Event review: Flexible Networks Conference

Network flexibility and resilience is essential to the energy transformation – but how best to attain it? This conference sought to find out.

Enabling flexibility. It’s the Holy Grail of energy system innovation. A goal which, if it can be achieved, will reduce the need for investment in new generation, empower renewables, slash carbon emissions, transform the customer’s role in the energy system and disrupt conventional assumptions about the way energy networks – and their supply chain – operate and optimise assets.

At the Flexible Networks Conference 2017, organised by Utility Week’s sister magazine Network, these possibilities fired discussion and inspired presentations. The event, sponsored by ABB, focussed on the potential of energy storage and demand-side response (DSR) to deliver system flexibility, and the sessions ranged through the policy, regulatory and market frameworks that are needed to enable deployment of these technologies, and on to practical insights from live innovation projects.

These real-life experiments in creating system flexibility were equally broad in scope. For storage, they ranged through the findings of early vehicle-to-grid trials to industrial and commercial and grid-scale energy storage applications for flexibility. Inevitably, the projects exploring the latter sparked debate over whether network-owned storage is a necessary element of future flexibility markets. This point drew out diverse views, across different networks, as well as between industry and the regulator.

On DSR, delegates heard about the rollout of Electricity North West’s ground-breaking Class project, which could open the door for every distribution network operator (DNO) in Britain to unlock 3GW of demand flexibility. Steve Cox, ENW’s engineering and technical director, shared how the technique is now allowing the network to provide flexibility benefits to National Grid, via a first of a kind link between the system operator and the DNO’s network management system.

But although Cox was enthusiastic about the “game changing” potential of Class’s voltage control approach, he also warned that unleashing it on a wide scale could have unintended consequences for the wider flexibility market. Such uncertainties remain a hallmark of flexibility innovation, from domestic-level involvement, to the GW-scale flexibility that could be unlocked if interconnectors were used for a greater purpose than straightforward energy trading – a topic tackled by Imperial College London’s professor Goran Strbac.

Overall, the tone of the conference was both optimistic and ambitious. The progress made in recent years, which has seen system flexibility evolve from a conceptual idea to a tangible reality, has bolstered the sector’s confidence and embedded innovation for flexibility into strategic business plans.

This said, it cannot be denied that the challenges to delivering a dynamically and diversely flexible energy system remain significant.

Greater collaboration is needed across power and gas networks. Advances in technology solutions bring new network vulnerabilities as well as capabilities which need to be accounted for and the emerging potential for peer-to-peer energy transactions – made possible by smarter meters or smarter blockchain platforms – need to be better understood.

The sector may have come a long way in uncovering and embracing the potential of a flexible energy future, but the journey is far from over.


Views from the speakers:

Peter Jones, technology strategy manager, ABB Power Grids

“I think an independent national system operator and regional system operators under public ownership could work quite well. Especially given some of the interest that we’re seeing from parties that are not related to utilities, to bring forward disruptive innovation in private flexible energy networks.” 

Rachel Cooper, head of smart energy, BEIS

“It’s really important that we take in a range of views as to what our energy system could look like. Dieter Helm’s review is an important contribution to that debate, but it is one point of view. The next step for government is to take in a wider set of views.”

Jonathan Brearley, senior partner for networks, Ofgem

“I have been around in the energy sector for a long time now. That has its down sides, but also brings one major pleasure, which is seeing things that used to be talked about at a high conceptual level becoming real”

Chris Clarke, director of asset management, Wales and West Utilities

“We deploy 58GWh of storage a day, and we own and operate that storage, unlike perhaps the future for electricity. That’s the equivalent of 6 million Tesla Power Walls. The gas system has got the storage equivalent of 210TWh.”


Key topics discussed:

• How to handle declining system inertia.

• Customer engagement and automated flexibility.

• The potential of the gas network to provide energy system flexibility.

• The impact of fast EV charging innovations on network flexibility and reinforcement needs.

• How to support investment ahead of need in a fast-changing but uncertain world.

• Government/regulator progress on removing barriers to battery storage.

• The transmission-distribution interface and the need for communications innovation.

• Dieter Helm’s cost of energy review and his proposal for regional system operators.


Fast movers

Monopoly energy networks across gas and power are investing in innovation projects to explore how their systems can become more flexible, adapting at need to complex demand and generation patterns to maintain a reliable system with improved efficiency.

But are the regulated networks leading the way in this field? ABB’s Peter Jones spoke at Flexible Networks 2017 about the rapid steps being taken by third parties to develop business opportunities in the operation of flexible private energy networks. These schemes are attracting healthy swathes of private investment, said Jones. And the projects are far from small fry, accounting for “hundreds of megawatts” according to Jones.

The technology strategy leader said that these projects are likely to deliver the “quickest” and most immediately “disruptive” progress towards energy flexibility, though he added that “whether or not it turns out to be the best over the longer term, I don’t know”.

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