Tomorrow’s energy needs: Finding the balance

We address electricity infrastructure limitations in our latest submission to the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee’s inquiry into low carbon network infrastructure.

Electricty demand could rise with future trends like electric cars and a shift from gas to electric heating.
Electricty demand could rise with future trends like electric cars and a shift from gas to electric heating.
  • Updated: 20 November, 2015
  • Author: Gavin Miller ICE Policy Manager

The inquiry examines requirements to enable the UK's ageing electricity infrastructure to address tomorrow's energy system needs, where low carbon technologies and distributed energy are expected to play an ever-increasing role.

The need for systems thinking

ICE believes it is particularly important for future networks that energy should be considered in its totality, not simply focusing on electricity but also taking in, for example, heat and transport.

Our electricity infrastructure generally works well. However, it was designed for one-way flows from large generators, which is likely to become problematic in the near future as we expect to see increased distribution of demand from the expansion of electric vehicles and shift from gas to electric heating. At the same time, there will be further disaggregation of supply, particularly from renewables.

Taken together this means balancing and maintaining the system will become increasingly complex.

Addressing electricity infrastructure limitations

Managing these changes plus increasing numbers of customers will be a particular challenge for Distribution Network Operators (DNOs). With multiple, intermittent generation sources, more active demand side management and interconnector flows, networks will no longer be just from transmission to customers, but rather multifaceted networks with two-way flows.

There are several potential ways to address these limitations including:

  • Deployment of electricity storage across networks, which ICE analyses in its latest report Electricity Storage: Realising the Potential
  • Greater use of demand side management
  • Further installation of interconnectors
  • Line upgrades

Nevertheless, the key point is not to look at these individual technologies or responses in isolation but rather consider the electricity system as a whole.

These limitations – and consequently the majority of responses – are likely to manifest at the distribution level (as opposed to transmission level). However, at present DNOs' licences prevent them from operating generation in the market and, therefore, they cannot control storage facilities, nor participate in demand side management or smart metering.

There is a strong case to examine the licensing of regulated activities, with the view to cutting red tape to reflect the changing nature of maintaining balance in the system.

See ICE's full submission to the select committee.