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Could using and supplying energy more smartly reduce the need for grid reinforcement?

Electricity pylons

Switching to an energy system based on renewables will require large-scale grid reinforcement – which will be slow, costly and controversial. Could the need for this be reduced?

In January, Dan Stone from CSE’s policy team gave evidence to the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee on renewable energy and the sustainable electrification of the UK economy.

Here, he reflects on what was discussed …

In January, I spoke before Parliament about switching to an energy system based on renewables and the role of the planning system in this. There was lots of discussion about the challenges of reinforcing the electricity transmission and distribution grids at the pace needed, and how we plan for and go about this.

But following the session, I’ve been reflecting as much on what wasn’t said as what was, and about the hidden links between grid reinforcement, how we generate, store and use energy, and our building standards. So, here, I’d like to connect the dots between some of the points that were made in the discussion.  

The planning system is the gateway that nearly all significant infrastructure and renewable energy projects must pass through. The technical standards set by planning and the building regulations also have a huge influence on our energy demands in the first place. So, it’s important that planning policy and regulation are set up to deliver the infrastructure we need for the energy transition. Otherwise, it will all be harder and take longer.   

Here are the suggestions I made to Parliament in connection to the planning system:

Revise the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) — the bible for local authority planners determining most renewable energy applications — to …

When the area is burning because of more frequent wildfires, maybe we’ll find the idea of landscape change more acceptable!

Beyond national policy planning …

Reflecting on the session, here are my impressions and what I learnt from fellow expert witnesses, Rebecca Windemer from Regen, Barbara Hammond from the Low Carbon Hub and Bridget Smith, leader of South Cambridgeshire District Council …

Reinforcement of transmission networks and low voltage networks

As we move to a system based on renewables – and therefore electricity – the networks that move electricity around the country will need reinforcing, as they’ll need to transport more. There was lots of discussion about how to do this, about problems with supply chains, skills shortages and the need for a more strategic and planned reinforcement process. The Nick Winser review proposed the creation of Strategic Spatial Energy Plans. But there’s little detail on what these will look like, how they’ll be written and what counts as “strategic”. Transmission networks, offshore wind yes, but how about land-based renewables – onshore wind and solar?

There wasn’t enough attention given in the session (or the Nick Winser review) to low voltage networks (the smaller lines that join your house to the substation and serving smaller renewable energy projects), which will see the same problems.

Overall, it’d be easy to spend a great deal of money reinforcing the transmission grid to transport electricity up and down the country. But given every country around the world is simultaneously trying to do the same thing, from a limited pool of suppliers, this will always be slow.

And with a distributed energy system consisting of thousands of renewable energy suppliers everywhere, and energy consumers everywhere, we should do all we can to minimise this. If we can increase the proportion of renewable electricity we use locally and reduce the need to move it across the country, we can reduce the cost and controversy of all those marching pylons, the delays in building them, and ensure that we maximise the economic benefits of renewables to local economies. 

Spiky energy and flexibility

Stealing a brilliant analogy from Octopus’s Greg Jackson, energy demand is spiky, varying from moment to moment, and in a renewable energy system, energy supply is too. To prevent the lights from going out, they need to perfectly match. 

So, how do you get two spiky things to match? You “de-spikify” them.

De-spikifying energy at the household scale

Here, the new kit starting to be fitted into houses – solar panels, heat pumps and EVs – are both a huge potential problem and a huge potential solution.

If every house has dumb (i.e. not smart) kit, and we all plug in our electric cars to charge and ramp up our air source heat pumps in drafty uninsulated homes every evening, demand becomes even spikier. Similarly, if we all fit dumb renewable energy generation, with no capacity to store that energy for when it’s really needed, our energy supply becomes spikier.

To manage these spikes we’d need to spend a fortune reinforcing the grid and continue procuring eye-wateringly expensive flexibility from fossil fuel generation that should really be retired. Added to that, at times when we’re producing more renewable energy than we need, that energy becomes worthless, which does nobody any favours.

By contrast, if every new development incorporated smart kit and batteries that automatically turn off and on according to signals from the grid, we could smooth out household electricity demand. If every development also incorporated rooftop solar panels and battery storage, you’re helping with what you could call “household scale de-spikification”.  Energy Systems Catapult estimate that by reducing the peak demand on the distribution grid, vehicle-to-grid charging could help save £200m of cumulative distribution network investment by 2030.

For the same reason we haven’t seen solar panels installed on all new homes through market forces alone, it probably won’t make commercial sense for developers to incorporate flexibility measures in new standard open market housing. Solar panels and flexibility measures financially benefit the person who pays the energy bills, not the developer selling the house!  So, if we want the system benefits that come with smart, flexible energy use in new development (and we do), there’ll be a need to regulation to avoid this two-tier energy system, where wealthier people pay less for their energy. Thankfully, the Electric Vehicle Smart Charging Action Plan proposes that all new charge points now must have smart functionality. However, there’s nothing in the building regulations to require the inclusion of batteries and other flexibility measures within new buildings.

There is money to be made (and saved) in using energy more flexibly. In the first panel representing the industry, there was much discussion about flexibility products and services sold through the market, such as batteries, smart EV chargers and smart apps, enabling those who can afford the upfront investment (and own their properties) to flex their energy use and reduce their energy costs.

But what about those who can’t and don’t? All too often the only way they can use energy flexibly is by sitting in the dark and cold. Our Smart and Fair programme underlines the need for further analysis to understand the distributional impacts of such products as they emerge, and again, there’s potentially a role for regulation to avoid that two-tier, unfair (and more expensive net cost) energy system.

Area de-spikification

There’s potential for de-spikification to occur at community scale too, for people to buy electricity from their friends and neighbours or from community energy groups. Area de-spikification anyone?

This would capture energy spending in local economies and tap into popular narratives about community self-sufficiency and resilience which would be hugely helpful in building support for renewable energy. But at present, this isn’t possible. Local projects can’t sell their clean energy directly to local people. They have to sell it to big energy companies for a fraction of the price or set up a workaround such as a microgrid. Regulatory failure etched in the ground, in copper.

They’re all work-arounds to regulatory restrictions, which require each property to have its own meter point and means of access to the electricity network, which according to my fellow panellist Barbara Hammond, can be prevented by some easy tweaks to the regulations.

Demand Reduction

Finally, the elephant in the room, noticeably neglected in all national policymaking, is demand reduction. There is no national demand reduction strategy and nowhere near enough concentration on ramping up insulation programmes and building the retrofit supply chain. As MP Clive Lewis said in the session I attended, the cheapest energy of all is that which you don’t use.

Making houses more energy efficient is a low tech way of permanently de-spikifying energy demand. Well insulated homes which retain their heat have less spiky energy demands and are likely to have lower peak demand.  Plus, with very energy efficient homes, you could potentially turn their heating off for an hour without anyone noticing. If you could do that with a million (6 Kw) air source heat pumps, you’d suddenly have 6Gw of energy on tap.  

Making a plan

Given the myriad issues across multiple actors and geographical scale you’d think we need to come up with a plan for grid reinforcement and decarbonisation, and create a body whose job it is to co-ordinate this.  The good news is there are plans to do this.. many many plans… and many many bodies..  

Plans, from large scale (top) to small (bottom):

PlanWhat it’s forOwner
Centralised Strategic Network PlanTransmission network planningOfgem
Strategic Spatial Energy PlansAuthoritative evidence base for key energy projects needed to deliver
our 2035 and 2050 targets:
networks, hydrogen and offshore wind.
To include input from industry, local and regional authorities + alignment with new Regional System Plans and Local Area Energy Plans
Future Systems Operator / Ofgem
Holistic Network Design for Offshore WindAn integrated approach for connecting 23GW of offshore wind to Great Britain.Energy Systems Operator / Future Systems Operator
Regional Strategic Energy PlanStrategic planning across the energy system; technical coordination activities (e.g. energy demand modelling, whole system optioneering, conflict resolution); place-based engagement and coordination.Ofgem / FSO
Local Area Energy PlanSystem wide decarbonisation plan – heat, electricity, transport.
Non-statutory plans with no funding.
Local authorities and Distribution Network operators
Distribution Network Operators’ Investment plansPlanning and prioritising grid reinforcement.Distribution Network operators
Local PlanSpatial development plan.Local Planning Authority

Actors/Bodies, from national (top) to local (bottom):

Actor / bodyResponsibility
OfgemElectricity regulator – ensuring continuity of supply, protecting consumers and decarbonisation.
Heat Network Zoning – Central AuthorityCoordinating heat network zoning, which identify areas where heat networks will provide the lowest cost solution to decarbonising heat across England.
Future System Operator (FSO)Independent body which will oversee the entire energy system.
Regional Energy Strategic Planner (Ofgem / FSO)Strategic planning across the energy system, embedded regionally.
Gas networksManaging the gas network, agreeing connections.
Heat Network Zoning Authority – Zone Coordinators (within local authorities)Collect local data and review the proposed heat network zone prior to designation, defining which buildings are required to connect to a heat network.
Distribution Network OperatorsManaging the low voltage regional network, agreeing connections in and out of the network, ensuring continuity of supply.
Local Planning AuthoritySpatial planning system – making planning policy + determining planning applications.

It must be positive that there is a discussion of the need for regional (and dare we say it) national planning to coordinate grid reinforcement and decarbonisation and set out a rationale for nationally significant energy infrastructure. The bad news is that seemingly no one is clear yet on how all these different plans and mechanisms will all fit together, and how these bodies will work together …

…. it all seems very complicated.

Moving away from free jazz

We’ve previously talked about decarbonisation as “more jazz than Mozart” because local delivery of decarbonisation can never be perfectly scripted. Extending this analogy, it’s time to move away from “free jazz”. We now need a system that sets the rules and enables everyone to join in and make a contribution, listening to what others are playing and responding to and building on each other’s contribution. There’s a need for this now more than ever, and to define the roles of the different players.

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