Preparing for a smart future

Greg Pitcher speaks to UK Power Networks smart grid development team to find out more about the company's transition to a smart grid.

Preparing for a smart future

Sotiris Georgiopoulos glances proudly around the dozen or so faces crammed into a meeting room on a warm day at UK Power Networks’ Southwark headquarters.

They represent most, if not quite all, his smart grid development team, which was formed two years ago to drive innovation in how the distribution network operator tackles the challenges of a rapidly evolving electricity landscape.

Georgiopoulos stresses the different professional backgrounds this elite force has been assembled from, introducing them as coming from various roles including commercial, regulatory and customer-facing jobs. One, he jokes, is “a hacker really”.

“Many of them are not traditional power systems engineers,” he concludes. “There are a lot of people coding, there is a range of skills. Everyone is project managing and change managing. We are innovative and creative as well; there is an entrepreneurial aspect of what we do.”

Georgiopoulos joined EDF as a graduate engineer in 2005, becoming project manager for EDF Energy Networks’ infrastructure delivery work ahead of the London 2012 Olympics.

In 2010, two things happened. The coalition government came to power and began to kickstart creation of renewable energy. And EDF Energy Networks was bought by CK Group and renamed UK Power Networks.

One of the first major projects UK Power Networks undertook was titled Flexible Plug and Play. This sought to connect small-scale renewable sources of electricity on to constrained parts of the electricity distribution network without the need for conventional infrastructure reinforcement.

“Flexible Plug and Play was the first programme in mainland UK that used smart algorithms and smart contracts to connect more renewables to the grid for less,” says Georgiopoulos.

“Customers might come along and we no longer need to build a new pipe for them; we can put a satellite dish on their location, give them a smart contract and they can join on an existing pipe.”

UK Power Networks was also awarded £13.2 million from an Ofgem fund for its Smarter Network Storage scheme. The four-year scheme included a range of commercial and technical innovations to try to improve the economics of flexible electricity storage.

“This is a big warehouse in Leighton Buzzard filled with lithium-ion cells that allow energy to be stored and released back to the grid,” says Georgiopoulos. “It was the first demonstrator of this technology in the UK, and a lot of the current market and policy came from the findings of that scheme. We use it to support the grid in case of a fault. It is an alternative to building another overhead line.”

 

Forming a team

The way energy was produced and consumed was changing at pace and methods of adapting to this were springing up all over the place. UK Power Networks decided it needed to change the way it brought these new ideas to market.

“In 2015 I spent a year trying to roll out some successful innovation and it quickly became apparent that you need a critical mass of people to drive that into the business,” says Georgiopoulos.

“The market is transitioning to a more dynamic state and we needed a centre of excellence to help the rest of the business adapt.”

Hence the formation of the smart grid development team, which has soared from an initial membership of two to having a headcount of more than 20 just two years later. 

“One of our principles is we are not just a facilitating team, we need some hutzpah. We are moving from a fixed static world to a more dynamic world, and we own the strategy for that.

“The goal of the team is to make sure UK Power Networks can design and operate networks fit for purpose in the new world. One of our aspirations is to be the leading innovator in terms of the ideas and taking the benefits from them. We have to keep pushing forward.”

Lead power system development engineer Matt White joined the smart grid development team from the network planning side of the business that he is often now responsible for influencing.

“Bringing the tools from the infrastructure planning teams allows you to bridge the gap between innovation projects and rolling things out as business as usual,” he says. “In my previous role I found myself getting increasingly involved in this work but it was a side project to usual business.”

Coming into the smart grid team has allowed him and his colleagues to use knowledge and contacts from previous roles with the time and support to focus solely on innovation.

“A lot of the relationships with other parts of the business are already there because of where we’ve come from. So pushing innovation through is accepted better. They know that if you say something could work, it could work.”

 

Future challenges

This is important as the challenges ahead for the smart grid team are numerous and emanate from demand-driven changes as well as supply-side. For example, reports have suggested that as many as one in 10 vehicles sold around the world in 2025 could be electric.

“Electric vehicles are a consumer choice,” says Georgiopoulos. “We are trying to develop the tools to be able to manage the network with this new characteristic. How can we make sure we can offer customers what they need while keeping cost and upgrade works to a minimum?

“We are looking at the tools we have to forecast electric vehicle clusters and also installing monitoring sensors on the grid. You can intervene in smart ways.”

The team is looking at smart tariffs and smart contracts and working with charge-point providers to send signals to consumers to charge their vehicles in line with times of greatest capacity.

UK Power Networks is also turning to the Internet of Things as it tries to get ahead of the curve on distributed generation.

Director of asset management Barry Hatton predicts a continued rise in the volume of sources of energy coming on to the grid. From less than 100 in 2005, UK Power Networks now has 200,000 generators.

“But we have 8.5 million customers so we have not seen anything like the penetration of domestic generation there could be,” says Hatton.

“How will carbon targets be met? Decarbonisation of electricity. As the cost of the technologies to do this comes down, subsidies are not needed so we can expect to see a pick-up in interest.”

A project to install sensors at targeted substations is underway and being kept under tight review to see if the picture changes.

“The low voltage network traditionally had no monitoring,” says Hatton. “But as we upgrade to the smart grid it is important to have visibility of voltage, current and power flow sensors.

“Ultimately we want every substation fitted out with sensors but that will take years and we have to start somewhere.”

He adds that the data collected needs to be backed up with good analysis, which is where the hand-picked experts in the smart grid development team come in.

“In this room you have the greatest concentration of smart grid talent anywhere in this country if not the world,” boasts Hatton.

While the evolution to a smart grid still has a long way to go, and many of its twists and turns remain unknown, the smart grid team is judged on how its work is helping maintain or improve reliability performance and customer satisfaction.

It ran a consultation last year on the transition to distribution system operator, followed by a series of engagement events early this year.

Programme manager for DSO readiness Lynne McDonald says taking the many electricity suppliers with the company as it evolves is critical.

“We used social media, Barry ran a live Q&A, we hosted and attended about 30 engagement events,” she says. “We have used the feedback to shape our 2018/19 programme.

“Stakeholders asked us to accelerate our flexible distributer generation programme so we brought our plans forward two years.”

Collaboration with stakeholders and colleagues is a key part of what the team does – but it also has to work closely with other network operators.

“We’ve been working in the South East with National Grid to relieve constraints on the transmission network and accommodate more customers on our network,” says White.

“It will become more important to work with other operators. There is a big industry initiative called the Open Networks Project. We have to optimise the industry.”

In the end, the smart grid development team’s job will be to do itself out of a job.

“One of the challenges is recognising how we translate all the innovation into business as usual,” says Hatton. “The ultimate success of the team is that it does unwind.”

That won’t be the end for its people though. Hatton laughs at the suggestion. “There will be other challenges to put our minds to.”

 

 

 

Sotiris Georgiopoulos glances proudly around the dozen or so faces crammed into a meeting room on a warm day at UK Power Networks’ Southwark headquarters.
They represent most, if not quite all, his smart grid development team, which was formed two years ago to drive innovation in how the distribution network operator tackles the challenges of a rapidly evolving electricity landscape.
Georgiopoulos stresses the different professional backgrounds this elite force has been assembled from, introducing them as coming from various roles including commercial, regulatory and customer-facing jobs. One, he jokes, is “a hacker really”.
“Many of them are not traditional power systems engineers,” he concludes. “There are a lot of people coding, there is a range of skills. Everyone is project managing and change managing. We are innovative and creative as well; there is an entrepreneurial aspect of what we do.”
Georgiopoulos joined EDF as a graduate engineer in 2005, becoming project manager for EDF Energy Networks’ infrastructure delivery work ahead of the London 2012 Olympics. 
In 2010, two things happened. The coalition government came to power and began to kickstart creation of renewable energy. And EDF Energy Networks was bought by CK Group and renamed UK Power Networks.
One of the first major projects UK Power Networks undertook was titled Flexible Plug and Play. This sought to connect small-scale renewable sources of electricity on to constrained parts of the electricity distribution network without the need for conventional infrastructure reinforcement. 
“Flexible Plug and Play was the first programme in mainland UK that used smart algorithms and smart contracts to connect more renewables to the grid for less,” says Georgiopoulos.
“Customers might come along and we no longer need to build a new pipe for them; we can put a satellite dish on their location, give them a smart contract and they can join on an existing pipe.”
UK Power Networks was also awarded £13.2 million from an Ofgem fund for its Smarter Network Storage scheme. The four-year scheme included a range of commercial and technical innovations to try to improve the economics of flexible electricity storage.
“This is a big warehouse in Leighton Buzzard filled with lithium-ion cells that allow energy to be stored and released back to the grid,” says Georgiopoulos. “It was the first demonstrator of this technology in the UK, and a lot of the current market and policy came from the findings of that scheme. We use it to support the grid in case of a fault. It is an alternative to building another overhead line.”
Forming a team
The way energy was produced and consumed was changing at pace and methods of adapting to this were springing up all over the place. UK Power Networks decided it needed to change the way it brought these new ideas to market.
“In 2015 I spent a year trying to roll out some successful innovation and it quickly became apparent that you need a critical mass of people to drive that into the business,” says Georgiopoulos.
“The market is transitioning to a more dynamic state and we needed a centre of excellence to help the rest of the business adapt.”
Hence the formation of the smart grid development team, which has soared from an initial membership of two to having a headcount of more than 20 just two years later.  
“One of our principles is we are not just a facilitating team, we need some hutzpah. We are moving from a fixed static world to a more dynamic world, and we own the strategy for that.
“The goal of the team is to make sure UK Power Networks can design and operate networks fit for purpose in the new world. One of our aspirations is to be the leading innovator in terms of the ideas and taking the benefits from them. We have to keep pushing forward.”
Lead power system development engineer Matt White joined the smart grid development team from the network planning side of the business that he is often now responsible for influencing.
“Bringing the tools from the infrastructure planning teams allows you to bridge the gap between innovation projects and rolling things out as business as usual,” he says. “In my previous role I found myself getting increasingly involved in this work but it was a side project to usual business.”
Coming into the smart grid team has allowed him and his colleagues to use knowledge and contacts from previous roles with the time and support to focus solely on innovation.
“A lot of the relationships with other parts of the business are already there because of where we’ve come from. So pushing innovation through is accepted better. They know that if you say something could work, it could work.”
Future challenges
This is important as the challenges ahead for the smart grid team are numerous and emanate from demand-driven changes as well as supply-side. For example, reports have suggested that as many as one in 10 vehicles sold around the world in 2025 could be electric.
“Electric vehicles are a consumer choice,” says Georgiopoulos. “We are trying to develop the tools to be able to manage the network with this new characteristic. How can we make sure we can offer customers what they need while keeping cost and upgrade works to a minimum?
“We are looking at the tools we have to forecast electric vehicle clusters and also installing monitoring sensors on the grid. You can intervene in smart ways.”
The team is looking at smart tariffs and smart contracts and working with charge-point providers to send signals to consumers to charge their vehicles in line with times of greatest capacity.
UK Power Networks is also turning to the Internet of Things as it tries to get ahead of the curve on distributed generation. 
Director of asset management Barry Hatton predicts a continued rise in the volume of sources of energy coming on to the grid. From less than 100 in 2005, UK Power Networks now has 200,000 generators.
“But we have 8.5 million customers so we have not seen anything like the penetration of domestic generation there could be,” says Hatton.
“How will carbon targets be met? Decarbonisation of electricity. As the cost of the technologies to do this comes down, subsidies are not needed so we can expect to see a pick-up in interest.”
A project to install sensors at targeted substations is underway and being kept under tight review to see if the picture changes.
“The low voltage network traditionally had no monitoring,” says Hatton. “But as we upgrade to the smart grid it is important to have visibility of voltage, current and power flow sensors.
“Ultimately we want every substation fitted out with sensors but that will take years and we have to start somewhere.”
He adds that the data collected needs to be backed up with good analysis, which is where the hand-picked experts in the smart grid development team come in.
“In this room you have the greatest concentration of smart grid talent anywhere in this country if not the world,” boasts Hatton. 
While the evolution to a smart grid still has a long way to go, and many of its twists and turns remain unknown, the smart grid team is judged on how its work is helping maintain or improve reliability performance and customer satisfaction.
It ran a consultation last year on the transition to distribution system operator, followed by a series of engagement events early this year.
Programme manager for DSO readiness Lynne McDonald says taking the many electricity suppliers with the company as it evolves is critical.
“We used social media, Barry ran a live Q&A, we hosted and attended about 30 engagement events,” she says. “We have used the feedback to shape our 2018/19 programme. 
“Stakeholders asked us to accelerate our flexible distributer generation programme so we brought our plans forward two years.”
Collaboration with stakeholders and colleagues is a key part of what the team does – but it also has to work closely with other network operators.
“We’ve been working in the South East with National Grid to relieve constraints on the transmission network and accommodate more customers on our network,” says White. 
“It will become more important to work with other operators. There is a big industry initiative called the Open Networks Project. We have to optimise the industry.”
In the end, the smart grid development team’s job will be to do itself out of a job. 
“One of the challenges is recognising how we translate all the innovation into business as usual,” says Hatton. “The ultimate success of the team is that it does unwind.”
That won’t be the end for its people though. Hatton laughs at the suggestion. “There will be other challenges to put our minds to.” 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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