Technology will help phase out carbon intensive energy generation

The need to adapt our electricity distribution networks is vital to the economy and environment, and to do this we must use innovative, affordable and sustainable technologies, says Phil Proctor.

Our economy relies on an affordable, stable supply of energy, and a key challenge for our energy industry is to preserve both of these as we seek to phase out carbon-intensive energy generation.

To meet our binding emissions targets we have to look at every aspect of our energy system. Much attention is paid to our energy sources, be they nuclear, gas or renewables, but less well-explored are the nuances of distributing energy into the homes and businesses of end users in an efficient way.

New challenges for established infrastructure

The fact is our energy networks have to change. Our current infrastructure is unsuitable for accommodating renewable energy supplies, or for managing peak demand without calling on CO2 intensive methods of generation. We need to modernise this system and, moreover, ensure that any upgrades are delivered in an affordable way that safeguards a secure, sustainable and cost-effective supply of energy for UK businesses and households.

Wholesale changes to energy infrastructure can be costly. More importantly, the work involved can take a very long time. The real issue here is about seeking to avoid the cost of having to upgrade our distribution networks for electricity and, crucially, mitigating the risk that comes, not just with cost, but also with the time it would take.

Mitigating risk with a different approach

Innovation has a big role to play in adapting our electricity networks without having to undertake lengthy and expensive upgrades. Instead of detailed works to the networks themselves, the ETI has identified that effective energy storage, implemented within the existing distribution networks could allow us to avoid the cost of large-scale upgrading of our distribution network and, crucially, avoid the risks involved in extensive changes to infrastructure.

In practice, this works by installing technologies that store energy for release at peak times or when balancing services are required and which allows us to offset the high-CO2 generation that is often used when demand is most intense. It also brings intermittent sources, such as renewables, into play by allowing energy that is generated at night, or other low-demand times, to be stored and released at more convenient points in the day.

Effective energy storage is particularly challenging. It is difficult to store electricity reliably, economically and safely. There are no mature technologies that can immediately perform this role at this scale economically, but innovative solutions are emerging.

Benefits for business

It is important that we take advantage of the business opportunities that exist in the process of decarbonisation and support high-potential technologies. As we make the transition to a low-carbon future, we are developing technologies that will have potential application the world over, as other economies make similar attempts to recast their energy systems.

As an economy, we are good at developing these smart, intelligent components. Letting them thrive is vital if we are to protect businesses and households from unnecessary costs and ensure that we have an affordable, clean and secure supply of energy.

Phil Proctor is the energy storage and distribution programme manager for the Energy Technologies Institute (ETI), a public-private partnership between energy and engineering companies

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