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Northern Powergrid invests £83 million to create the ‘backbone of a smart grid’

Image: Northern Powergrid.

Image: Northern Powergrid.

Northern Powergrid (NPg) has unveiled an £83 million plan to upgrade thousands of substations across its network with new communications systems to create “the backbone of a smart grid” fit for the future.

Smart Grid Enablers will run to 2023 to deliver what the distribution network operator (DNO) has called the most comprehensive network upgrade programme in the UK and the most radical changes to its network since the 1970s.

More than 8,000 substations will be upgraded to increase NPg’s ability to monitor, control and communicate across its network.

High-bandwidth digital communications links will be installed to over 860 major substations and 7,200 secondary substations, replacing old analogue links; transformer monitoring control units in 750 major substations, and the equipment that allows them to control voltage, will be replaced; and controllers in over 860 major substations will either be replaced or upgraded.

Monitoring equipment will be installed in 1,300 secondary substations for the first time while data will be collected from 2,000 existing sites. New data warehouses will be created to process the information from substations and from domestic smart meters.

These measures will allow NPg to use actual load data to invest in upgrades only where needed, as well as identify where it can connect more solar power and electric vehicles without costly upgrades.

The programme will underpin the company’s transition into a Distribution System Operator (DSO) by providing a platform to roll out smart solutions to actively manage a network with complex and unpredictable power flows.

Patrick Erwin, policy and markets director at NPg, said: “Our Smart Grid Enablers programme is putting our region at the forefront of the low-carbon revolution. It will make us ready to support rapid growth of electric vehicles, heat pumps and solar power in the next decade, while maintaining a reliable system and keeping costs as low as possible for all our customers.

“This is the most comprehensive upgrade programme of any UK network operator and will give us a state of the art command and control capability, enabling us to respond to real-time information about power flow on our network.”

By adopting these technologies to accommodate the growth of emerging energy resources affecting regional networks, NPg will be able to roll out smart solutions that could save up to £500 million by 2031 compared to staying with conventional solutions.

Smart Grid Enablers will also be supporting the aims of the Northern Energy Taskforce which seeks to place the north of England at the forefront of the UK’s low-carbon transition. In addition to the savings to 2031, the taskforce has estimated the creation of its regional economy could be worth £15 billion a year and support 100,000 jobs by 2050.

‘A coordinated and holistic programme’

NPg says it is the first local network operator to develop and deliver ‘a coordinated and holistic programme’ to upgrade and future-proof the entire system for monitoring and controlling its substations.

To ensure the roll-out is delivered by 2023, the company has established a dedicated smart network policy and development team, while nearly 100 boots on the ground, specialist engineers will carry out the work.

Once completed, NPg aims to have developed sophisticated management capabilities for its network, such as being able to dynamically alter network voltages, providing headroom for more generation or reducing demand to help balance the overall system.

The project is the latest in a series of initiatives to be unveiled by the DNO in preparation for its future DSO model, such as the Customer-Led Distribution System project which seeks to investigate how to maximise the benefits of a future smart energy system for consumers.