Tom Grimwood rounds up the energy network projects which won funding in the latest round of the Network Innovation Competition.

Late last month Ofgem announced the winners from the latest round of the annual Network Innovation Competition, which awards funding to a small number of large-scale innovation projects.

Up to £90 million was up for grabs – £20 million for gas networks and £70 million for electricity networks. Of that, £15.2 million has been granted to two gas innovation projects, whilst five electricity innovation projects have between them secured up to £42.4 million.

Utility Week presents a guide to the winners from this year’s competition.


H21, Northern Gas Networks, £8.9 million

Northern Gas Networks has been granted £8.9 million to take forward the latest stage of its H21 programme to support the conversion of the UK gas grid to run on hydrogen.

The funding will be used to gather evidence on whether gas distribution networks are suitable to safely transport 100 per cent hydrogen, and will build upon NGN’s work for the H21 Leeds City Gate innovation project, which concluded that hydrogen conversion is both technically possible and economically viable.

NGN is collaborating with the other three gas distribution networks – SGN, Cadent and Wales and West Utilities – who will together contribute £0.3 million. Northern Gas Networks will itself stump up £1 million, bringing the total value of the project to around £10.3 million.

“As a gas industry, we are pleased that the UK government, and now our regulator Ofgem, recognise the benefits that a conversion of the UK gas distribution networks to 100 per cent hydrogen could bring,” says NGN chief executive Markey Horsley. “This decision moves us a step closer to supporting the government in delivering clean growth and affordable energy for the UK, by unlocking the significant environmental and energy customer benefits such a conversion could create.”

The project was proposed to be carried out in two phases, the first of which will involve laboratory tests to examine potential changes in background leakage levels and determine the effect on safety risks.

Ofgem approved the first phase of the project based on the recommendations of the expert judging panel, who said it could it could inform both gas networks’ maintenance strategies and a potential government policy decision on the future of heat.

However, the regulator rejected the request for a further £4.4 million to conduct field trials on a disused section of the gas network for the second phase of the project (valued at £5 million in total). The judges said it is unclear whether the field trials are necessary, at least for the time being, and could be undertaken at later date once a definite need has been established.

H21 programme director and head of hydrogen technologies at NGN, Dan Sadler says: “It’s very positive that we can start to gather the essential evidence to unlock the potential for a world first large-scale hydrogen economy through conversion of the UK gas distribution network.”

“Funding for phase one is a great start and hopefully in the near future, we will secure the outstanding funding for phase two, to ensure there are no delays in the provision of holistic evidence which will allow the UK government to make credible, large-scale decarbonisation policies for UK energy,” he adds. “This is a huge step forwards on the road to a long-term sustainable and secure global energy system.”


Robotic Roadworks and Excavation System, SGN, £6.3 million

SGN has been awarded £6.3 million to use automate the excavations process using advanced robotics and artificial intelligence. The company says the system will lower the cost of excavations, improve safety and efficiency and reduce the impact on road users and the environment.

Below-ground locating sensors, computer vision and “soft touch” excavation tools will be used to prevent damaging neighbouring utilities and the target asset. As well as performing excavations, the system will also be able to carry out backfilling, tamping and reinstallation of the original road surface.

SGN will work with ULC Robotics to develop a prototype system, before testing it in both rural and urban areas. SGN will contribute £0.7 million to the project, whilst ULC Robotics will add £0.2 million.


Transition, Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks, up to £13.1 million

Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks (SSEN) has been allocated up to £13.1 million to design and demonstrate the tools required to develop markets for flexibility as envisioned by the Energy Network Association’s Open Networks project.

SSEN will contribute an additional £1.5 million to the Transition project, which will include the testing of models for the trading of flexibility and the creation of the IT interface needed to facilitate markets for flexibility. The company expects the trial to save network customers £292 million by 2050 if rolled out across Great Britain by reducing the need for grid reinforcements.

The project will involve fellow distribution network operators (DNOs) Electricity North West and Northern Powergrid, along with British Gas, Elexon, Atkins, CGI and Origami Energy.

“By collaborating with SSEN and our other Transition partners, we have an opportunity to realise the potential of network innovation through increased flexibility; ultimately delivering energy that is cheaper, greener and more secure,” says Origami chief executive Peter Bance.

“The market frameworks being trialled by our partners have the potential to save network customers more than a quarter of a billion pounds, drastically reduce carbon emissions and release at least 500MW of network capacity.”


Fusion, SP Energy Networks, up to £5.3 million

SP Energy Networks (SPEN) has been granted up to £5.3 million to test a local flexibility market in East Fife in Scotland. The project will trial the application of an existing market model developed in Europe known as the Universal Smart Energy Framework. SPEN will provide £0.6 million of additional funding.

The aims of the trial include establishing a blueprint for local flexibility markets which other DNOs can adopt and developing standard procurement procedures within the existing regulatory and market framework. If replicated across Great Britain, the model is expected to save consumers £236 million by 2050 through avoided network reinforcement.

SPEN director of processes and technology, Colin Taylor, says the project will “put customers at the heart of our ambitious future energy system.

“By enabling a flexible network, SP Energy Networks is able to empower customers whilst increasing network efficiency and value, delivering a key element of our distribution system operator vision.”

The project will bring together numerous partners – Fife Council, the University of St Andrews, Bright Green Hydrogen, SAC Consulting, Imperial College London, DNV GL, Origami Energy and Passiv Systems.

Passiv Systems will work on the delivery of demand-side response within the market. The firm’s chief executive Colin Calder comments: “We are on a mission to make energy systems more efficient for our business partners and their customers.

“Our participation in fusion reinforces our aims and demonstrates the credibility of our technology platforms. We are looking forward to working with our partners to deliver the foundation for tomorrow’s energy networks.”


Electricity Flexibility and Forecasting System, Western Power Distribution, up to £2.9 million

Western Power Distribution (WPD) will receive up to £2.9 million of NIC funding to build and test a software platform for forecasting the need for, and sources of, flexibility on distribution networks.

The project will include work to establish how best to co-ordinate the procurement of flexibility by DNOs and the national system operator, National Grid, to prevent the actions of one party negating the actions of another.

WPD will contribute £0.4 million to the trial, whilst project partners including National Grid and software developer AMT-Sybex, will add a further £1 million. The project is also being supported by UK Power Networks and Centrica, which has been trialling a local energy market in Cornwall.

Ofgem has ordered the networks proposing the Electricity Flexibility and Forecasting System, Fusion and Transition projects to work together to identify any areas of unnecessary duplication. The removal of overlaps could affect the exact level of funding they receive.


Active Response, UK Power Networks, £13.8 million

UK Power Networks (UKPN) has been allotted £13.8 million to trial the use of advanced automation and innovative electronic equipment to move spare capacity around the grid to meet ever-shifting demand from electric vehicles.

Up to 1.9 million electric vehicles are expected to be on the road across UKPN’s license areas in London, the East and the South East of England by 2030. The Active Response project will allow spare capacity to be transferred to where people are charging their vehicles at different times – residential areas during evening and weekends, and city centres, commercial hubs and fleet charging points during the day.

Advanced automation will enable increased “meshing”, whereby loads are shared across multiple circuits.

An optimisation algorithm will be applied to detailed models of low and high-voltage networks – including real-time information on load profiles – to determine the best arrangement at any given moment. The networks will be automatically reconfigured using remote-control switches, and monitoring equipment will be installed to provide visibility and measure performance.

In instances where meshing is otherwise impossible due particular network characteristics, innovative electronic equipment, as yet unproven on distribution networks, will be used to share capacity between different parts of the grid.

Low-voltage substations will be connected using the second-generation of “soft open points”, which UK Power Networks originally developed as part of the Flexible Urban Networks project, whilst high-voltage primary substations will be linked up using completely new “soft power bridges”.

The company says the project will avoid the need for additional network reinforcement to accommodate electric vehicles, saving consumers up to £271 million by 2030 if replicated across the whole of Great Britain.

“A low carbon transport revolution is coming, and UK Power Networks want to make sure electric vehicle users can charge when and where they want at the lowest possible cost,” says the firm’s head of innovation, Ian Cameron.

“Active Response is one of our key projects to enable this, by allowing us to research how we can move any spare capacity around the network to where it is needed.”

UKPN has partnered with SP Energy Networks to ensure that, if proven, the solution can be quickly rolled out to other networks.

SP Energy Networks future networks manager, James Yu, says: “SP Energy Networks is delighted to be part of Active Response. The new technologies to be trialled in the project will be the engineering enabler for a low carbon economy. The benefits of innovation will be maximised by working closely in a collaborative manner.”

The total value of the project is £18.2 million, of which UKPN will contribute £3.1 million. The project partners, which also include Turbo Power Systems, Ricardo and CGI, will provide £1.3 million.


LV Engine, SP Energy Networks, £7.3 million

SPEN has been awarded £7.3 million, to which it will add £0.8 million, to develop and test a new type of intelligent solid-state transformer in low-voltage secondary substations.

The touted benefits of the new devices include the ability to provide enhanced voltage regulation, load-sharing with neighbouring substations and direct current connections for low-voltage customers. They will also be modular in design, meaning they can be uprated by adding “capacity blocks” rather having to replace the whole unit.

These advantages will help networks to cost-effectively meet growing and uncertain demand from low-carbon technologies such as electric vehicles, distributed renewable generation and heat pumps.

SPEN says the technology could potentially be deployed at more than 36,000 sites across Great Britain, saving network consumers £528 million by 2050. The company has partnered with UKPN to ensure the devices can be easily adopted by other DNOs.

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