Will transmission be needed in a decentralised, decarbonised, digitalised energy system? David Wright, Director of Electricity Transmission and Group Chief Electricity Engineer, considers some of the factors that could shape the outcome – however uncertain the future may be.
Shaping our electricity transmission network for the future requires in-depth business knowledge, solid engineering skills and an awareness of how connections at the edges of the network are changing. In my position as Director of Electricity Transmission at National Grid, I have the opportunity to work with the rest of the energy industry to create the future for all of us.
There can be few reminders so obvious to our day-to-day lives that innovations in engineering are shaping our lives than the rapid increase in electric cars on our roads. In my conversations with senior executives from car manufacturers, it is absolutely clear that electric cars are here to stay.
This is going to become a massive factor as it plays out over the coming years, creating opportunities for new business models, technologies and ways of working. We’re talking about going from around 200 thousand to 38 million cars on British roads by 2040 at an increasing rate.
How does National Grid play a part in this? For one thing, it’s about bringing the power generated by the right energy sources to these new, mobile consumers. Electric cars are consumers of electricity, but they can also be an important source of storage and flexibility for utility companies. Their optimised use would allow an improved management of the grid.
This is just one example of how consumers are changing. Understanding the way consumers will use the network means being able to help shape it. Our research is shaped by that drive to support new technologies and knowing that they will in turn change the way we as an industry player interact with the energy landscape.
If we want to shape the future of the energy landscape, we must acknowledge that the mix of connected sources is constantly evolving. Known as the energy transition, this evolving mix requires a vision to retain the network’s resilience and reliability. Designing the right strategy and understanding that energy transition is key in this. You wouldn’t focus all your attention solely on one single source of generation power to build that future model. This is why we need to deploy the correct enabling infrastructure, not just the physical assets that need to go into the grid but also the legal, regulatory and economic frameworks that will support those deployments.
Going back to the example of electric vehicles, obviously, the charging station is a critical part of infrastructure. But we also think about things like, who is going to have the right to build those charging stations? How will they be compensated for them? How do you earn a return on those investments that they're going to have to make? What role should system planners have in dictating where those charging stations should go in, such that they can encourage the charging of vehicles at a time when we're taking advantage of renewable resources?
That’s why we work alongside stakeholders, customers, industry partners and the research community to understand which technologies are going to shape that model. Innovation must happen in all areas — from power generation and transmission to energy efficiency, transport and electricity storage. We also need to make well-founded decisions that are understood by the public. Taking this approach naturally leads to thinking about which technologies are going to make the grade in this future model. I believe that we need to keep an open mind and remain as technologically neutral as possible. In the end, competition will decide which technologies are the most efficient and cost-effective as far as the energy transition is concerned. The ingenuity of the global energy industry will ensure that this path leads to a successful future.
However, one thing is certain about those future technologies. They will be increasingly digital and they must be low-carbon. A low-carbon, predominantly digital world is a world with increased dependence on electricity. When our day-to-day activities (everything from making a business transaction to reading books) are interconnected and require electricity, we need a more dynamic, responsive system. But an increasingly dynamic system with multiple layers of complexity is more fragile and vulnerable to a breakdown. Simplicity doesn’t always equal efficiency, but it does usually equal reliability. If you remember, back in March of this year it was reported that a political dispute between Serbia and Kosovo was sapping a small amount of energy from the local grid, causing a domino effect across the 25-nation network spanning the continent from Portugal to Poland and Greece to Germany. Unless we build the correct level of security and resilience into our designs and operations, potential threats such as climate change, cyber attacks and economic movements are increasingly more likely to expose the fragility of this complex system. A system we depend on, more than ever before, for the quality of our lives and economic growth of our nation.
As we have seen, even mapping out something as inevitable as the move to electric vehicles requires an overhaul in the way we think about our electricity transmission network and the supporting digital technologies. If this has you thinking that we need more network and more infrastructure, rest-assured that isn’t necessarily the case. What it does mean is that we need to use smart business knowledge and solid engineering skills to choose where we invest and locate the new types of generation. For example, when it comes to power lines, a simple way of making them resilient to the environment is to simply underground them. And, as ever, we need to inform and ensure consumers are better incentivised to use less energy to meet their needs.
I believe National Grid are uniquely placed to help shape the constantly evolving energy transition and to build the energy network for the future. This is why I want us to become a stakeholder-led business. I look forward to sharing that journey with you.
Director of Electricity Transmission
Group Chief Electricity Engineer