Future of Utilities; Manchester carbon free by 2038

One of the first things we needed to understand as we launched Rethink Energy was whether or not executives in Utilities were resistant to a shift to renewables or in favor of it. It is a question we are used to asking. Back in 2003 when we pioneered our Faultline service about video delivery technology, we could see a video industry which was antagonistic towards internet delivered content, resistant to change, and this led to it inadvertently triggering massive content piracy,  a move which almost sank the industry. The industry changed faster purely because people wanted things to remain as they were.

But at this week’s Future of Utilities Summit in London, one of the first voices we heard which clinched this for us was that of Paul Bircham, commercial strategy and support director of Electricity North West, an organization responsible for bringing Manchester, the UK’s second largest and fastest growing city, its electricity.

The answer to our question, shown as much by Bircham’s discussion as well as the entire event, is that these guys eat, sleep and drink the IPCC carbon emissions targets and devote themselves to finding a way to make them happen. Unlike the record industry, greed does not motivate them, and unlike the movie industry, fear of change is embraced instead of making them run around like headless chickens. Perhaps it’s because they all basically started out as engineers, and it’s just another tech problem to them.

Bircham boasted that he had just come from Manchester’s Green summit where long standing and legendary Manchester Mayor, Andy Burnham had promised the world that Manchester can be carbon Neutral by 2038. Bircham signaled his own intent to make this happen.  Burnham has divided opinion for a quarter of a century with a heavily left wing stance not appreciated by everyone, and the headlines from his earlier event were mostly negative, saying that Manchester could do more – but there are a distinct lack of UK politicians with such advanced climate ambitions.

Bircham then listed Manchester’s future, shown to him by new forecasting tools the City has adopted. “By 2033 there will be 2.5 million Electric Vehicles, 7.7 GW of energy usage, 7.9 GW of embedded resource and 1.5 GW of energy storage,” he said, which would be powering, among other things a City which has by then moved over to domestic heat pumps from carbon spewing gas boilers. The City’s grid has a new network management system with real time load monitoring and a distributed energy management system built in, and he said, “We have a pathway to carbon neutral and the first stop is 2023, by which time we will have 50% of rooftops with solar, and 16 square kilometers of solar inside the City.” Bircham also talked about a market for distributed energy capacity.

“We have reduced our carbon footprint by 40% over the last eight years, and to get to Carbon Neutral we need to move 10% each year into renewables, up until 2038.”

In subsequent discussions he made further points about not having all the answers right now, but talked about a chaotic period of “failing fast” and finding what worked and what didn’t and his sentiments were echoed by none other than Julian Leslie, Head of National Control for the National Grid ESO.

Leslie talked about unveiling another iteration of the national plan in the next few days and said that already renewables made 49% of the UK’s grid energy, achieved last Sunday, and that did not include nuclear, and he saw peak UK energy usage falling from its current 60GW closer to 50GW, which would mean renewables made up even more as a percentage. National Grid is any day separating its two functions, that of running the transmission network and that of balancing the grid, into two separate companies and Leslie sits in the balancing part.

The statement he is talking about is the company’s ten year statement to its 600 varied stakeholders, specifically advice to their transmission users, the Distribution Network Operators (DNOs).

“We lay out their least first regret options,” he joked, which answers whether they can build an asset, for instance a Wind farm. “We have had to put capacity restraint on some renewables and use them when we can,” he said and talked about experiments with black boxes full of flywheels which gave the impression they were a gas turbine, when they were really a form of capacitor used to smooth the network.

This relates to the problems of frequency response and inertia, so that generators can respond in near real-time when the frequency of the AC grid starts to wane. Renewables can’t be switched on and off in this way because of their intermittent power outputs, and so there is an ongoing experiment in the UK with a something call project Phoenix, run by Scottish Power, itself owned by Spain’s Iberdrola. Phoenix is a project which combines synchronous and static condensers into a hybrid, enhancing system stability. This may provide the answer of how to connect more distributed solar from people’s homes directly to the National Grid, which would add 350 GW of capacity to the network.

“We see this being solved soon,” said Leslie, “my ambition is to see the first hour of zero carbon electricity quite soon on the grid, and go from there.”

Shell was due to speak later at the show, and its recent acquisition of a UK business Limejump which came up in the subsequent discussion. It serves a similar purpose, and it was the first Virtual Power Plant (VPP) to be allowed to connect directly to the UK grid this summer and offer balancing services. It allows intermittent operators to join the capacity market and sits in front of them when they supply the grid. VPPs are typically a complex mix of wind, solar and gas turbines, and grid scale battery, that appear to the network to behave like a big, stable, power generator. So we can see that National Grid is heading in the right direction.