After the Brexit vote, UK networks have a once in a generation opportunity to advance a whole system methodology for smart energy, says Duncan Botting.
What constitutes a smart city, grid, meter, home? Ask four industry experts and you will probably get six different definitions for each of these labels. The reason is simple – there is no definitive definition that has been widely adopted.
Our current deep understanding of specific elements (or silos) of smart energy dynamics – such as protection, asset management, control and automation, telecommunications, connections, switchgear, etc. – is testament to the fact we have excelled as engineers at deconstructing large complex problems to smaller more manageable ones that we can really focus on.
"With new governance for the country having to be addressed since the Brexit vote, the chance to redefine our market structures and regulatory bodies in a whole systems methodology is a once in a generation opportunity."
In each of the disciplines mentioned, new and detailed language has been developed (usually with a hefty dose of acronyms). But when trying to analyse whole energy system interactions we meet a new level of complexity where once again we are hampered by understanding and preconceived interpretation of the language we use to describe transformational outcomes across the whole delivery spectrum: policy, economics, environment, technology and society in relation to networks. For example, most technical people believe they know what is implied by the phrase “smart”. If you’re a transport planner it will appear to be about eMobility options or traffic control, if you’re a power system engineer it will be about control, monitoring and automation of the power network, if you’re a policy analyst it will be about using technology to solve problems in a cost effective manner, etc.
Clearly this multiplicity of understanding does not help when communicating very complex and sometimes highly technical transformations to those that need to know. Communicating between experts can be fraught with misconception or misunderstanding and this confusion is amplified when messages are communicated to the public at large.
To resolve some of this confusion a step change is first required in our approach to system modelling.
Most of our current modelling on energy systems are based on static or quiescent operation of the energy networks. In fact, the modelling is usually reduced to look at just one specific part of the system so that we can understand its behaviour under different conditions; normal, fault, start-up, etc.
Read Duncan Botting's previous comment, An introduction to smart energy dynamics, here.
As we move to whole energy system operation and interactions between electricity, gas, heating, cooling, transport and so on, the development of dynamic modelling of highly complex interactions between technical, commercial, market constraints, commercial contracting, community schemes, becomes mind boggling.
New modelling will be required and new thinking will combine with legacy infrastructure to deliver more efficient, better value propositions than yesterday’s perceptions of lowest cost delivery in deep isolated silos.
Enter new techniques such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) that cannot only ‘think’ in multiple planes and disciplines in real-time but also learn from its mistakes – something its human counterpart took many years to achieve.
The march of transformation that new modelling, automation and AI technology will induce will happen with or without our guidance as an industry.
Many examples of utilities that did not keep up with transformation litter history. For example: BT, once the dominant monopoly of the ability to make a telephone call has now been forced to change its business model to a broadcasting outlet, while its start-up rival Vodafone now supplies both fixed and mobile services worldwide that dwarf BT’s landline business.
With new governance for the country having to be addressed since the Brexit vote, the chance to redefine our market structures and regulatory bodies in a whole systems methodology is a once in a generation opportunity.
Local and regional rather than national. Distributed rather than centralised. Small rather than large ambitions, all seem to resonate with communities who now want to be drivers of change and no longer trust big corporates or monolithic government enforced structures.
With this backdrop the thought that the word “smart” only comprises automation of the manual tasks and processes of yesterday is a fallacy.
The need for common understanding across very complex governance, commercial, environmental, technical and societal structures has never been more urgent or prescient. The smart dynamics world outlined here is not conceptual, many of the key elements are already in place and providing insights and common understanding. The Institution of Engineering and Technology in partnership with the Energy Systems Catapult has delivered some insightful whole systems thinking in the Future Power Systems Architecture project commissioned by DECC. This only focused on electricity but took account of interfaces with other key vectors – heat, transport, etc. Meanwhile, Liveable Cities, a research project commissioned by Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council to understand the real dynamics of cities in the context of a whole system, is another key resource.
There are many more key pieces of this smart dynamics jigsaw but with few people who really understand these important trends and how they impact on networks, we are in danger of missing important enabling opportunities.
With the UK Government at a turning point itself, whole energy system enabling for the consumer is at a similar tipping point to when the internet was first introduced.
What will be enabled by the way the market is configured? What market governance will enable the new technologies to unlock new business models, services and products? Will we be remembered for holding back network enabling or will we be seen as the pioneers of affordable, sustainable, safe and secure whole energy system delivery that created a global export business for competence, skills and technology to transform the Networks of the world?