Beyond data: what extra insights and support do stakeholders need from DSOs?

Analysis support, more frequent flexibility forecasting and more standardised access – these were a few of the asks from attendees at a recent Utility Week workshop exploring stakeholder requirements of DSO data portals.

Expectations of the recently established Distribution System Operators (DSOs) are high. In a recent Utility Week report exploring early actions from one DSO to fulfil its duties – distinct from the asset-focussed network operator role – one influential energy supply representative said DSOs now sit “at the centre” of the GB energy transition. In a world of exponentially growing distributed energy assets and renewables they have a critical role to play in supporting coordination and transparency for decarbonisation on local networks, in alignment with system-wide plans.

Among other things, this means DSOs must rapidly establish mature and agile approaches to the publication and collation of diverse data sets, presented in ways which make it easy for external actors to seize opportunities that will accelerate us towards net zero – whether that be through connecting low carbon generation to the system or finding new ways to reduce and flex demand.

Recongising this need, all DSO’s have now established data portals in various guises which allow access to information about network operations and constraints as well as other relevant data sets.

But is the creation of these portals  enough to meet the expanding demand for insight and clarity from stakeholders as diverse as renewables developers, local authorities, heat pump installers, flexibility service providers and more?

At a recent Utility Week workshop, hosted in association with SSEN Distribution, we explored this question with a varied group of energy transition stakeholders. We asked them to what degree DSO data portals are supporting their ability to tackle three major energy transition challenges:

  • How to engage consumers in energy flexibility and promote adoption of low carbon technologies
  • How to build clarity around how much system flexibility will be needed and when
  • How to improve coordination and visibility between local and national system operators

Interpretation and analysis

Before breaking into groups to tackle the above challenges individually, attendees were fired up with a panel debate featuring senior representatives from an energy supplier, renewables trade body and heat pump trade body.

These leaders issued a clear message that, while the creation of data portals by DSOs has been welcome, there is an opportunity to augment the data sets they offer access to through the provision of additional insight services and by improving accessibility.

There were calls for greater consistency across data portals too, to avoid “too many different ways of interacting with different portals to get the same outcome” and a strong emphasis was placed on the need for DSO portals to get better at making it “easy to understand the relationship between different data sets” – including from external sources.

While the panel acknowledged its is not directly the responsibility of DSOs to offer this kind of interpretation service, one panellist questioned: “Why wouldn’t they want to do it?” adding that it would strengthen their performance against key Ofgem metrics and fulfil a service that would otherwise certainly be delivered by consultancies.

With a view to considering where DSO might be able to look for inspiration as to what their data publication strategies should look it was suggested Transport for London (TFL) should be seen as an open data pioneer whose publication of key data sets has long since been a source of innovation and improvement in and around TFL’s services.

Group discussions:

Attendees at this workshop included a mix of local authority representatives, smart home tech providers, energy suppliers, renewables energy developers, power distribution companies and the Electricity System Operator.

Individuals were assigned to a relevant challenge area (outlined above) and asked to consider whether they felt supported in meeting that challenge by existing DSO data portals. They were asked to consider whether current offers accurately reflected their needs and abilities and what other data sets might usefully be added.

Below we round up the main thrust of discussion for each challenge group.

How to engage consumers in energy flexibility and promote adoption of low carbon technologies

This group was predominantly formed with local authority and domestic low carbon technology or service providers. Quickly, discussion became dominated by concerns around equity in the energy transition and the need not to “leave disadvantaged communities behind”. In relation to this point, it was noted that significant differences in the funding of local authorities mean some are much more able than others to invest time and resource in development of their Local Area Energy Plans, or to engage with DSO portals with this in mind.

Helping less well-resourced authorities to access and interpret the data they need to develop robust decarbonisation pathways for their communities was considered a priority because of the “convening power” of local government bodies. They were identified as critical enablers of education and engagement in what the energy transition should mean for communities and individuals.

However, it was noted that to step up to this role with confidence, local authorities needed to be able to deliver clear and accurate messages about the readiness of certain localities for a proliferation of domestic low carbon technologies – including electric vehicles and heat pumps. They also said the quality of available data on the performance of certain technologies needed to be much improved. One participant said that manufacturer data on the performance of equipment and its carbon or money saving potential for consumers is often “grotesquely wrong”.

Similarly, attendees felt that information on the potential energy bill benefits of participation in demand side flexibility services is hard to navigate and inconsistently represented. It was felt DSOs could play a role in adding transparency here.

Finally, returning to the theme of equity and “just transition” one participant strongly challenged the impact of growing energy flexibility services on customers whose usage is very low and whose ability to participate in demand side services is very limited.


Participants in this discussion readily recognised the value of SSEN Distribution’s Local Energy Net Zero Accelerator (LENZA) tool to the development of local authority decarbonisation plans.

Over three years in the making, SSEN’s LENZA tool is designed to help local authorities develop their decarbonisation plans effectively. It is a geospatial planning platform which provides data on network constraints and empowers local planners to make better decisions about where to install new energy assets. So far, SSEN has used LENZA to support detailed Local Area Energy Plan work with 11 Scottish and 38 English Local Authorities. This is against a commitment in its RIIO2 business plan to collaborate with 72 authorities across it license areas.

Find out more here.

How to build clarity around how much system flexibility will be needed and when

Participants in this group were primarily energy suppliers, other flexibility services providers or renewable developer representatives seeking to understand how to better monetise their consumer or asset flexibility.

They broadly agreed that, notwithstanding emerging statements and strategies from DSOs on the flexibility needs of distribution networks, it is still unclear what flexible energy capacity is being used on the system at any one time and what will be needed in the future. This makes it hard to build business cases for larger asset investments and trickly to represent the value that consumers might reap from allowing their domestic assets to operate in flexibility markets.

It was agreed that different actors need different things from DSOs in terms of flexibility needs forecasts. While larger renewables developers need to have reliable long-term ranges – ideally taking into account uncertainty around the delivery of projects in modelling – those seeking to leverage domestic flexibility placed higher value on short term forecast data. The important of establishing “day ahead” forecasting of flexibility requirements on distribution systems was emphasised by these stakeholders.

More generally, while attendees welcomed growing efforts from DSOs to publish reliable information about future flexibility needs – pointing to SSEN’s forthcoming Flexibility Needs Forecast as a good example of how DSOs should be moving to meet stakeholder needs in this space – they noted that the fast-moving pace of the energy transition is likely to mean such reports quickly become outdated. They suggested a next step could be establish more frequent flexibility needs reports or develop systems that allow stakeholders to file ad hoc flexibility needs information requests which can be quickly answered.

Turning their attention to questions of data consistency, this group mulled the merits of establishing minimum data standards which must be met before DSOs release information via their portals. While such a standard might be desirable, there were some significant concerns that setting it up would take a long time and become a distraction for DSOs, hindering progress with system decarbonisation overall.

How to improve coordination and visibility between local and national system operators

Representatives from networks, the system operator and innovation bodies came together in this group to discuss how to deliver the higher levels of coordination and visibility across the energy system being demanded by myriad stakeholders.

Participants agreed that urgency on this point is building as flexibility service providers seek to maximise their opportunities across multiple markets through revenue stacking. Pressure is also likely to mount from renewables operators and developers as long-standing Renewables Obligation contracts draw to a close and they look for new revenue streams to shore up business cases.

Additionally, with DSO performance incentives under review for the first time this year, coordination is likely to come under scrutiny from the regulator.

The was consensus that there is a need to for the industry as a whole to take a more nuanced approach to resolving coordination challenges. So far, it was agreed, discussions between DSOs and the ESO have been dominated by considerations of “primacy” rather than true coordination.

There are high expectations that a new Market Facilitator, expected to be appointed by Ofgem this year will help progress coordination across local and system level markets however there was also a strong feeling from some that Ofgem will need to play a bigger role in defining the shape of common data exchange standards between ESO and the DSOs.

It’s notable that while the need for coordination between distribution networks and the ESO on system balancing has been the primary focus for industry in recent years, there was also some lively debate over need for DSO-DSO coordination at the boundaries of licence areas.

Our participants noted that DSOs could be doing more to support local authorities who boundaries overlap with more than one DSO. Currently, it was noted, energy planning and decarbonisation leaders within these council are having to draw on data from different portals to understand network constraints and other relevant data. It was suggested that it coul be relatively easy for DSOs to collaborate the provide a single point of entry for compiled data sets, especially where two DSO have built their portals on the same or similar technology platforms.

Moving on to discuss frustrations and blockers to better coordination and data transparency between different system operators, several participants bemoaned what they felt to be a cultural disposition for networks to “over-engineer”  the design and build of data solutions, especially when working with third parties. Excessive conservatism could impact impact the pace of development for solutions which might aid coordination and transparency, they said. Some felt that pragmatic solutions could be developed with greater agility by in-house teams.

Another factor which is making it challenging to increase levels of transparency and granularity in data sharing is data protections regulation. In particular GDPR and the rules of the Utilities Act where section 105 prohibits the sharing of certain types of information about individuals or commercial entities.  One participant felt strongly that this is a barrier to better and more transparent coordination between system operators when it comes to flexibility needs on certain parts of the system.

Next steps

The valuable insights and opinions shared at this workshop will now be taken forward to enhance SSEN’s DSO data roadmap

Emphasizing the importance of convening with stakeholders to build understanding and generate ideas for effective data sharing, SSEN’s head of network operations, who attended the workshop, says this is “key to our work as a DSO”.

“There’s a job for all of us to do, to increase participation in flexibility,” Nigel Bessant, head of network operations , SSEN Distribution

This is because effective data-sharing leads to better operational coordination, whole-system thinking and longer-term forecasts; and these underpin our work to release additional electricity capacity as quickly as possible, through the efficient mix of flexibility, and strategic investment.”

Placing a particular emphasis on insights from the Local Authority attendance at this workshop, Bessant adds: “We are proud of the sector-leading work we’re doing with local authorities to enhance LAEPs through the roll-out of our LENZA tool, and thanks to our new team of Net Zero Engagement Specialists.

“Local authorities and other users need to be able to access the information they require easily, to do the work that will bring about their net zero goals.”

For SSEN, Bessant is clear that the insights shared highlight a continuing need to seek out opportunities for collaboration and share best practice so that SSEN can “better support the communities we serve”.

More than this, Bessant says the workshop discussions serve as a timely reminder “that there’s a job for all of us to do, to increase participation in flexibility, to ensure all customers, including people in fuel poverty and the vulnerable, can benefit from these opportunities.”

This workshop was hosted as part of a series of work Utility Week is undertaking in partnership with SSEN to explore the role and influence of DSOs in the energy transition. Other recent outputs from this partnership include our reports, Powering Change: A DSO story and Data for flexibility: supporting market growth and liquidity.