The pride of Oxfordshire: Project LEO

Project LEO is one of the most wide-ranging and holistic smart grid trials ever conducted in the UK.

The pride of Oxfordshire: Project LEO

Network recently caught up with Melanie Bryce, Oxfordshire programme director at Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks (SSEN), to discuss Project LEO, one of the UK’s largest ever smart grid trials.

Since being awarded £13.8 million from the UK Government’s Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund in April 2019, Project Local Energy Oxfordshire (LEO) has made significant progress in testing and demonstrating the technical and economic under- pinnings that could define the future smart grid.

Melanie Bryce, who leads on the project for SSEN, outlines the scope: “Project LEO is a hugely ambitious and exciting project, in fact one of the most innovative and holistic smart grid trials ever conducted in the UK. Its objective is to trial the foundations of the future energy system, encouraging the growth of local markets, community engagement and supporting the development of low carbon technologies and solutions.”

Project LEO benefits from a wide breadth of expertise, with project partners including leading social enterprise, Low Carbon Hub, leading academics from the Universities of Oxford and Oxford Brookes, alongside Oxford City and Oxfordshire County Council.

“A smarter energy system will provide new opportunities for communities to engage and for low carbon technologies to compete with solutions in an open and fair market,” says Bryce. “LEO is testing how we turn the aspiration of a system that supports community engagement, into a reality. Ensuring project partners reflect a wide range of stakeholders is critical to our success.” Projects, like LEO, will be critical in informing how the UK gets to net zero in a cost-effective manner, as Bryce explains: “We describe the net zero challenge in terms of the four ‘d’s, which are decarbonisation, democratisation, decentralisation and digitalisation. In other words, net zero is just part of what is driving the transition, alongside changes within local communities and local generators who now view their role within the energy sector differently. Technological development also presents major challenges and opportunities.”

Project LEO’s first objective is to prove the technical feasibility of future energy markets. For example, can the deployment of flexibility give network operators a valuable alternative to investment in network reinforcement, whilst delivering a resilient network that can support the increased demand that net zero will bring?

Secondly, Project LEO will examine the economic feasibility of new markets and whether viable trades are possible between distributed energy resources and the DSO. This will then support the economics of deferred reinforcement. “Our project partner, Piclo, is incredibly important in this because their platform enables energy and capacity trading, allowing access to energy markets for individuals, businesses and communities,” Bryce explains.

Hunting down the best local projects

Project LEO is hunting for local assets to interact with the DSO to balance the network. “We have one trial with the Oxford Bus Company,” says Bryce, “which has two 15kW behind- the-meter batteries for charging their buses during off-peak times when energy prices are lower. Those batteries have been reconfigured to allow them to export to the network as well, so we can now measure the benefit of being able to draw on that resource for a couple of hours each day.”

Another valuable local asset is the Sandford Lock hydroelectric plant owned by social enterprise, Low Carbon Hub, the largest community- owned hydro project on the Thames, and that generates 1.6 GWh of renewable electricity per year using three Archimedes screws. This, Bryce reports, “came with unexpected challenges”. River levels rise and fall, which meant the last time Project LEO sought to run a test on this asset, water levels were too high to dispatch.

“This illustrates that the future electricity grid will not be a one-size-fits-all solution,” says Bryce. “Oxfordshire will have assets that run in certain ways, and in certain seasons. But, the larger the mix of assets available, the more resilient the flexibility solutions.”

The next stage for Project LEO will be to recruit a critical mass of distributed energy resources behind a primary substation in order to test a localised market. These can range from established battery- based solutions, to vehicle to grid (V2G) and demand side response (DSR).

Bryce believes “all technological options will have a part to play” and that “although batteries are perhaps the easiest and most reliable solution, I suspect that DSR is currently the least well understood and has the potential to move load around on the system which could delay additional investment.”

The lion’s share

“It is vital that that the benefits of the future DSO world, supported by the learnings from Project LEO, are equally shared”, warns Bryce. “We are entering an unprecedented period for the energy sector and SSEN and our partners are working to ensure new markets and opportunities are developed efficiently and transparently, to leave no-one behind.”

This is a main driver behind SSEN advocating a change to regulations to support network investment ahead of need and development of a new mechanism to support installation of EV charging infrastructure across the whole country, and not just in the hot spots that are first to convert to electrified transport.

Meanwhile, Project LEO is helping to raise awareness of decarbonisation and to show local community groups what part they might have to play in the grid of the future, as Bryce explains: “Project LEO supports people who are interested in becoming prosumers and our trials are teaching us how best to help them.”



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