TRANSITION AND TECHNOLOGY

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TRANSITION AND TECHNOLOGY

TECHNOLOGY FOR CHANGE

AI? Robotics? Data analytics? Which technologies are the most important in facilitating change in energy and water businesses? In the run up to Utility Week Live on May 21, we present our  second report on transition in the sector. Nadine Badoo analyses the results of our exclusive survey.

It is impossible to approach the transition to more resilient and sustainable utility systems without exploring the technologies and innovations that are already facilitating change across businesses. Utilities risk falling behind competitors if the scope of their business plans do not include provision for disruptive new technologies that are likely to have a long-term impact on energy and water. 

According to the Utility Week Live (UWL) survey, conducted by Insight Advantage exploring the state of transition across UK utilities, the current impact of new technologies understandably varies greatly depending on sector.

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Casey Cole, managing director at Guru Systems notes that the feedback loop for obtaining system and asset information has become much tighter in recent years, and expects the industry to continue on this trajectory over the next decade.

“We used to rely on manual collection of data from energy systems, sometimes in hand-written form. Now, as utilities are digitised, data can flow from a huge number of sensors on a utility network into the cloud for machine learning analysis, with results available within seconds. Decision-making cycles that used to take months or years can now be completed in days or even hours.”

While new technology has made it increasingly easier for companies to collect data relating to everything from asset condition to consumer behaviour, this information is impotent if it is of poor quality or is not used effectively and securely. 

The National Infrastructure Commission’s (NIC’s) report on data highlighted the crucial function of data in stimulating innovation. Data for the Public Good outlined the important role for regulators in improving the quality and sharing of infrastructure data to support innovation.

“There just needs to be a stronger focus on innovation across the sector, and – as set out in our Data for the Public Good report – the quality, consistency and availability of infrastructure data needs to be driven up,” says Philip Graham, chief executive at the NIC.

DATA DEBATE

The use of “big data” systems to monitor, analyse and automate production, management and demand is not a new concept for the energy industry. In addition, the rise of customer-centric products and services for energy monitoring and automation provides utilities with further data, capabilities and insights.

Similarly, there is increasing recognition in the water sector that better utilisation of big data tools, such as smart metering, AI and the Internet of Things (IoT), is essential to transition to a more sustainable and reliable water network.

According to the UWL survey, the water sector rated water metering (8.1 out of 10) and data analytics (8.3) as two of the top technologies currently having the biggest impact on the industry. IoT and AI follow closely, according to water respondents, scoring 6.8 and 7.3 respectively. 

However, Stephanie Hurry, head of water efficiency and customer participation at Waterwise, insists there is still a need for a larger debate within the water sector about the amount of open data, and the use of data in general. “More open data would enable greater public engagement with water and the development of more ICT solutions, which could aid water efficiency. However, there is also a need to protect privacy and consider the ethics of data collection and use.”

Hurry acknowledges that while the level of metering in the sector has grown dramatically over the past 10 years, the proportion of smart meter solutions must be increased. “Smart meters should provide information that will aid network optimisation and customer-facing information to drive water efficiency. But there needs to be more work on the use of smart rather than big data. Water companies need to focus on what data is needed and how this should be gathered.”

But the metering of individual homes should not be viewed as the only solution. “Neighbourhood meters for network optimisation combined with in-home sensors that can provide data directly to customers’ smart phones are one alternative approach,” explains Hurry.

EMPOWERING CUSTOMERS

Utilising technology to engage with consumers is key to the transition to a more flexible, resilient and sustainable utility network. But the influx of new technologies makes it increasingly difficult for utilities to identify the solutions that are the best fit for their business and their customers. Faced with such a saturated market, utilities must engage more with consumers to ensure they are part of the decision-making process and feel committed to their role in helping to deliver the energy and water systems of the future.

For water utility Anglian Water, innovation and customer engagement is intrinsically linked. The company’s Innovation Shop Window in Newmarket (see case study) is a real-world test site that promotes innovation and the development of new technologies to help the business tackle the unique challenges facing the region.

“As one of the fastest-growing, and driest, regions in the country, planning for the future and improving resilience is a top priority,” says Adam Brookes, technology and innovation programme manager for Anglian Water.

“But it doesn’t stop with technological advancements on our network – the same approach to innovation is replicated in our approach with engaging the community. One year into the [Innovation Shop Window] campaign, and we’ve already seen customer satisfaction and engagement soar, and people’s average water use drop by 6 per cent. It is only by trialling and applying the latest solutions across our networks, systems and engagement with customers that we are able to continue to meet their demands, while balancing the needs of the environment and keeping bills affordable for all.”

Similarly, the digital transformation across the energy sector is empowering consumers via their smart devices so that they become active participants in the system. However, James Robottom, energy lead at the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), warns that this digital transformation poses both an opportunity and a threat to utilities. “It will continue to change the role of utilities, and where the value lies in the energy system. Digitalisation is at the core of a large opportunity to find new business models to capture this value but is also a threat to established ways of working.”

INNOVATION INHIBITORS

Robottom believes the national energy transformation requires attention to true whole system optimisation, including the emergent smart energy system on the customer's side of the meter, comprising integrated home generation, home energy storage and electric vehicle (EV) charging. And clear policy from Ofgem will be key.

“It is unrealistic to expect network companies to move away from traditional solutions at any great scale, before the regulator has made clear how the companies can earn returns in a world of ‘non-build’ solutions and developments such as distribution system operators (DSOs) operating data platforms. Arguably, Ofgem is creating a barrier to successful long-term energy system transition through its recent proposals to define ‘Whole System’ optimisation as being limited to the transmission and distribution regulated networks.”

Robottom insists that customers’ interests would be better served if Ofgem addressed the issue of true whole system optimisation. He adds: “If this is beyond their current remit, we need policy makers to address some fundamental questions about gaps in roles and responsibilities.”

With concerns that the current regulatory model for energy will struggle to address the transformation happening across the industry, Robottom believes RIIO-2 must help to unlock this. An important aspect will be ensuing that regulatory models adequately support businesses in their investment in smart technologies that are strategically significant and help to drive change in business models and ways of working.

For the water sector, the need for further investment is often a barrier to innovation. Hurry raises concerns over the dearth of investment in water efficiency innovation to date across the UK. “Although water is a key risk to businesses and lack of resilience would impact on households across the country, investment in new technologies has remained focused on energy when it comes to smart cities. Water companies tend to be conservative and won’t invest in technologies that have yet to mature. However, technologies can’t mature and demonstrate their effectiveness without larger scale field trials in the water company setting. Further investment is required in the UK to support “incubator” programmes for water efficiency and to enable field scale trials so these can form part of water resources management and business plans.”

FUTURE PLANNING

Investment in innovation is crucial for utilities and the transformation of energy and water systems, but new technology in isolation is insufficient. Innovative solutions must be integrated into existing systems, which presents a complex challenge that cannot be resolved in a silo.

“These can be demanding technical and commercial challenges, especially where the impacts of innovation cross boundaries between different companies and ‘across the meter’ to homes, businesses and community enterprises,” says Robottom. “Compatible standards and operating procedures are key to any solutions, but the fundamental missing link in the piece is that this coordination task is not the responsibility of any of the existing parties. This is a subset of a core problem that requires coherent systems thinking to drive and underpin resilient architectures, and then the systematic deployment of the right technologies and commercial/regulatory solutions.”

Other technologies likely to facilitate transition

  • Augmented reality
  • Human-centric design
  • Wearables
  • Quantum technologies
  • Hydrogen as a fuel
  • Automation technology
  • Advances in telemetry
  • Energy fusion technology

ELECTRIC VEHICLES

Following the publication of the NIC’s National Infrastructure Assessment, Ofgem issued a consultation examining how to make the most of the opportunities presented by electric vehicles (EVs). NIC chief executive Philip Graham welcomed this move from the regulator but still believes there is more work to be done.

“If we are to create a truly national, visible charging network to support the switch from petrol and diesel, there will be an important role for Ofgem in enabling investment and ensuring that the benefits to the electricity system are realised, for example through smart charging technologies,” says Graham.

But the barriers currently facing EV take up go beyond the role of the regulator. Consumer awareness is an issue, with more work needed to encourage UK drivers to consider moving to an EV. Recent research conducted by Electricity North West (ENW) revealed that just 2 per cent of British drivers currently own an electric car, while almost half (48 per cent) stated that the initial cost of EVs is putting them off, despite lower running costs. The survey of 3,400 UK consumers also highlighted that just 6 per cent intend to buy or lease one as their next car.

“This means there is a lot of work to do in raising awareness and encouraging people to transition to an electric vehicle,” says ENW engineering and technical director Steve Cox. From a network perspective, Cox says ENW is planning for the future and EV rollout in a “big way”. “It is our job to make sure that the network is robust and flexible enough to cope with the increase in charging points,” he adds.

While it is often argued that the stress of millions of motorists charging their EVs at the same time will require major investment in new electricity infrastructure, Cox insists this is not the case. “We believe the solution lies in a smarter power network and not looking to reinforce the network in the conventional and costly way, but by encouraging more energy efficiency, flexibility and a smarter way of using electricity,” he says.

BLOCKCHAIN

Distributed ledger technology, or blockchain as it is more commonly known, is often associated with Bitcoin – a peer-to-peer electronic cash system that is underpinned by blockchain technology. While it is difficult to reduce the complex concept of blockchain into one succinct definition, it is widely accepted as a way for different parties to agree on a common digital history. Reaching consensus on digital history is critical due to the ease with which digital assets and transactions can be forged or duplicated.

Currently one of the most popular buzzwords in technology, it is not surprising that utilities are beginning to look for possible applications for blockchain. The technology is on the radar, but it is yet to have major impact on many sectors. According to the UWL survey, blockchain scored an average of 4.7 out of 10 when respondents were asked to rate its current impact on transition in their sector.

But for blockchain specialist Electron, the technology is a fundamental part of the business and the solutions it delivers for clients. “Electron is seeking to provide the necessary digital infrastructure to support the transition to a smart grid and allow 100,000s of distributed devices to play their full role in balancing the grid,” explains CEO Paul Massara. “In order to do this, the SO, DNOs and asset owners all need to work together and use one shared version of the truth.”

Massara acknowledges that there has been a lot of buzz around blockchain, but admits it is not the right solution for every business. “There has been a certain amount of hype as people have looked for applications in the energy sector. In reality many of these are not likely to make economic sense, when confronted with way the energy market works today. At Electron we are solving a market problem – how to co-ordinate 100,000 of distributed assets – and believe that blockchain is an important enabler for aspects of this.”

Casey Cole, managing director at Guru Systems, agrees that there are some valid applications for blockchain in the energy space but raises doubts over the technology’s capability to facilitate enduring change in the industry. “I would consider blockchain or other distributed ledgers as being a fad. This is mainly because the energy sector has central organisations that serve as the source of trust rather than being made up of a bunch of actors who fundamentally don't trust each other, as you find in cryptocurrency for example.”

CASE STUDIES

Innovation Shop Window

Innovation Shop Window

Anglian Water’s Innovation Shop Window is a real-world location where the company seeks to drive innovation through collaboration across its business, supply chain and the entire man-made water cycle.  

According to the company, the Newmarket site allows it to improve customer service, environmental stewardship and the efficiency of the business at a much faster pace. Adam Brookes, technology and innovation programme manager at Anglian Water, describes the Shop Window as a microcosm of what a future water company looks like.

“Our Innovation Shop Window in Newmarket is an industry first, real-world test-bed that allows the organisation to trial the latest technology, systems and processes to create the water company of the future, today,” he says.

Anglian Water is working with a range of organisations including universities, charities, small to medium sized businesses, large multi-national companies and suppliers inside and outside the water sector to test products and services within the Newmarket catchment. 

As part of the initiative, the company has set out seven goals to tackle the key challenges facing the water industry:

  • Water consumption of 80 litres per person per day
  • Zero leakage and bursts
  • Building a circular economy that eliminates waste
  • Energy neutral
  • Zero pollution and flooding
  • 100 per cent compliant and chemical-free drinking water
  • 100 per cent customer satisfaction.
Battery Storage Project

Battery Storage Project

Electricity North West’s (ENW’s) recent partnership with Centrica exemplifies how the company is successfully utilising innovation and technology to deliver smarter and more flexible energy systems. The project involved supporting the completion of Centrica’s 49MW battery storage project in Roosecote, Cumbria – one of Europe’s largest battery storage facilities.

The works, which began in 2016, facilitated the refurbishment of Centrica's 132kV switchgear located within ENW’s Roosecote substation.

“We were able to provide and manage a complex sequence of 132kV busbar and circuit outages to achieve the required safety and working clearances whilst also ensuring the essential work didn’t impact network resilience throughout the project,” says ENW’s engineering and technical director, Steve Cox.

The work was completed in December 2018 and the battery, which consists of more than 100,000 battery cells, will have the storage capacity to hold enough power for approximately 50,000 homes.

Cox adds: “The project showcases what can be achieved when key players work together and we’re pleased to play a vital role in ensuring the successful delivery of one of the largest battery storage sites in Europe which will undoubtedly support the transition to a more flexible and innovative energy system.”

Stockwell Park Estate

Stockwell Park Estate

Network Homes has been leading the transformation of the Stockwell Park Estate near Brixton since 2005. It has invested more than £100 million so far on refurbishment, new-build and community enhancement and a further £75 million is earmarked for completion of the programme.

The social housing properties on the estate are connected to a heat network. As both the landlord and energy supplier, Network Homes had previously charged its residents a flat rate for the energy it supplied as it was unable to monitor energy consumption in individual properties across the network.

Funded by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), the purpose of the project was to improve the performance of the heat network for both tenants and Network Homes by trialling the use of the web-based Guru Pinpoint platform.

Before the project started, Guru Systems installed its smart metering and monitoring technology at the point of generation and across the network in individual properties. This gave Network Homes real-time data on how its network was functioning for the first time.

The system allows the network operator to calculate exactly how much to charge for the energy it sells, as well as displaying up-to-the-minute data on energy use to residents through a pay-as-you-go monitor in their homes.

Data collected by the monitoring system uncovered network losses of 3,350kWh per dwelling per year (roughly equivalent to the total annual useful heat requirement), while Pinpoint also diagnosed issues with the network’s Heat Interface Units (HIUs).

The analytics and diagnostics delivered by Guru Pinpoint provided the information required to implement improvements to the Stockwell Park network. These changes resulted in:

• 53 per cent reduction in network heat losses
• 47 per cent reduction in terminal run temperatures vs. ambient for dwellings with interventions
• 60 per cent reduction in terminal run losses for dwellings with interventions, saving more than 1,700kWh per annum across the site.

Over the course of the project, residents’ heat consumption reduced by 20-30 per cent, saving £140 per household per year.