National Grid could lose electricity system operator role under new BEIS and Ofgem plans

The UK Government and energy regulator Ofgem have outlined their initial views on replacing National Grid with a new independent system operator for electricity and gas, as part of a string of policy updates designed to accelerate the low-carbon transition.

National Grid has outlined a string of net-zero scenarios, but concerns have been raised about its ability to advise impartially 

National Grid has outlined a string of net-zero scenarios, but concerns have been raised about its ability to advise impartially 

Ofgem and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) have today (20 July) launched a consultation on the management of energy systems operations in England, Scotland and Wales (Northern Ireland has devolved responsibilities here). They are proposing that the National Grid, which has balanced supply and demand to ensure electricity access for more than 30 years, is replaced with an independent “future system operator” (FSO).

This move, the organisations claim, could help accelerate the transition of the UK’s energy systems to net-zero at the lowest possible cost to domestic and commercial energy users. Ofgem stated earlier this year that National Grid would face a “conflict of interest” in advising on the future of the energy system because it is a FTSE100 firm that also owns and operates networks.

The consultation document proposes that the FSO should take on strategic network planning, long-term forecasting and market strategy functions for gas. It also outlines “new or enhanced roles and functions” including overseeing the UK’s hydrogen and carbon capture and storage (CCS) sectors, which are set to grow rapidly in the coming decades.

Five high-level characteristics for the FSO are then detailed: “It will need to be technically expert; operationally excellent; accountable to consumers and able to support the delivery of net zero on behalf of the public; independently minded; and operationally and financially resilient.”

National Grid has stated that it “welcomes” the consultation and will “work closely” with BEIS and Ofgem throughout. As the consultation concludes in late September, a phased introduction of the FSO is expected.

Separately, BEIS and Ofgem are consulting on proposals to reform the codes that govern electricity and gas markets, with an ambition to ensure that clean solutions are more affordable and high-carbon options increase in price.

Flurry of announcements

These consultations have been posted alongside a string of other updates from BEIS today.

As well as calls for evidence on large-scale and long-duration electricity storage and vehicle-to-grid (V2G)  technologies, a new Smart Systems and Flexibility Plan has been published.

The Plan stipulates that embedding a “flexibility first” approach could reduce the annual costs of managing the UK’s energy networks by £10bn by 2050 and increase annual profits by £2.7bn, creating up to 24,000 jobs in fields such as engineering, system installation and data science. Exports alone could create 14,000 jobs. These calculations are based on a situation in which the UK hosts around 30GW of low-carbon flexible energy capacity by 2030, doubling to 60GW by 2050. This is up from 10W at present.

For these benefits to be realised, the document states, technologies like electric cars, heat pumps, energy storage systems and renewable generation arrays “will need to be seamlessly integrated onto our energy system so that low carbon power is available in the right places and at the right times to meet our energy needs”.

Proposals covered in the Plan are divided into four key themes: supporting customers to provide flexibility; removing barriers to electricity storage and interconnection; reforming markets to reward flexibility (i.e. through the Capacity Market and Contracts for Difference auction scheme) and digitising the system. These proposals build on the Energy White Paper, published late last year. There are also recommendations on improving governance.

On digitisation, the UK’s first Energy Digitisation Strategy has also been published this week following collaboration between BEIS and Innovate UK.

Commenting on the Plan and Strategy, Ofgem’s chief executive Jonathan Brearley said: A smart and flexible energy system is essential to hitting the UK’s net-zero climate goal while keeping energy bills affordable for everyone. This plan is an important step in transforming not just how we generate energy but also how we all use and pay for it.

“As we change the way we fuel our cars and heat our homes, demand for electricity will increase from millions of new electric vehicles (EVs) and heat pumps. Being more flexible in when we use electricity will help avoid the need to build new generating and grid capacity to meet this demand, resulting in significant savings on energy bills.”

The Plan and Strategy have attracted many reactions across the UK’s green economy. The Energy Networks Association’s chief executive David Smith called the plans “a huge sign of progress towards the intelligent and adaptive energy system which the networks have already begun building”.

Smith said: “Transforming traditional energy networks with digital innovations is a foundational part of putting customers at the heart of the net-zero journey. It makes networks smarter, more flexible and more able to manage increases in local renewable generation, green gas, heat pumps and EVs.”

Regen’s policy manager and policy lead for the electricity storage network, Madeline Greenhalgh, said: “The Smart Systems and Flexibility Plan is one area of government strategy that is actually providing clear and concrete actions that will enable a smart, flexible, decarbonised electricity system. The progress made since the last iteration is clear, with big steps forward in long-duration storage and modelling the future system.

"The storage industry will be able to use these projections to invest and grow the industry, particularly in the long-duration space, where many innovative companies are coming forward with new ideas and business models. The Electricity Storage Network will continue to drive forward work to improve the supply chain for raw materials, and a robust health and safety regime.”

Ashurst’s energy partner Antony Skinner said: "The fact that the Government is focusing on the barriers to the development of battery storage projects and has published a call for evidence on the deployment of large-scale and long-duration storage is a very positive development. 

“Battery storage is a key component of an energy mix that will have a high proportion of intermittent renewable energy and while some steps have already been taking to facilitate battery storage, more needs to be done to ensure that such projects have access to a reliable revenue stream, so the Government's recognition of this fact is very welcome."

Skinner’s colleague Adam Eskdale added: "The overriding principle of both the Smart Systems and Flexibility Plan and the Energy Digitalisation Strategy is that energy system data must be open and visible, shared and interoperable, in order to build in grid flexibility and unlock the new digital solutions we need to reach net-zero.

“This is the central tenet of the Energy Data Taskforce's work in 2019 and it is encouraging to see the Government continue to build on it.

"This is good news for new and potential market participants relying on data-driven business models, products and services. However, larger incumbents will be keeping an eye on how this principle continues to be built into Ofgem's pricing controls and further code changes. Equally, there is a question about the extent to which they will be expected to contribute their data to national registries, catalogues and systems maps, and how much impact the concept of ‘presumed open’ data, will have on their valuable information."


edie Explains: Flexible Energy Systems

What is a flexible energy system? And how can flexible energy systems be used to accelerate the transition to net-zero carbon business? 

In association with Flexitricity, edie recently published a free-to-download guide answering all of these questions and many more pertaining to the transition to a flexible energy future. You can download your copy of the report here. 


Sarah George



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