The Prime Minister’s vision for a green industrial revolution has been shaped to position post-Covid UK as a clean technology leader. It’s an ambition that comes with plans for record investment – and with this some formidable challenges for our energy generation and distribution networks to grapple with
The government’s recently announced Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution and the Energy white paper: Powering our net zero future are welcomed by many as we pivot Britain towards a more sustainable future. Unveiled recently by the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the plans outline a post-Covid drive to transform the UK into ‘The world’s number one centre for green technology’
Addressing clean energy generation and transport alongside other environmental, business and technological initiatives, the plan’s goals include the creation of up to 250,000 skilled jobs by 2030. The Prime Minister is certainly upfront about the investment needed to deliver this ambitious vision, citing £12 billion of government funding – plus over three times as much private sector money – ‘to place green jobs at the heart of our economic revival’.
Ahead of next year’s COP26 Summit in Glasgow, energy networks are already thinking hard about the UK’s path to net zero and its implications for our transmission and distribution infrastructures. The network operators have in many ways been ahead of the curve of government policy, trailblazing in a way that has undoubtedly influenced many of the core principles of these policy announcements. At the heart of these is the recognition that this investment must stimulate growth in the UK labour market, developing and growing existing capabilities and establishing new centres of excellence which should help to ‘keep household bills low’.
The first of the plan’s ten points highlights offshore wind as the conduit for a projected 40 GW of generation capacity by 2030, representing a quadrupling of current levels. In contrast with fossil fuels and nuclear, renewable sources like wind and photovoltaics present some big headaches from a power distribution perspective. Inherently transient and unpredictable, in the UK at least, the energy they create can be challenging to manage efficiently, putting costly pressures on transmission and distribution infrastructures to accommodate fluctuating power flows. This curtailment naturally means that the potential for the utilisation of that renewable generation cannot be maximised without significantly innovating our approach.
Of course, with the growth of renewables – which are by their very nature intermittent – there will be the need to grow a stable base load of generation, and the UK government is set to renew its nuclear power policy to support this. Of most interest is the government commitment to bring Small Modular Reactors (SMR) to the fore, with the most exciting of this class of reactor being ‘Travelling Wave’ technology. Most of these SMR’s are quicker and cheaper to construct while producing less waste – and with the waste from some designs producing other usable fuels.
If the goal is to run a safe, secure, and resilient electricity network that minimises carbon emissions, the linkage between more renewables and the stable operating baseload that more traditional power generation affords is inescapable. The importance of reviewing the process of licensing these technologies to make sure that the process is working as fast as it can without compromising safety standards cannot be overstated.
You might ask why we need this huge growth in renewables and innovative nuclear technology. This is highlighted by the subsequent goals, especially Point 4 – Accelerating the Shift to Zero-Emission Vehicles and Point 7 – Greener Buildings. Shifting towards greener vehicles is a commendable ambition. This is being underpinned by a commitment to invest massively in the charging infrastructure, commercial regulation and the EV supply chain, simultaneously creating jobs, maintain tax revenues and building domestic expertise and capabilities. This provides a challenging situation to manage for network operators where the impact will be primarily felt at the Low Voltage (LV) level. Cars by their very nature are transitory; their use is governed by consumer behaviour with events and drivers that traditionally have little to do with network operators. The challenge will be building in regulation, commercial mechanisms, smart and flexible interventions – and most importantly visibility of these transitory load flows – to allow network operators to manage load at this level safely and effectively to facilitate a secure and reliable network for the end consumer.
Greener Buildings will in large part be achieved by the installation of a projected 600,000 heat pumps annually by 2028 along with the banning of new gas boilers by 2035. This presents a very different challenge for network operators to manage their networks effectively. Domestic load profiles at the macro scale have behaved the same way for decades, with a peak in the morning and a larger peak in the evening together with a trough in the middle of the day and overnight. These two points will turn that established industry norm on its head—since heat pumps will add a large static load on LV networks around the clock as they maintain a stable temperature in people’s homes. Factor accelerating EV ownership into the equation – and suddenly the network operators have more tricky variables to contend with while keeping customers on supply and meeting their regulatory obligations.
The final point I will focus on is Green Finance and Innovation. Effectively underpinning all the other points, it is a welcome recognition from government that the previous points cannot be achieved without a revolution in how R&D is funded, and how important the proper management of innovation and finance is to the achievement of net zero. Attracting investors and gaining buy-in from existing shareholders and stakeholders in the market is essential when trying to achieve such a transformation programme on the national scale.
Broad shifts are happening already, driven by the UK networks and the governing bodies that regulate them. Data and digitalisation strategies are being formulated and finalised as part of the RIIO process. This will drive network operators to build on their already established relationship with end consumers to innovate, share and be inclusive of the wider community. New commercial and market structures are being openly debated by think tanks and policy units: no doubt many of these ideas will be reflected in the new market landscape.
There is no doubt that one of the largest impacts will be felt at the UK’s ageing LV infrastructure. The 10 Point Plan looks to fundamentally change the behaviour the end customer displays and capabilities that they have access to, and the majority are connected at the LV level of the network. The need for connected, integrated solutions that give network operators not only accurate visibility of their network at this level but real actionable insight has never been higher.
It is an exciting time to be involved in the energy industry where commercial opportunities are matched by moral imperatives to act, be creative and above all provide value to those that access those markets. The implications for how the UK economy can grow, how it is viewed both at home and abroad, and the judgement of future generations that will be inevitably affected by the climate crisis are huge.
Achieving this plan will establish the UK as the world leader in green energy management and innovation, allowing us to develop skills and products domestically and export them internationally as the rest of the world catches up. Being a fast follower is no longer enough, and it’s great to see such a plan with ambitious scope and vision being openly discussed.