look to take a whole-system approach to shape the future energy landscape.

We are seeing extraordinary changes across the energy system. Network innovation and taking a whole-system approach is therefore vital to keeping energy bills down for the public, whilst delivering a smarter, cleaner and more flexible energy system that serves the country.


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