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For the energy sector, successful innovation is more important than ever

11 October 2022

Dan Clarke our Head of Innovation, reflects on the discussions that occurred at the Energy Innovation Summit 2022, in a piece that originally appeared in Utility Week:


Glasgow last week saw professionals from across the energy sector come together at the Energy Innovation Summit to discuss how innovative technologies, fresh operational approaches and effective delivery partnerships can help the UK face its energy challenges. As the Summit progressed, it was clear that many of these challenges are becoming more pressing. Issues that cropped up in debate, including the cost-of-living crisis, the drive to accelerate decarbonisation and continued uncertainty around European gas supplies, meant that those presenting case studies and innovation showcases frequently had two questions to answer – what could they do to help UK energy consumers and how could their projects be scaled up, and delivered, as rapidly as possible? 

Another theme came up again and again – the importance of strong strategic partnerships between energy operators, communities and public authorities.  A review of innovation projects listed over the last two years on ENA’s Smart Networks Portal revealed increasing collaboration, with 95% of them involving two or more networks and 88% involving a partner from the wider world. Hearing so many times how local leadership from councils or insights from community groups helped improve projects and unlock benefits for local communities will be one of my enduring memories of the Summit. 

A scheme centred on local collaboration that sparked a lot of interest was CommuniHeat, an award-winning partnership that enabled residents of Barcombe, East Sussex, to take real ownership of their energy, switching to low-carbon heating and develop much greater resilience. We heard how work across the council and community was enabling the creation of a transferable roadmap that will support rural communities, similar to Barcombe, to switch to low-carbon heating in a way that ensures a comfortable, affordable and smooth transition. The insights gained from the anonymised data the project has collected is proving an invaluable resource for those planning rural energy transitions, both in the public and private sectors. 

Another project that was aiming to provide a practical update was focused on one of the two communities that will be the UK’s first Hydrogen Village. This hugely important and innovative project aims to create a statistically representative customer base of up to two thousand occupied homes, offices and commercial buildings, all using 100% hydrogen for a period of at least twelve months. It’s significant that the existing gas distribution network in the Village Trial area will be repurposed to operate with 100% hydrogen, demonstrating that repurposing existing pipes is not only the most cost-effective option for delivering hydrogen to a large number of consumers, but is also technically and logistically practicable. Updates from the trial shared fresh insight into the latest thinking on hydrogen network design, installation and maintenance and how, by working with local partners, investment from network operators can best be directed to benefit local communities as we decarbonise. In the session I was struck by how decarbonisation in the short term often means having to make difficult trade-offs or invest in costly new technology, but adaptations like the switch from natural gas to hydrogen, means consumers can continue to live their lives with a minimum of disruption while also reducing their carbon impact. It was invaluable to learn how this had been working in practice and we’ll be hearing more from the project later this month. 

Though the whirl of presentations and high-tech demonstrations in the exhibition space inspired confidence in the creativity and drive of networks to innovate, it was equally inspiring to hear how much attendees saw it was their personal responsibility to help the UK through this challenging energy landscape. Sector colleagues used the first major in person event ENA has organised following Covid to reconnect in person, share their understanding of what’s coming next and plan what needs to be done. Though predicting the future has been exceptionally tough in the last few years, we can at least be certain of our capacity to innovative and adapt to meet the challenges it will bring.     

About us

Energy Networks Association (ENA) is the industry body representing the energy networks. Our members include every major electricity network operator in the UK. The electricity networks are at the heart of the energy transition. They directly employ more than 26,000 people in the UK, including 1,500 apprentices. They are spending and investing £33bn in our electricity grids over the coming years, to ensure safe, reliable and secure energy supplies for the millions of homes and businesses reliant on power every day.

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