Open Networks: Laying the Foundation for the UK’s Future Electricity Grid

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Yasmin Ali, a London-based writer for Microgrid Knowledge, offers insight into the transformation occuring on the UK grid, as distributed energy increasingly gives consumers an opportunity to become power producers.

UK grid

By PrzemyslawP/Shutterstock

A county in the southwestern tip of England is trialing technology that could have broad implications for the way power is bought and sold in the UK.

Under the Cornwall Local Energy Market project, commercial and residential third party flexibility service providers have signed up to a virtual marketplace. The platform allows participants to buy and sell flexibility to the grid and the wholesale energy market. Flexibility services can be provided by modifying generation or consumption patterns in reaction to an external signal, such as a change in power price.

Described as a neutral market, this model is a key feature of the UK’s grid transition to a new world where consumers not only take power from the grid but also supply it via solar panels and other distributed energy devices.

Open networks project

The representative for transmission and distribution electricity and gas grid operators in the UK and Ireland, the Energy Networks Association, is coordinating the transformation of Distribution Network Operators (DNOs) from passive to active players.

Up until recently, DNOs, responsible for managing the UK’s electricity distribution assets, owned and maintained these assets and allowed energy to flow in one direction without any active management.

The project, called Open Networks, is a significant collaboration between energy transmission and distribution grids, and other key energy industry stakeholders.

From distribution network to distribution system operators

Over the past ten years, DNOs have increasingly actively managed networks. They are operating smart equipment and enabling more energy flows in multiple directions. Many DNOs operate systems that automatically turn generation on or off based on local requirements.

DNOs have taken the first steps towards becoming Distribution System Operators (DSOs), the term given to a model where the operator takes a more active role in managing local electricity generation and use. But so far, the approach has been inconsistent.

Introducing standardization

Currently, different DNOs are covering different aspects of transitioning to the role of DSOs. There is no common agreement on issues like visibility of data. Open Networks, launched at the start of 2017, brings together all of the UK’s transmission and distribution grid operators to agree a common way forward.

Decisions must be made on issues like the types of services third parties can provide, visibility of data, and common ways of working for neutral market facilitation.

“What that means is that the DSOs own the assets, operate a smart grid, and they enable new types of markets to play on the electricity [grid] network,” Randolph Brazier, head of innovation at the Energy Networks Association explained. “Whether that is local flexibility markets or peer to peer trading markets, it doesn’t really matter but they essentially facilitate those new markets in a smart way.”

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As different geographical regions have differing energy requirements, localized rather than centralized markets are likely to be developed, as modeled by Cornwall. The key is to ensure a level of consistency across these markets.

Collaborative approach

The project was named Open Networks partly to reflect the approach and intention to work with industry to design an electricity network that works for everyone.

“The key to this project, and the reason that it’s working well and delivering good results is collaboration,” Brazier said.

The UK’s six DNOs are partners in the project, as well as the transmission network companies. Alongside this, the project is supported by an advisory group formed of 45 industry experts from NGOs, academia, government, trade associations, community energy groups, code administrators, citizen’s advice groups, and any other group with an involvement in the energy industry.

Public consultation

A public consultation is currently in progress, seeking feedback on five models of potential future networks, referred to as ‘DSO Worlds’. Once this is complete, an independent impact analysis will be carried out on the models. The results from the public consultation and the analysis will be presented to the regulator at the end of 2018.

Following the final decision from the regulator, testing will begin and the successful DSO model will be rolled out over a period of ten years.

To fully decarbonize energy systems, the UK must actively manage networks and utilize third parties. Homeowners and local businesses can provide services like solar and storage to system operators. This will minimize costs for networks and encourage the deployment of the most efficient and effective solutions, maximizing benefits for the users.

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  1. Re. opening Network data… a new resource is now freely available (and allows access to other sources):
    We can see Networks are moving to release more of the outputs, insights and data from Network projects and The Catapult as only been able to do this thanks to participation from Randolph (ENA) and other energy systems data holders who are opening up access to knowledge and data.

  2. Terry Hill says:

    Is there any effort in the UK to establish a city/town block as the minimum form factor for microgrids. One of the major obstacles in moving grid reford forward is getting those in decision making positions to imagine how a new grid might take shape. The current model consists of feeder lines radiating from a substation and terminating on a poles near the homes. Wires, attached to pole transformers that down regulate the substation voltage so that it can be safely used in the nearby homes.

    What if, instead of using electricity generated Remotely and transmitted great distances, incurring up to 70% losses before the home owner flicks the switch, power is generated and stored, on site, using PV and storage. Furthermore, given that both PV and storage use direct current (DC) and that appliances increasingly include electronics and, therefore require DC, why not switch to all DC within the home. This systemimic approach, according to some experts might provide considerable savings in the so called “plug load” section. In addition, additional systemic savings might be realized by the city/town block community by adding a DC microgrid that could aggreagate the on-site energy resources to trade energy amongst and between block members, a la LO3’s Brooklyn microgrid, well ancillary services back to the big grid and, perhaps provide transportation operTing costs to coming era of EV’s.

    We could take the fantasy one step further. Why not change the building codes so that all existing buildings are capable, under the aforementioned scenario of net zero energy performance so that, at the end of the days, the grid load is drastically reduced, bad actors are thwarted in attempts to disrupt the grid and the solar flare and other natural disruptors are mitigated.

    A distribution grid, comprised of multiple DC microgrids, at the city block level, is the desired end state.