Collaboration is vital to the future of both the transmission and distribution networks as the amount of low carbon generation increases.
As such, the industry is working together as part of the Open Networks project, taking a whole system approach to electricity transmission and distribution. The project will enable the UK’s local distribution networks to move from their traditional role to one in which they act as a smart platform, enabling a whole range of new energy technologies that generate, consume and manage electricity across the whole system.
Down in the South West of England a milestone was passed in April as Western Power Distribution (WPD) and National Grid completed the technical aspects of a 12-month collaboration to produce a whole electricity system strategy.
WPD’s South West licence area was chosen for the study because it has such an abundance of renewable resources that they may exceed the ability of the network to absorb their energy beyond 2020. The scale of renewable generation also provides a good indication of what the future could look like for other regional electricity networks.
The whole electricity system approach involved working out how the transmission and distribution systems across the licence area would interact under different future energy scenarios and what impact this may have on investment decisions for both companies.
Network Strategy Team Manager Ben Godfrey, who led the project for WPD, said: “Traditionally, the transmission and distribution operators only looked at their own systems when making investment decisions.
“But with more generation being installed onto the distribution network and the reduction of large fossil-fuelled generation connected to the transmission system, we have to work together. The importance of the distribution system in providing economic solutions to whole system constraints cannot be overlooked.
“For example, it might be cost-effective to use the distribution network to resolve an issue on the transmission network but National Grid is not able to consider that investment without our support.”
The collaboration has led to a greater understanding of the levels of resilience each company works to and the impact they have on each other, which will help both avoid unintended consequences of network operation and enable customers to connect more quickly and cheaply.
Julian Leslie, Head of Network Capability at the National Grid Electricity System Operator, added: “Taking a whole electricity system approach to managing networks has the potential to deliver significant value for electricity bill payers.
“National Grid’s collaboration with WPD in the South West has demonstrated how a whole electricity system approach to network planning and an improved approach to modelling transmission and distribution networks can maximise the use of existing infrastructure, enhancing the efficiency of investments and operations.”
However, the success of the collaboration – and the success WPD has demonstrated in connecting a significant amount of distributed generation – should not mask the scale of changes facing distribution system operators.
The distribution network was originally designed for power to flow in only one direction – towards customers’ homes and businesses. Connecting generation to the distribution network means power must flow in more than one direction and it must do so in a way that doesn’t impinge on the reliability of the network.
The traditional response of transmission and distribution system operators to allow more connections would be to add new infrastructure – but that would have to be paid for by customers. In today’s climate the challenge is to find a more cost-effective way of operating the network.
And that’s where innovation comes in.
As Distribution Network Operators move to become Distribution System Operators (DSOs), there will be natural expansion in roles from just managing the power flow from the transmission network to also managing the injection of power back onto it.
“Much of the growing renewable generation we see is connected and managed by regional distribution networks. This has provided us with great experience in designing, building and operating complex networks with the technology and equipment required to support renewable generation schemes. By maximising the existing regional network infrastructure, DSOs can significantly alter the power flows on the transmission system, providing a valuable alternative to costly infrastructure upgrades. This puts us in a strong position to manage the electrical systems of the future,” concluded Ben Godfrey.
You can read more about the South West Regional Development strategy at www.westernpower.co.uk/RDP