Vodafone trials 'UK's first' smart electricity substation on road to net-zero

Telecommunications giant Vodafone has partnered with UK Power Networks to trial 'smart' methods of delivering energy flexibility at electricity substations, designed to improve efficiency and cut emissions.

Image: UK Power Networks

Image: UK Power Networks

Under the trial, which is being dubbed the ‘Constellation’ project, computers with 5G capacity will be installed in electricity substations. The devices will ‘communicate’ with each other in real-time, sharing data regarding electricity demand, grid mix and other metrics. This will be used to deliver flexibility, timing energy storage and discharging appropriately to balance supply and demand.

Vodafone claims that its 5G is up to 100 times faster than 3G and ten times faster than 4G, meaning that each substation will be able to rapidly analyse millions of data points.

General Electric, ABB and Siemens are working with the University of Strathclyde to develop and improve the software solutions for the substations. Funding for the project is being allocated through Ofgem’s Network Innovation Competition (NIC), which allocates up to £70m of funding per year, per project. Locations in Scotland and South East England have been selected for participation in the trials.

Vodafone estimates that, if the trial is successful and if the technology approach is scaled at electricity substations across the UK, some 63,702 tonnes of CO2e could be mitigated by 2050, through efficiency alone.

The wider benefits will be helping electricity network operators, like UK power networks, cope with the large-scale shift to renewable electricity generation – which, unlike fossil fuels and nuclear, is intermittent. Flexibility will also help electricity network operators cope with increasing demand as sectors such as road transport and heating become increasingly electrified in the transition to net-zero.

“We already have smart control rooms and smart electric vehicle chargers – developing smart substations in the middle will help us facilitate net-zero and deliver real cost and carbon savings for our customers,” UK Power Networks’ head of customer services and innovation Ian Cameron said.

“The team at UK Power Networks has seen the huge potential of 5G and network slicing,” Vodafone UK’s chief network officer Andrea Dona added.

“5G is not only replacing older and more expensive technologies, it is bringing about new capabilities that benefit everyone – consumers, businesses and our environment.”

Vodafone is notably targeting net-zero for its UK operations by 2027 and net-zero for global operations by 2040.

Policy changes

The announcement from Vodafone and UK Power Networks comes shortly after the UK Government unveiled a new Smart Systems and Flexibility Plan.

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.

Sarah George



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