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New frameworks needed to tackle rise in distributed energy says National Grid

Half of all generation could be connected at the distribution level by 2050 says National Grid.

Half of all generation could be connected at the distribution level by 2050 says National Grid.

Whole system thinking and the wider adoption of smart technology to increase visibility will be needed if National Grid is to adapt to the challenges of rocketing increases in distribution level generation.

That was the message coming out of the system operator last week when it laid out its future energy scenarios to a packed conference in central London.

According to the FES 2017 document, installed capacity from distributed generation hit 26GW in 2016, or 27% of total installed capacity. Under its most ambitious Consumer Power scenario, this could reach 93GW by 2050, totalling half of all generation in the UK.

Jan Mather, energy supply and demand manager at National Grid, said: “This has loads of complexity behind it in terms of what is connected to the distribution network. We need to think about the flexibility and how we operate the system in these new environments but also the access to data so that we can see what's going on at the local level and make sure the network runs as easily as it can.”

This growth over the next few decades is expected to be led by rising levels of renewable generation, including up to 2030 when in all four of National Grid’s scenarios see at least a third of generation connected at this level. Under the Consumer Power scenario, this would reach half by 2050.

2050Share of generation connected at distribution levelRenewables share of generation
Consumer Power50%53%
Slow Progression46%55%
Two Degrees37%57%
Steady State34%34%

"All of the new renewable generation is connected at the distribution level and that creates a very different future world of visualisation and asset management of networks at a distribution level as well as a transmission level,” said Cordi O’Hara, director of UK system operator (SO) at National Grid.

Historically new flows of energy from renewable sources are registered as negative demand by National Grid, rather than traditional generation, leading to low demand on the transmission network.

This has led to issues surrounding the SO’s visibility over such energy sources and this has contributed to the growing need for a distribution system operator (DSO) model to be adopted at regional levels.

This would see the current operators of distribution networks increase their information gathering capabilities to provide more accurate visibility to both local and national network operators.

Alex Hafner, part of National Grid’s Energy Insights team, explained: “There is a growing need for the SO to increase its visibility so that it has more of an idea of what's going on rather than just seeing variations in transmission level demand.”

"An energy system with high levels of distributed and renewable generation has become a reality. This growth is set to continue, increasing the complexity of operating a secure and cost effective energy system,” O’Hara added.

“We know that in a more decentralised system, working holistically across the whole system will be key for delivering for customers."

To this end, National Grid is already investigating how much more active distribution networks will need to be going forward; the roles and local services that could be needed at a regional level and how they play into the national picture.

O’Hara added: “What are the information protocols that we need to share across the transmission and distribution boundary in order to make more efficient decisions? I think there's a lot more work to go there and we’re absolutely clear that we want to facilitate and be part of that discussion. 

“More enhanced actions and interactions across system operator and distribution can easily be envisaged.”

While National Grid is leading the way in developing a response to these challenges, O’Hara added that market and regulatory frameworks need to adapt swiftly to support the developing need for a more active and flexible energy system.

Criticisms have often been levelled and the government for its slow response to the rapid changes in the UK energy market. While last year’s smart power call for evidence set out a number of positions and potential actions to tackle these issues, the response from Ofgem and the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy remains unpublished.

The response is due imminently, however even one of Ofgem’s own senior partners, Andrew Wright, has pointed out that that the changes underway in the UK power are happening faster than regulation can keep up.