Six key takeaways from Utility Week Live Online

With the COVID-19 pandemic resulting in exhibitions and expos taking a more digital format this year, the usual pilgrimage to the West Midlands for Utility Week Live was replaced by the click of a mouse into an entirely virtual world. But the talks and panels were just as insightful and engaging in this new approach. Here are a few points of interest we picked up on…

1. Digital twin technology exists to pre-empt fault level

It’s one of the greatest challenges faced by DNOs; maintaining uptime by ensuring fault current is controlled in order to prevent excessive strain on equipment in the system. Ralph Eyre-Walker and John Moutafidis of SP Energy Networks and UK Power Networks respectively, talked us through how they have developed a solution which monitors fault level in real time and identifies electrical surges as they occur. This innovative smart grid technology could lead to easier connection of new assets (such as renewables) to the grid and has the potential to generate a cost saving of £5m per annum for energy providers.

But this collaborative effort goes a step further by aiming to predict potential for surges. They have now developed a prototype which creates synthetic disturbances to provide a fault level calculation in mere seconds. Already, reports are circulating that this technology comes with a margin of error of less than 1% in the test environment, and live trials are now under way to test the possibility of rolling this out across the network.

2. The twenties will be the decade of the electric vehicle

In his talk on demand side flexibility, UK Power Networks’ Sotiris Georgiopoulos described the next ten years as the ‘era of the electric vehicle’. He predicted that, by the end of the decade in the south east of England alone, there would be 3.6m electric cars on the road, as well as 220,000 homes fitted with solar panels and another 430,000 with heat pumps installed.

In this transitional period, which will require UK Power Networks to transform into a Distribution System Operator (DSO), demand-side flexibility will be critical, not only in terms of deliverability but also to meet the 2050 net zero goal set by the UK government. Successfully harnessing demand-side flexibility will ensure a smooth integration of vast amounts of variable renewable energy into power systems.

Sotiris described how transparency and collaboration will be key themes during this time, and will see UK Power Networks working with many different partners and vendors. Their aims are to define the future of local flexibility taking a collaborative approach, engaging with customers and understanding their needs in order to deliver whole system benefits.

3. Education, regulation and frameworks required for a successful DSO transformation

Sotiris also featured on a panel focusing on innovating for net zero. Here, he again emphasised the importance of flexibility in the DNO to DSO transition, to which the CEO of Rightcharge, Charlie Cook, agreed. Charlie stated that flexibility will be required to overcome the myths circulating that the electricity network will not be able to cope with the surge in electric vehicles. He believes transparency of data, via smart meters for example, will help the market understand and embrace energy flexibility by demonstrating the subsequent cost savings and impact on the environment.

Barbara Hammond, CEO of Low Carbon Hub, agreed but suggested the benefits of energy flexibility will need demonstrating to the consumer, if they are to become motivated by the prospect.

The discussion turned to the role of the government in this regard, and again data was a key point. Barbara described how a framework allowing for real-time access to data is crucial to DSO transformation, and believed greater incentivisation is required for improved and more widespread metering.

4. IoT and monitoring paramount for the water sector to meet net zero targets

Innovating for net zero was also a topic of discussion for panellists speaking on behalf of the Water and Sewerage Companies (WaSCs). According to Howard Perry of Severn Trent, the sector could become carbon neutral by 2030, but only if the supply chain is not considered, as this would rely upon immense change to an unlikely degree in the concrete and steel production process. At the very least, Dan Green of Wessex Water thought that the supply chain could be measured (and so incentivised) against reasonable baseline data that exists on carbon emissions in manufacturing of this nature, for example.

Other statistics closer to home are much less readily available, however. Howard believes that one of the key requirements to meet targets will be to reduce emissions of methane and nitrogen, but that companies will be hard pushed to implement monitoring equipment across the board in the next decade. Lutz Johnen, representing the Water Efficiency Network, also drew attention to the fact that the industry knows very little about consumer water usage; how people are using water and how that is impacting energy usage.

The panel were very much in agreement with Lutz. While Howard claimed that more data about water use in homes would be incredibly powerful in modelling demand and resourcing, smart meters and internet-enabled household devices were the answer for Dan, who stated that heating water is a highly carbon intensive activity.

5. Innovation in leak detection preferred to repair technology

Monitoring must also improve in the detection of leaks, and this is something close to the heart of Jeremy Heath and his team at SES Water and the UK Water Industry Research. With one eye on fostering greater collaboration and to better position of the sector for future funding opportunities, they have been busy forming the Leakage Innovation Heatmap.

They have subsequently been able to identify non-acoustic leak detection, encompassing satellite and drone surveys, thermal imaging, micro pressure and fibre optics, as the primary area of research addressed within the sector in recent years. Also generating a substantial amount of interest has been smart meters and property leakage allowances, flow measurement (to assist with trunk main leakage) and smart networks, with several trials taking place across the UK.

The group was able to conclude that there has been greater focus on pressure optimisations, including identification and mitigation, and calming networks. Smarter ways of understanding the condition of networks is of high interest to water companies, and they are working on solutions to address this accordingly. On the flipside, there appeared to be a lack of research focusing on smart repair technology. So, the emphasis to this point has clearly been on early detection of leaks, most likely as a result of the heavy fines they face for excessive water loss.

6. There is no silver bullet for leak detection

Jeremy also sat on a panel considering the various ways in which to tackle leak detection, suggesting that the next wave of investment would focus on the implementation of fixed networks to urban areas. But as flagged by Jamie Jones of Portsmouth Water, a solution such as this is less likely to work in rural areas without costly investment to ensure a signal is present.

An alternative method promoted by Jamie was the use of satellite imagery as an effective means to detect water leakage, but he did concede that it was costly and perhaps a more appropriate solution when dealing with an influx of leaks at one time. Referring to the results of the Leakage Innovation Heatmap, Jeremy was able to reveal that this form of detection had delivered mixed results for a range of water companies, with ground types being one of the variables affecting outcomes.

It seems there are a multitude of ways in which monitor the condition of pipes in WaSC infrastructure, but also that more data and visibility over the network is required to optimise performance and improve environmental impact. With smart and fixed networks in mind, resilient and reliable connectivity is a must for both the energy and water sectors when implementing the technology required to run systems effectively. With real-time monitoring and data transfer a common theme throughout, a low latency, high capacity solution must be sourced. And with collaboration also high on the agenda, seeking a partner who can work strategically with these companies to achieve this can only be of benefit.

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