The distribution network operator (DNO) says the Smart Grid Enablers project could save consumers up to £500 million by 2031 – depending on the uptake of technologies such as electric vehicles, heat pumps and renewable generation – by reducing requirements for traditional grid reinforcements.

The programme will last until the end of the current RIIO ED-1 price control in 2023 and will underpin the company’s transition into a distribution system operator (DSO).

The firm says it will represent the most radical change to its network since the 1970s, transforming its ability to monitor, control and communicate with more than 8,000 substations.

“This is the most comprehensive upgrade programme of any UK network operator and will give us a state of the art command and control capability, enabling us to respond to real-time information about power flow on our network,” said Northern Powergrid policy and market director Patrick Erwin.

Speaking to Utility Week, Northern Powergrid head of strategy and innovation, Jim Cardwell, said: “There’s been other instances where DNOs have targeted different features of this end-to-end process but the upgrading and the future-proofing we’re doing on the whole estate we think is pretty unique.”

Cardwell said the upgrades will provide a “backbone” for further improvements in the future, comparing them to the operating system for a computer to which new functionality can be added by installing applications.

“What we’re doing is providing a base level of enabling technology… upon which other solutions can be bolted on top for particular neighbourhoods,” he explained.

Cardwell said upgrading the network in a holistic, coordinated way will help Northern Powergrid to take a “whole system view of optimisation”.

“We’re making sure that it’s all complementary,” he added.  “It’s no good having a really detailed interface locally, down at the end of our network at the neighbourhood substations level, without having the ability then to securely and with sufficient bandwidth communicate with it.”

As part of the programme, Northern Powergrid will:

  • Install high-bandwidth digital communications links to over 860 major substations and 7,200 secondary substations, replacing old analogue links.
  • Replace transformer monitoring control units in 750 major substations and the equipment that allows them to control voltage.
  • Replace or upgrade substation controllers in over 860 major substations.
  • Install monitoring equipment for the first time in 1,300 secondary substations and obtain data from 2,000 existing sites.
  • Create new data warehouses to process data from substations and from domestic smart meters.

The company has established a dedicated smart network policy and development team to coordinate the work, which will be carried out by its team of nearly 100 specialist engineers.

Cardwell said the programme will apply the learning from innovation projects funded through the Network Innovation Competition and the Network Innovation Allowance. He gave the example of the Customer-Led Network Revolution scheme, which explored the best ways to accommodate low-carbon technologies on the local power grid with trials involving 13,000 customers.

Unlike these predecessors, the Smart Grid Enablers programme will be funded from Northern Powergrid’s main spending allowance under RIIO ED-1. “This is no longer innovation money”, he added. “This is business as usual expenditure”.

In November, the DNO unveiled plans to use computer modelling and laboratory demos to create a “virtual” local energy market.

Tom Grimwood 

This article first appeared on edie’s sister title website, Utility Week

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