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Business roundtable: using innovation to deliver future energy systems

Energy systems are evolving to incorporate new clean technologies and research is already underway to prepare for the potential opportunities and challenges. This can be seen with projects like InTEGReL, the UK’s first incubator for integrated energy system technologies, and Northern Powergrid’s unique Customer-Led Distribution System (CLDS) project.

InTEGReL, which is being led by Northern Gas Networks in partnership with Northern Powergrid and Newcastle University, is a new integrated energy facility based in Gateshead. The facility is helping to tackle the UK’s energy challenges by identifying the most affordable and practical solutions to moving network customers onto low carbon, affordable energy.

At the same time, Northern Powergrid’s CLDS project is putting the DNO’s eight million customers at the heart of the smart grid, developing understanding of new energy markets where they can make money from solar panels, electric vehicles and home batteries.

With a myriad of hurdles brought to the fore in these ground-breaking projects, Northern Powergrid brought together leading players from industry, academia and business for an exclusive roundtable discussion. The roundtable confronted the challenges and opportunities associated with new innovations, delivering the Northern Powerhouse and supporting SMEs.

• Patrick Erwin, Policy and Markets Director, Northern Powergrid (PE) • Keith Owen, Head of Systems Development and Energy Strategy, Northern Gas Networks (KO) • Professor Phil Taylor, Head of Engineering and Deputy Pro Vice-Chancellor of Faculty of Science, Agriculture and Engineering, Newcastle University, and, Director of the EPSRC, National Centre of Energy Systems Integration (PT) • Chris McDonald, CEO, Materials Processing Institute (CM)

What kind of role should innovation play and how significant should this be?

KO: “Innovation presents opportunities to consistently improve, increase efficiency, avoid duplication of effort and bring down costs for customers – it’s about investing in our network, our processes and passing on those benefits to customers.

“Development, testing and rolling out new approaches means we’re adapting to changes and challenges of the UK’s future energy mix, while delivering best service and best value to customers.

“The UK currently lags behind many other countries in terms of overall R&D investment. In light of Brexit this long term position should be reviewed so that the UK can continue to thrive on the global stage. Reseach and innovation are the lifeblood for any successful economy and UK facilities such as InTEGReL are key to that success.”

CM: “Innovation in this area is essential, at Materials Processing Institute we’re working to deliver new materials and technologies required to decarbonise heavy industries and deliver future energy generation, storage and distribution scenarios.”

PT: “Absolutely, innovation can play a large part in enabling integration of the different technologies. This might be in the control infrastructure needed to co-ordinate the various energy systems to work in tandem or perhaps in the development of consumer software e.g. apps to allow users of the systems to interact.”

PE: “Yes, innovation will play a hugely significant role. Whole energy systems should be embracing new forms of technologies to ensure that networks operate as efficiently, sustainably and affordably as they can.

“But – and this is essential – we must ensure that new innovations are developed in line with customer need and not the other way around.

“Our dedicated innovation team at Northern Powergrid is working to develop the best new technologies to make our customers’ lives easier, support decarbonisation and drive costs down for the 8 million people in our region. This is an essential focus for our business and at the core of a customer-led distribution system operatortransition.”

How can large infrastructure owners and legacy energy industry players be nimble and innovative?

PT: “It needs to be a top down approach. Siemens for example is facilitating the integration of energy systems, utilising the Mindsphere IoT platform. This allows owners of different energy assets, including generation and storage to co-ordinate efficiently and gain best advantage.”

PE: “There is also a huge opportunity for intrapreneurship – entrepreneurs within big businesses – to develop and nurture big ideas. Big companies should be thinking of new ways that they can incentivise their employees to make creative, nimble and innovative thinking the new ‘business as usual’.”

CM: “The legacy energy companies, particularly the oil and gas suppliers face a particular challenge, but here hydrogen is a great opportunity. These businesses already have much of the infrastructure and expertise to make the hydrogen economy a reality, with the gas networks our most readily available form of energy storage and buffer.”

KO: “Collaboration is essential to increasing efficiency, avoiding duplication of effort and rolling out new approaches faster. The InTEGReL facility will support that collaborative process.”

What more needs to be done to deliver the Northern Powerhouse?

CM: “The Northern Powerhouse is rightly focussing on the fundamental infrastructure and connectivity to make the North work as an economic entity.”

PE: “The North is already leading the way when it comes to cleaner technologies. I want to see us maintaining this momentum and demonstrating how new technologies can work in real-world scenarios, so the rest of the country can follow.”

KO: “I would like to see more open collaboration between the regions within the Northern Powerhouse. The newly elected mayors should work together to harness the overall capability and enable greater growth and prosperty. The skills, technology and capability are all there so a co-ordinated approach with greater investment will surely realise the potential.”

What challenges is the industry currently facing that InTEGReL and CLDS can help with?

PE: “The changes we are undertaking are significant and we need to ensure they are being driven first and foremost by the customer. At Northern Powergrid, through projects like CLDS, we’re doing everything we can to try and understand what our customers want from their future energy system so we can make this happen. InTEGReL is particularly assisting us with considering solutions to the challenges caused by the decarbonisation of heat and transport.”

CM: “Significantly greater government investment, particularly in transport, is still required though to make this a reality.”

KO: “Energy faces the biggest of all challenges, how to decarbonise an economy so intimately entwined with fossil fuel technology, whilst maintaining the lowest possible cost and highest levels of resilience. This is not a simple challenge that requires significant investment in new technologies and new research to drive decarbonisation.”

How is InTEGReL helping?

CM: “InTEGReL provides a vital platform within the Northern Powerhouse region, but it is important that it does not become limited to a North-only activity.”

PE: “InTEGReL is helping by enabling us to test the technologies that customers want on a small-scale to ensure that we work out any niggles in advance and that they run as smoothly as possible when launched in the real-world.”

KO: “InTEGReL is a UK facility, so whilst it is based within the Northern Powerhouse it is open for any business to demonstrate technoogy or to develop research. In the long term InTEGReL aims to connect to other research facilities both within the UK and wider afield to share and develop cross cutting research and drive forward decarbonisation. InTEGReL provides a platform for UK growth in the energy landscape and supports SMEs and larger industrials in the transition to low and zero carbon energy systems.”

What challenges are SMEs currently facing that InTEGReL can help with?

PE: “SMEs typically don’t have access to real-world scenarios. Also getting funding is a huge issue. That’s why innovation schemes in a larger business like ours can be crucial.”

CM: “From my experience with the Materials Processing Institute and our SME Technology Centre, I know that SMEs, in whatever sector, need a combination of business, finance and innovation support to successfully bring a product to market. InTEGReL can help them to meet these challenges, both in accelerating their product development and creating a greater understanding of the market.”

KO: “InTEGReL has a the capability to demonstrate technologies at scale. Our partners have expert knowledge in both the utility and research sectors to provide the support necessary to the SME community and help them realise their ambitions.”

How else can SMEs benefit? What’s in it for them?

KO: “SMEs, industry, universities and government can bring projects they wish to develop to InTEGReL and work with us to demonstrate the efficiencies, cost savings and carbon reduction of whole system energy technologies.

“We want to find out what they would want from a technically agnostic facility such as this to help us shape its future. So, if a business has project ideas in this area and a technology they wish to demonstrate then we’d love to hear from them and to help them test and integrate at scale.”

PE: “For new companies developing technologies, having a space to test and see how their innovation might interact with the grid and other technologies is hugely useful. It helps with development cycles and then proof of technology readiness levels.

“They can also use InTEGReL as an opportunity to get support from and work with the big companies involved. There is a huge opportunity to discuss the challenges faced and work to overcome them together.”

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