David Smith, chief executive of the Energy Networks Association (ENA), talks to Network editor Alec Peachey about this year's Low Carbon Networks Innovation (LCNI) Conference and gives his views on the sector.
This year's LCNI Conference took place in Telford and attracted more than 1,000 delegates. The event, which was in its eighth year, has become a key fixture in the energy networks calendar and provides an opportunity to explore key learnings from electricity and gas network innovation projects.
This learning, Smith says, is absolutely vital. "LCNI really has become the go-to conference to learn," he remarked.
This year's event attracted an international audience with a big contingent coming over from the US.
"We get lots of requests for information about what we're doing in the UK," continues Smith. "We were able to say why don't you come and receive the learning, make the contacts, create a shared environment and learn from it. What we found is people were saying they could take it back to the US.
"Lots of people are saying that LCNI is a brilliant step to get to meet people but also to understand some of the learning that we've got that they can apply back home. Maybe not all in the same way, but in different ways. I think it's a really good selling point for UK plc."
One of the key trends to come out of the 2018 event was a focus on a ‘whole systems' approach - where gas and electricity networks work together.
"We're seeing that there isn't a magic bullet that is electricity or a magic bullet that is gas," Smith comments. "What you've got is multi-vector approaches to tackling this whole greening of energy and decarbonisation.
"All of the companies are looking at different approaches and taking different pieces to push it forward. For me, in many ways this whole greening of energy is becoming reality. We've been able to make big steps forward and the networks have played a key role in that.
"I think that the whole multi-vector, multi-system approach will become the key. During the year we've started to see that unlock. We've started to get learning out of big projects and what that has shown is that gas and electricity are working together. But there are also other players like waste and transport. All of these approaches to decarbonisation are going to lock together and take us forward. We've proved it can happen and know that it can happen. We've seen the results and it's about moving it to the next stage."
Smith believes that this multi-sector approach to decarbonisation is now reflected in the audience that attends LCNI.
"We're now attracting people coming in and saying there is something going on in this sector that I need to learn about that will help me to deliver better in my own sector. Transport and waste are good examples. There are other sectors that are saying this sector is doing something really exciting and we need to be part of it."
Innovation and regulation
It's clear that the pace of change across the gas and electricity networks has been significant in recent times and Smith believes that LCNI has played an essential part in the opening up of innovation across the networks.
"I think innovation has become a big tool for the sector. We need to make sure that continues through RIIO2. It would be a shame if we faced any form of cliff edge."
With network operators now starting their business planning for the next set of price controls, Smith added: "I think there are key themes that will come out of that. Financeability is clearly in there. In terms of how we work as ENA I think our job is to identify what we can help influence and help members with. That's around learning, sharing and doing pieces of work in common. Then the members as they go through RIIO2 will be able to have a base line to work from."
Network operators are also having to consider how they're going to manage distributed energy resources both now and in the future.
"This is the learning that we're starting to take through the Open Networks project," states Smith. "The idea is to say change is coming. We won't be simple DNOs in the future. We will transition and move ourselves into DSOs. It's how we use things like learning, how we work together in collaboration with GDNs and other partners and move to a place where the consumer, who might be producing their own energy in the future, have an energy system that they can actively take part in."
Smith is encouraged by the setting up of The All Party Parliamentary Group on Hydrogen.
The APPG on Hydrogen provides a forum for MPs and Peers to engage with leading businesses and organisations that are working to enable the UK to meet its decarbonisation targets through the implementation of large-scale hydrogen projects, and to discuss policy options to support these.
Smith added: "It shows that if Parliament is getting interested then people are bought into this whole concept and that it must be part of the future. The fact that they've set up a hydrogen group shows that it has captured Parliament's imagination. They understand it and want to get behind it because they want to be there pushing the right policy levers going forward. Our job is to help show them how that can happen."
So what's Smith's view on the decarbonisation of transport, and in particular the impact that electric vehicles are having on networks?
"Under the Energy Systems Catapult they've setup an energy group looking at the electrification of vehicles. I sit on that group. We've already seen in London the electrification of a couple of the bus depots. We're already seeing fuel cell vehicles out there and we're seeing more electric charging points popping up. The Catapult is trying to show that there needs to be a plan. You can't do it in a piecemeal approach.
"We're not the magic bullet. We're a stakeholder but we need to step up, as we are doing, and take our role in this. Our role is to help make sure that we've got the ability to deliver, but we need the policy signals to help deliver that. We can't invest ahead of need, so we need them to say this is what we want, this is our vision as government and we want you to deliver this. We have a role, but we need a clear definition of what the end game plan is."
During our discussion Smith highlights the breadth of opportunities available in the energy sector but acknowledges that more needs to be done to attract people into it.
"This is an industry where you can have a career for life," he tells Network. "There are very few industries now where you can go in at 18 and work up to when you're 60-odd. What we need to do is make that attractive and just show how this industry is going to change their lives. No longer will it be a very passive system for the networks. It'll be an active system and you can get engaged in it.
"There will always be a need for people to put cables in the ground or do the jointing, but the actual range of skills and breadth that we need will change quite radically. We need to show that this really is one of the most exciting and innovative places to come and get involved in a sector that has probably become one of the most dynamic."
As my time with Smith draws to a close I ask him about Brexit and what impact this might have, if any, on the operation of network operators.
"I saw the piece from the Withdrawal Agreement that the interconnector market will continue to work and operate. Clearly that's very important to keep power flowing through the UK. I think, like many people, it's one of those ones where we need to keep on top of it and understand that the energy market is critical to UK plc operating effectively and efficiently. We wouldn't want anything to happen to the energy market that had any detrimental effects either in the UK or across Europe. As I was reminded yesterday, the first exchange of energy between the UK and the continent of Europe was in the 1930s, we've been doing this a long time."
The 2019 Low Carbon Networks Innovation (LCNI) Conference will take place from 30-31 October at The Scottish Exhibition Centre (SEC) in Glasgow.