Only through innovation can DNOs prepare their grids for the second age of electrification while keeping price rises to a minimum. Martin Wilcox says UKPN is leading the field.

Carbon reduction targets are shaking up the way electricity distribution systems work, stimulating technological and commercial innovation on a scale not seen by the industry in our lifetime.
At the forefront of the changes, UK Power Networks (UKPN) has established a leadership role, developing flagship trials that are shaping national blueprints for a smarter electricity network. It invests more in innovation than any other network group and has committed to delivering savings of £135 million from smart grids over the eight years from 2015. This represents a full return on the innovation investments it has made since 2005, and that rate of return is accelerating as technologies are proven and become self-funding.
The company’s dedicated future networks team manages a range of schemes, from small niche projects to multi-million programmes. Thirty engineers and support staff, with doctorates in relevant fields, bring a depth of experience and industry knowledge to the trials. No stone is left unturned in the search for the next big breakthrough or cutting-edge development. Project ideas originate “light bulb moments” from the frontline workforce through an “if it were my business” scheme and suggestion boxes.
Major new uses for electricity, such as electric vehicles and heat pumps, may eventually result in up to 50 per cent greater consumption of electricity than today. Without innovation, meeting exponential increases in demand will be equivalent to putting a quart into a pint pot. Extensive reinforcement of cables, power lines and substations means price increases for electricity consumers, as well as significant disruption from roadworks, so smarter ways of accommodating distributed energy and controlling electricity demand are essential. Innovations will postpone expensive investment decisions by using lower cost alternatives that extend the life or capacity of electricity infrastructure, keep customers’ bills down, support Britain’s economic recovery and lower the cost of infrastructure.
The innovations amount to a radical shift from the existing business model. Currently, distribution network operators (DNOs) build infrastructure according to growth in peak demand and have no influence over demand or generation. The future landscape in electricity distribution could look very different and see companies becoming distribution system operators, using responsive demand, storage and controllable generation assets to operate a flexible network where demand for electricity can be controlled.
Innovations are organised under seven main themes (see box, left). There is a dedicated process to integrate the results of successful innovation projects so they are implemented as a part of everyday business activities and deliver a return (see chart).
Changes are driven by a business culture focused on continuous improvement. At a substation on London’s South Bank, UK Power Networks will soon be using waste heat from six transformers for the first time to provide heat and hot water at Tate Modern.
To reduce the duration of power cuts, London field staff have recently started trialling the use of iPads with a GeoSub app to quickly navigate the capital’s 16,000 substations and pull up detailed drawings of each one. Fault technicians specialising in more complicated faults are also being trialled to reconnect supplies quicker.
Early innovation efforts have paid off. An overhaul of the company’s streetworks reduced the amount of excavated material sent to landfill to less than 3 per cent, from a starting point of 74 per cent. The initial cost was £125,000, but it has saved an estimated £17.5 million had the company continued at 2006/07 levels of landfill use.
Innovation is inherently risky because the rate of uptake for lower carbon technologies is uncertain, but it is crucial to our success in providing what our customers and electricity networks need.
Martin Wilcox, head of future networks, UK Power Networks