Boris’s 10 point plan will transform the energy sector as we know it – but is it ready?

Technology right at the heart center of the nation’s green industrial recovery. 

Rachel Eyres is a Business Unit Leader at Expleo UK. She has over 20 years’ experience in the energy and utilities sector, working with many different customers and learning along the way about energy retail, smart metering, power distribution/smart grids and smart cities. She is very interested in the future development of the energy markets and sees big changes on the horizon, caused by the increasing pace of technology change, the march towards reduced carbon emissions, and the convergence of markets and sectors.

The energy industry is well on its way towards a more sustainable future. Over the past decade, emissions from fossil fuels have dropped by nearly 30 percent and the UK’s energy system ran without coal for two months during lockdown, causing some to question whether the last remaining coal-fired power stations should now be mothballed for good.

While this all sounds like good news, the UK still relies heavily on gas (and sometimes diesel) for power generation, especially at peak times. Boris Johnson clearly has ambitions to change this with his 10-point climate plan – but this is going require a huge amount of system and process change, putting technology right at the heart of the nation’s green industrial recovery. 

Using technology for good is not a new concept, but when it comes to the environment especially, there is a clear public interest in using it to bring about real-world transformation.

In fact, our own recent research into what people want from future IT innovations showed that over half (57 percent) of people believe technology will be the key to resolving climate change, by helping us to reach our NetZero emissions target by 2050. Another 41 percent, meanwhile said they want to see more innovation in renewables over the next decade.

Becoming a leader

Energy companies are clearly listening to this call to action, with a number of innovations already helping us make things cleaner and greener across the sector. Devices like solar panels, electric heating systems, batteries and smart meters have revolutionised the home energy space in recent years. New systems to encourage local-level trading have also emerged, as well as low carbon heating solutions, and smart charging for electric vehicles.

What is less well known is that this sort of flexibility and change requires enabling technology investments across the whole of the energy industry. This includes central market programs like smart metering, faster switching and half hourly settlement.

When it comes to the wholesale change indicated by the government’s new plan, there are similar technical and logistical challenges to consider.

As well as the obvious difficulties that will come with replacing gas boilers inside people’s homes with heat pumps, introducing hydrogen into the gas network won’t be easy.

When incorporating a new gas into our system we need to be able to monitor and track its performance. This will require an increased use of IoT devices and new field technologies, better data and analytic capabilities – an “internet of pipes” if you will. 

In the case of offshore wind power, the obstacles again hinge around infrastructure.

The UK has the potential to become a world leader in offshore wind power, thanks to the blessing of geography, so strengthening our capabilities in this area makes total environmental and economic sense. But offshore wind connects into the electricity network – and the current system is not yet sophisticated enough to handle the characteristics of an increase in this type of generation.

Just look at the problems caused by the Hornsey 1 outage last year – the grid is already having to plan to manage things differently because of this error, and with more offshore wind the risks will only increase.  To prevent this from happening again, we’ll need to transition to a smart, flexible grid, that’s actively managed, as soon as possible, so we can learn to live with a less predictable, bidirectional power system whilst also keeping the lights on.

An opportunity to re-build

Both energy sources are key to lowering emissions, but the grid is going to need to undergo an immensely complicated digital upgrade before we’re ready to reap the benefits.

Energy companies were already running large tech transformations to keep up with the competition, to service customers more effectively and to enable them to get new products to market faster, when the Covid-19 pandemic began, necessitating several years’ worth of digital transformation in a few months.

While totally necessary, adding new technologies and demands to this already fast-changing technology landscape will undoubtedly increase risk.

Being able to guarantee business continuity and quality of service is true for all businesses, but nowhere more so than the utilities industry, where customers rely on companies to keep their lights on and their homes warm. So when embarking on these changes, it will be important to test all systems end-to-end to ensure they’re functioning correctly, both independently and as part the wider network of systems.

Not only that, but because the energy market is so disaggregated many of these change programs will need to be centrally managed. Independent assurance will help to ensure that they deliver fast and well. At Expleo we automate this process for clients to account for the complexity and speed of the technology and release cycles. This safeguards quality and adds value by providing immediate speed and efficiency gains.

As we emerge from the ordeal of Covid-19, we have an opportunity to re-build our future, with the environment right at the forefront of our priorities. Changing the types of energy we’re using – not to mention, how we’re tracking our energy usage – is central to this, but we will also need to manage the risks as well.

Rachel Eyers, Business Unit Leader, Expleo UK

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