Case study (UK): Open networks in the future, flexible energy system

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Publication date

Industry sector

  • Distribution Network
  • Generation and Wholesale Market
  • Supply and Retail Market
  • Transmission Network

Decarbonisation, digitalisation and decentralisation mean energy networks face unprecedented change and challenges as we look to meet the UK government’s ambitious 2050 net zero target. GB trade body the Energy Networks Association (ENA) is running a major Open Networks industry initiative to deliver smarter, more flexible grid solutions so homes, businesses and communities can use and provide clean energy back to the networks.

This case study is supplied by Randolph Brazier, Director of Innovation and Electricity Systems at ENA.

  1. The challenge

    Britain’s energy landscape is changing. Smart technologies are challenging the traditional way we generate, consume and manage electricity. Driven by decarbonisation, digitalisation and decentralisation (the 3Ds), the ENA’s Open Networks project is helping create smarter, more efficient and cost-effective ways to deliver a clean energy system. 

    Due to these 3Ds, electricity networks are facing unprecedented change as the country has moved from a traditional one-way power system to a smart, flexible energy system. There is currently over 30GW of distributed energy generation connected to the networks, with the uptake of Distributed Energy Resources (DER), especially electric vehicles (EVs), increasing rapidly.

    Meanwhile, gas needs to go green to meet the challenges of climate change, replacing the carbon-emitting natural gas that 85% of GB homes rely upon for heating, hot water and cooking with alternative, cleaner fuels sources. And we need to do this affordably while supporting people’s ability to choose the right appliances for their homes, offices and factories.

  2. The approach

    Open Networks is a major industry initiative powering Britain towards net zero through enabling homes, businesses, and communities to flexibly use and provide clean energy back to the networks.

    The UK has clear policy pathways for decarbonisation. The publication of the Climate Change Committee’s Sixth Carbon Budget, the Energy White Paper, and the Prime Minister’s 10 Point Plan all put the Open Networks project in a better position than ever to help achieve net zero.

    To do this, we’re delivering a smart grid by:

    • undertaking innovation
    • opening markets
    • digitalising the grid
    • breaking down barriers for customers looking to connect
    • reducing costs through efficient planning

    This ensures a fair and inclusive energy transition for everyone across Great Britain.

    We are taking a ‘learn-by-doing’ approach; using innovation funding to trial and test aspects of the various future energy system options to drive the key changes needed to transition to a net zero emissions smart grid. A short introduction to the project can be found on the ENA YouTube channel.

    Net zero is only possible with a ‘Whole Systems’ approach. That is why we’re developing the world’s first zero carbon gas grid through Open Network’s sister project, Gas Goes Green.

    ENA believes in working in an open and transparent way. This is reflected in the way we publicly publish all project materials via the Open Networks library, and the way we work with industry and stakeholders – from consultation responses to public webinars – to ensure we’re listening and working collaboratively.

    Together with the entire industry, from BEIS and Ofgem to consumer bodies and local community groups, we aim to leave no one behind. We encourage collaboration throughout the entire work cycle, with no barriers as to who can access project outputs.

    As part of this approach - and to help guide our work – we have a representative Advisory Group with experts from across the industry and are seeking new ways to engage with industry through an Open Governance approach.

  3. Impact and outcomes

    The Open Networks project is delivering in a range of different areas, from the Distribution System Operator (DSO) transition and better transmission to distribution co-ordination, to improved connections processes, better access to data and enabling local flexibility markets.

    With increasing amounts of low carbon technologies connecting to the distribution networks, we are expecting increasing congestion on the grid. There are a range of solutions in a network’s ‘toolbox’ to solve this, including:

    • network reinforcement
    • automated reconfiguration of the network
    • smart grid solutions
    • third-party flexibility services

    The latter is a priority for 2021, where local networks are procuring flexibility services to release more capacity into the networks. This not only allows for more smart technologies in people’s homes (such as EVs), but also means they can begin to generate new revenue streams by participating in the markets.

    Britain’s networks have made a ‘Flexibility Commitment’; pledging to openly test the market to compare relevant grid reinforcement and market flexibility solutions for all new projects of significant value. We have seen a major uplift in tenders for flexibility services since the commitment.

    In March 2021, ENA published industry wide flexibility figures for the fourth year in a row. These showed that 2.9GW of local flexibility services are planned to be tendered in 2021, an increase of 41% on 2020. The tenders table below shows a breakdown of industry wide flexibility figures from 2018-2021 across our standard flexibility products.

    An April 2021 report, commissioned by pan-European trade association GEODE and written by the Centre on Regulation in Europe (CERRE), shows that the UK’s electricity networks lead all their competitors in Europe for supporting and delivering flexibility services..

  4. Next steps

    While the overall market for flexibility is rapidly increasing in size, the markets are by their nature geographically constrained in GB, and DNOs are still not able to procure all they need.

    The Open Networks project is working across multiple areas to help increase market liquidity:

    • Innovation trials
    • Common products
    • Better visibility and ease of access to the markets
    • Standardised contractual terms
    • Non-exclusivity
    • Consistent reporting and monitoring
    • Lower barriers to entry (size, for example)
    • Coordination with ESO and wider energy markets
    • Open Data

    Critical to all of this is further stakeholder engagement and market coordination, which are a key focus of the project.

    About ENA

    The Energy Networks Association (ENA) represents the owners and operators of licenses for the transmission and distribution of energy in the UK and Ireland. Its members own, operate and maintain the critical national infrastructure that delivers these vital services into customers’ homes and businesses.

Consumer benefits

  • Enabling customers to take ownership of their power usage
  • Enabling new revenue streams for customers, allowing them to get paid to provide flexibility services to networks
  • Ensuring consistency across the country
  • Opening network data
  • Facilitating faster and consistent connections by improving queue management
  • Ensuring better coordination and planning across transmission and distribution of gas and electricity