As rooftop solar and batteries become the norm, how to appropriately manage their output becomes an increasing challenge around Australia. We spoke to Suleman Alli, Director of Strategy at UK Power Networks, ahead of his international keynote presentation at Digital Utilities 2020, about the utility’s plans to create the world’s most advanced electricity network control system and how it is maximising the opportunities presented by Distributed Energy Resources (DER).

Suleman Alli, Director of Strategy, UK Power Networks

With more than 2.1 million solar homes, Australia has the highest penetration of residential rooftop solar in the world. The challenge with this strong solar uptake – along with the growing household battery storage and electric vehicle markets – is understanding how to best integrate the large amounts of small-scale solar generation into a grid that was never designed for two-way flows of power.

Many in the Australian energy industry are starting to look to new network management models – and taking inspiration from overseas. The role of Distribution System Operator (DSO) is gaining traction in the UK and across Europe, and could have implications for the local sector.

Smart Power, a report from the UK National Infrastructure Commission following studies of the country’s electricity sector, identified that a DSO would undertake the conventional role of a distribution network owner, but would also make full use of smart techniques and the flexibility of DER to create value for the wider electricity system.

UK Power Networks, the company which keeps the lights on for more than 18 million customers in London and the south-east of England, was among the first electricity networks in the UK to launch a strategy setting out its transition from Distribution Network Operator (DNO) to DSO. The utility has already commenced its journey to becoming a DSO, and Suleman Alli, Director of Strategy, is the man responsible for leading the transition.

“UK Power Networks is transitioning from the traditional role of a DNO, managing assets, to a DSO, managing outcomes and balancing an increasingly complex, interconnected and low-carbon electricity network,” Mr Alli said.

“We believe that the core objectives of UK Power Networks’ vision – keeping the lights on, providing great customer service and reducing customer costs – remain central to a successful DSO transition.

“However to succeed as a DSO, we are developing additional capabilities to deliver value for customers in the wider electricity system by enhancing network visibility, modelling and new control functions to enable whole system optimisation.

“As such, our ‘Future Smart’ DSO strategy and roadmap revolves around a five-point action plan that focuses on facilitating cheaper and faster connections using proven innovation, prioritising customer flexibility as an alternative to network upgrades, creating the world’s most advanced electricity network control system, collaborating with industry to enable nation-wide benefits, and preparing for and facilitating the uptake of Electric Vehicles (EVs).

“Starting from our Low Carbon London innovation project in 2010, we have continued to innovate, develop and deploy smart tools, techniques and technologies that unlock capabilities for the delivery of our DSO roadmap.

“One such example includes our world-leading innovation project ‘Flexible Plug and Play’ to facilitate faster and cheaper distributed generation connections, which became a business-as-usual product ‘Flexible Distributed Generation’. Through this we have connected over 120MW of renewable generation, increasing the liquidity of the flexibility services market, and delivered savings of over £70 million for connecting customers.

“Flexible Plug and Play was the first project to explore the use of flexible connections through innovative commercial arrangements in Great Britain. Flexible connections allow distributed generation customers to connect to the distribution network on the basis that their generation output can be controlled by the DNO whilst the network is kept within operational limits.

“In October 2019, we announced a new flexible connections product using our new active network management system. Customers will benefit from low-cost, fast connections to the network and access to a simple application process which can be found online. An industry-leading online mapping tool has been developed to give customers a guide on potential curtailment zones.”

Mr Alli explained that through its experience of running flexibility tenders in 2017, UK Power Networks learned that market liquidity is fundamental to the success of its aspiration to use flexibility services as an alternative to network reinforcement.

“We also learned that it is essential to promote further transparency and accessibility of our data and requirements, whilst maintaining market neutrality. As such, UK Power Networks collaborated with software company Piclo and signposted our constraint areas, heat maps and procurement process on their Piclo Flex platform to increase market liquidity and enable wider customer participation.”

Investing in innovation

At UK Power Networks, innovation is defined as the development and implementation of any approach which enables the utility to achieve its objectives more quickly, affordably, safely or to a higher standard, and which uses methods that are unconventional in the context of the business.

UK Power Networks has a dedicated team of 32 engineers, project managers and other specialists whose focus is to deliver an ever-growing portfolio of innovation projects. The utility has deployed 30 innovative solutions into business-as-usual operations since the start of the RIIO-ED1 period in 2015, which has led to £182 million in savings. The organisation is actively collaborating with over 100 project partners, and has access to over 7,000 small and medium enterprises through its membership with the Energy Innovation Centre.

The innovation portfolio is split into three key focus areas:

• Efficient and effective
• Low carbon ready
• Future ready

“The biggest challenge of innovation is embedding the solutions into business-as-usual operations. However, for UK Power Networks, success has depended on strong governance throughout the lifecycle of any innovation project, having a business owner and senior sponsor since the inception of the solution, and business impact assessments throughout the delivery of the project,” Mr Alli said.

“We have been developing smart grid solutions for over ten years. Most of these solutions are digitally based, integrating hardware solutions with software monitoring and control systems. Our forecasts and planning tools are increasing in complexity and data inputs. We are moving into the digital era, embracing a digital approach to record, monitor, manage and report the status of our networks.

“UK Power Networks is also investing in business intelligence, with the aim to give individuals across the organisation timely and accurate information at their fingertips so that they can make better operational decisions. Similarly, the uptake of new technologies and systems are measured and fed back to the business in real time, tracking and accelerating adaptation.

“Recently, we set up a dedicated analytics and insights function to identify performance opportunities using data and implement change efficiently in areas that yield the highest return. In addition to identifying opportunities using data mining, the team embeds predictive analytics and machine learning techniques to improve operational decision-making.

“Innovation involves taking higher risks in order to achieve improvements in performance. This is managed carefully and is reflected in our rigorous approach to the selection, delivery, and governance of innovation projects. However, this also means that we must recognise that some innovation will ‘fail’, i.e. not proceed into business as usual. We focus on capturing the learnings from such projects and believe that the greater failure would be to always accept the status quo.”

The full article will be published in the February 2020 edition of Utility magazine.