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Overcoming barriers to the UK’s adoption of low carbon energy networks

5 October 2018

Rebecca Sweeney
Rebecca Sweeney Programme Manager - ESD & SSH

An energy storage revolution is afoot with support for renewable energy and emissions reduction driving the adoption of more sustainable storage solutions in the UK. As the electrification of energy continues and renewable generation of electricity increases, the mix of energy sources used, and their location, will change dramatically.

Over the next decade, the UK will continue to change how it generates, imports and distributes energy. Combined with people’s shifting attitudes towards how they use energy, it is important to address how we can physically move energy across the UK to meet consumer demands. Good energy storage supported by efficient networks is crucial to help balance supply and demand for energy in the UK. It is therefore vital that the network infrastructure can work efficiently across multiple energy vectors in real time to increase this efficiency, allowing them to make the most effective use of resources.

The UK’s existing energy networks were engineered to address a different set of operational challenges to those that the country now faces. These networks were built under public funding but over the years a number of the assets involved have transferred to private ownership. This has created a scenario where current investment models are not necessarily focused on delivering significant adaptation or transformation, coupled with existing regulation that has limited the coordination that might otherwise deliver wider energy system benefits. Although these networks have evolved over time, there are still significant challenges that the UK must overcome to allow for low carbon networks to be realised. It is now that choices should be made about which networks need to be built and developed, considering the creation of efficient and effective new networks, and the integration of networks to optimise overall performance.

However, extensive changes to networks cannot be implemented quickly and indeed could take multiple decades to establish. Because of this inability to be changed or moved easily, it is important that decisions about energy networks are made for the long term, underpinned by investments that are ahead of the country’s immediate needs. The challenge is knowing where, when and how to enhance and adapt the UK’s energy networks. The ETI believes that whole energy system thinking is critical here and that the impact of building, developing, maintaining and decommissioning should be analysed across the wider energy system, not in sector isolation.

Our analysis shows that there is value in networks working together. If different parts of the energy system had greater interaction then we could see an increase in efficiency and lower investment costs. Although we recognise there is a need to develop a greater understanding of the implications of moving towards a more integrated network operation. The issue is not just about electricity storage, which is the most expensive and least mature storage options, but as part of a broader issue of energy system flexibility.

The amount of storage to be employed in the energy system is dependent on the route chosen to decarbonisation. To start to address the design of future energy networks, markets in the UK need to be incentivised to adapt and enhance existing networks, to ensure that they are fit for purpose. At the same time, new network infrastructures need to be introduced to increase efficiency and work more effectively across multiple energy vectors in real time. They must also support a system wide response to consumer and decarbonisation demands. To balance energy supply with demand, the ETI believes that an energy system needs to have sufficient operational flexibility. It is here that energy storage can have an important role to play in mobilising the UK’s transition to a low carbon future.