Future Technology in the Electricity Sector

An interview with Dave A Roberts, Technical Director, EA Technology.

In what way and to what extent do you foresee emerging technologies altering the traditional value chain characteristics of production, distribution and retail within electricity systems?

The transition to a net zero economy will have a profound effect on the electricity sector. Decarbonising generation is one of the easier fixes, and is accelerating as the price of wind and PV is now far more attractive to conventional power plant fired from fossil fuels. As we decarbonise electricity generation, we are able to use this green energy downstream from the way we move (fully electrified transport) to the way we heat/cool our homes and businesses. All of this will fundamentally change the demand curve, and this will in turn drive a paradigm shift from an energy system where generation is turned up/down to match demand, to one where demand will flex (likely to be based on price), to suit whatever generation is around at any given time.

The changes in demand curve will drive an increased need for improved network modelling to understand where and when investment is needed. Scenario based assessments are becoming more essential to map through a range of future worlds, and identify least-regret investments, which are driven by the vagaries of citizen and business appetite to new tech / decarbonisation as they response to policy signals (like ban on petrol and diesel vehicles, zero carbon home areas, etc).

Network monitoring will be needed at the grid edge to understand how close to capacity a network is operating, as well as identifying / predicting faults or even signalling for flexibility. The future world will rely on data, in order to keep the grid operating in harmony, and for the benefit of society.

What do you see as the key emerging drivers of electricity consumer satisfaction over the next 10 years and how do you see emerging technology influencing and / or enabling these consumer preferences?

In my mind there are three:

1. Increased use of electricity as a key energy vector puts increased drivers on reliability.

People once talked about ‘keeping the lights on’, but apparently the most important demand in the home today is the wifi router. If you think about it, we can do a lot without mains lights, but not a lot without communications – just think about our smartphones, video calls, TV, games machines and so on.

This analogy will extent further (and significantly) as electricity is used to power our cars, AND heat our homes. Interruptions into the future will become less tolerated and short interruptions are equally annoying! The response to the COVID pandemic in many countries has accelerated tech transitions by up to ten years. Homeworking is now the norm for so many of us, and unlikely to ping back to the heady pre-COVID days of 2019 where we all worked 5 days a week in an office, or darted around the country/globe for various short meetings.

These changes increase the prominence of the local networks feeding the homes in suburbia and rural localities alongside those in dense urban cities, which traditionally enjoyed a higher security of supply.

To combat this, we need to shift the operating norm from ‘fix on fail’ to a proactive preventative strategy where 100% reliability is a reality. The tech is available today, and many electricity companies are just starting to dip their toe in the water to understand what this means for them.

2. Customer enablement, where the power system is able to better adapt and cope with the changes in demand, led by citizens and businesses, is the second key driver. As mentioned above, the electrification of heat and transport is happening, but happening in different rates in different parts of the electricity network(s). A range of factors are in play from national government policies, to local planning requirements, availability of tech, demographics and right down to irrational factors such as the so-called “keeping up with the Jones’”.

The electricity system needs to cope with this as it holds the cards to facilitate a seamless transition to a net zero (carbon) economy. This will entail strategic investment in some localities, better signalling of where capacity (and reliability) exists together with more transparent pricing information.

Better modelling, targeted investment ahead-of-need, and capacity signalling, is key here.

3. For the record, it is worth noting that whilst cost of delivery is important, it’s no longer the dominant factor.

To what extent do you see the introduction of new technologies into the electricity system and market place offering a net benefit to society and the environment? Or equally, do you envisage adverse or suboptimal outcomes?

The main benefit is that this will facilitates the transition to Net Zero economy by enabling customers to take up technologies like EVs and electrified heat in a seamless manner.

Non-network solutions are as important as conventional solutions. The electricity system needs to accommodate the least cost option, which might be an alternative commercial models like the use of energy storage, etc where ownership is outside of the traditional actors of the electricity system.

The overarching objective and driver should be Net Zero, and carbon should be priced into the above points to ensure incentives don’t drive the wrong behaviour (e.g. a dash for diesel generators to provide flexibility services).

There is a side benefit, in that the country that gets to decarbonise fastest, is most likely to gain a competitive advantage in exporting solutions to other countries – creating jobs and prosperity for our country.

Which emerging technologies do you expect to lead to the greatest level of disruption to the electricity system and market place?

This is about the waves of technology that are now marching upon us..

1st wave: Cheap renewable generation

Driven by a global market, PV and wind are now cheaper than any other form of generation; even without subsidy. They are now the generation form of choice, and are being deployed at all parts of the network from the very big, to people’s homes. Expect more, but recognise that they generate when the wind blows or the sun shines – use it then! This changes the model of both the price and when to use electricity.

2nd wave: Electrified transport

A massive change to the demand curve, as 1 car = 1 house in kWh over a year. Replacing all cars in 10-20 years with Battery Electric Vehicles is likely to have the same effect as doubling the housing stock! Whilst charging capacity is available, it’s not at peak times, and will require the engagement of citizens to ‘allow’ it to be moved. As above, modelling and monitoring is key. But the good news (from experience) is that an EV is likely to create engagement with the electricity system that has never previously been seen. But just look at how many EVs are on the market today compared with 2 years ago… the wave is definitely building in height!

3rd wave: Cheaper batteries

Electrified transport drives cheap storage – Fact! As more battery electric vehicles come on stream, giga-factories will continue to spring up, and the price of storage will continue to fall. This helps to balance the network intra-day, and in volume, between days, where deployed. Depleted, second-life batteries from vehicles towards the end of a cars life may also become repurposed for the grid where space and efficiency is less of an issue than in your average family car. We can expect to see a LOT more storage, and some very novel business models in all parts of the power grid (from garages, to housing estates, to I&C buildings, to [large] strategic network locations).

4th wave: Electrified heat

Whilst slower than the 2nd wave (and not quite as sexy), the heat demands are very big! It’s not likely to be as ubiquitous as EVs, as geography and local resource are more likely to come into play, but needs careful strategic planning. Phasing out of new build homes with gas boilers is one thing, but a wholesale switchover away from dinosaur juice to electricity for all gas boilers (or Hydrogen for industrial processes) will be a big change. Noting that even H2 production requires a lot of electricity!

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