Our smart energy blind spot

The UK’s existing operational telecoms systems are not fit for the future.
Published: Thu 06 Jun 2019

Jane Gray reports on the key outcomes of an industry debate hosted by Engerati’s sister title Network in association with Nokia and Joint Radio Company.

To cut a long story short, if the UK government really cares about tackling climate change, it must act to ensure the release of radio spectrum to enable the emergence of a smart, flexible, decentralised power grid. This was the clear-cut message from a meeting of senior industry experts and regulators in the Palace of Westminster, convened by Engerati’s sister title Network in association with Nokia and Joint Radio Company (JRC).

The creation of a smart, decentralised power system is a central cog in the UK’s response to the ultimate threat of climate change. A grid which can embrace a diverse range of renewable generation technologies along with energy storage, which can support dynamic electric vehicle charging, low carbon heating technologies and facilitate energy flexibility markets, is essential in order to unlock a new phase of emissions reduction in the UK.

There is an urgent need to access this seam of low carbon potential. In early May the independent Committee on Climate Change (CCC) published a report emphasizing the need to set a national net-zero emissions target for greenhouse gasses by 2050 in order to honour the commitments made by the UK in the Paris Agreement.

The report came on the back of fresh warnings from the International Panel on Climate Change about the imminent potential for irreversible global biodiversity damage due to global warming, and amid a swell in public demand for climate action, demonstrated via the Extinction Rebellion and the Youth Strike 4 Climate.

 

The UK’s energy networks are ready and willing to rise to the challenge laid down by the CCC and, at a transmission level, National Grid has already demonstrated it is capable of operating a dynamic system which can utilise distributed low carbon resources. As Network’s House of Commons event took place, National Grid was celebrating its first full week operating the grid without the use of coal-fired generation since 1882. The ability to buy balancing services from distributed system participants was core to this achievement.

But the full potential of a low carbon electricity grid will not be realised until distribution operators can also facilitate dynamic system balancing at a local level. Plans to transition distribution network operation to local system operation are well underway. But, as participants in Network’s debate made clear, they will not be possible without significant changes to existing operational telecommunications infrastructure, which was only designed to support remote operation of network-owned assets.

Future Distribution System Operators (DSOs – as opposed to Distribution Network operators, which is the current terminology for the UK’s distribution network owners) will need to support fast and resilient communication with millions of connected smart energy devices and distributed energy resources at the grid-edge, as well as an increasingly intelligent “final mile” of distribution infrastructure. This volume and diversity of connectivity cannot be delivered using the bandwidth provided by legacy telemetry networks.  

Instead, a new suite of smart telecommunications options will be needed and, debate participants were adamant, this must include access to dedicated radio spectrum – ideally in a “sweet-spot” bandwidth of around 400MHz which offers both technical and economic benefits.

Securing this frequency range for utilities usage is eminently possible – but requires clearance from the telecommunications regulator Ofcom which must prioritise spectrum demands from a number of competing interest groups.

Encouragingly, Ofcom has already signalled that it recognises the need to enable smart grids and is in the early stages of a joint project with Ofgem (the energy regulator) to review available and practical options for dedicated smart utilities spectrum. However, the timeline and scope for this project is currently unclear and there is industry concern that it will not deliver the required spectrum allocation in time to enable DSO strategies to move forward in the next regulatory cycle for power distribution. A hamstrung DSO agenda has clear and worrying implications for the UK’s ability to deliver its 2050 net-zero emissions ambition.

To accelerate a decision on utilities spectrum allocation, industry representatives encouraged regulators and policy makers to take note of international examples where this path has already been trod. A key case study was pointed to in Ireland where the telecoms regulator ComReg recently responded to requests for allocation of (a nationally underutilised) 400MHz spectrum band for smart metering and smart grids innovation.

With such examples to look to, there is a tangible opportunity for the UK to nimbly deliver the policy and regulatory interventions needed for a thriving low carbon future. As Network’s House of Commons debate closed, industry participants looked with hope to the conclusions of the Science and Technology Select Committee’s inquiry into the technologies for meeting clean growth emissions reduction targets for a demonstration of government understanding and support on this key enabling issue for smart, decarbonised utilities.

To be continued next week with expert views from JRC and Nokia.

Further reading: Key resources for more information on smart telecommunications for smart power grids

ENA position paper (summary): Need for Increased Spectrum Allocation and Investment in Operational Telecommunications to Support Electricity Networks http://bit.ly/ENA_spectrum

Plum Consulting report for ComReg: Potential use of the 400 MHz band in Ireland http://bit.ly/Plum_ComReg

JRC white paper: Cutting Through the Hype: 5G and Its Potential Impacts on Electric Utilities http://bit.ly/5Gpaper

IET conference paper: The future of Operational Telecommunications associated with a power distribution network http://bit.ly/IET_futuretelecoms

Western Power Distribution study: Next Generation Networks: smart grid telecommunications Analysis http://bit.ly/WPDstudy