Control room balancing the grid

Innovating for Britain’s electricity system of the future

We’ve published our latest innovation annual summary for 2020/21. Our innovation manager Geoff Down looks at how we’re innovating with industry to help drive Britain’s journey to net zero.

The year 2020 gave us a taste of what the future of electricity system operation could look like.

Low demands owing to covid lockdowns, combined with record-high levels of zero carbon generation, gave our control room some unprecedented operability challenges – many of which we highlight in our latest operability strategy report.

Moving into 2021, over the winter we saw some equally complex operating conditions – albeit for different reasons – leading to some tight margins on occasion.

Now more than ever is the time for us to work together to tackle the challenges ahead

While our experts proved equal to the challenge, it laid bare the scale of the ambition we’ve set ourselves to be able to operate the system carbon free by 2025.

It also highlighted just how pivotal our innovation work with partners across industry continues to be in tackling the obstacles we’ll encounter as we work towards achieving that ambition.

That work, and the latest progress in our innovation portfolio, is showcased today in our 2020/21 innovation annual summary (as distinct from our innovation strategy, which sets our course and priorities for the year ahead).

Read our new innovation annual summary for 2020/21

Whether it’s early stage research and development, small-scale technology demonstrations or a trial market solution, the projects in our portfolio are all making a difference in building an energy system fit for the future.

In the last year our £7.3 million spend on innovation has seen us start nine new projects, complete a further nine, and progress 14 others. Over 25,000 hours of time have been spent by 66 ESO staff working on innovation initiatives.

Some of those projects include:

  • Control REACT – a project with the Smith Institute and TNEI to improve National Grid ESO’s forecasting capability. The initiative is developing a tool to help our control room see and better understand where there are uncertainties in their forecasting data. The tool, once productionised, will help our engineers to make more informed forecasting and planning decisions, operate the system more efficiently and reduce costs for consumers.
  • Spatial GB Clean Heat model – in partnership with National Grid Gas, we’ve developed a first-of-its-kind model to explore differences between Britain’s regions when it comes to delivering net zero heat for buildings. This approach could help us investigate whether local solutions could be used to decarbonise heat and maximise energy efficiency. The model has already been used in our latest Future Energy Scenarios.
  • Phoenix project – working with SP Energy Networks, the project aims to address the challenge of operating a stable electricity system with more and more zero carbon generation on it. Wind and solar power don’t bring the same stabilising properties to the grid as fossil fuel plants, so – in the same vein as our stability pathfinder – a new technology solution called a hybrid synchronous condenser is being built and tested as a new way to provide them. It’s another step towards being able to operate the system carbon free.

Among our other flagship innovation initiatives highlighted in our annual summary are the Power Potential project with UK Power Networks – which is paving the way for new renewable energy market – and the most important back-up plan you’ve never heard of, Distributed ReStart.

Of course there’s one ingredient (aside from innovation) that is key to these projects being a success – and that is collaboration.

Now more than ever is the time for the energy industry to work together, with academia and with other sectors entirely to tackle the challenges ahead.

We’ll soon be launching an open call for ideas around our innovation strategy’s top priorities – our ‘call to arms’ to encourage and invite ideas and discussion as we develop the capability we’ll need to operate an affordable, low carbon electricity system in 2025 and beyond.

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