25 Jun 2024
by Peter Couch

Energy Networks: Enhanced Operational Telecommunications (OT) and the Net Zero Transition

At the recent Innovation Zero conference a panel session explored the role of the Operational Telecommunications capability of the Energy Networks in the ‘Net Zero’ transition.

The Panel included the Chair of the Energy Networks Association Strategic Telecommunications Group, the CEO of JRC, and representatives of the Department of Science Innovation and Technology, the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero and the energy market regulator Ofgem. The panel were invited to consider “Is telecoms an enabler or blocker to Net Zero?”

The panel initially explored Operational Telecommunications in the context of Energy Networks; ‘What is Operational Telecoms and why is it so important?’

Discussion points touched on the role of resilient operational telecoms that facilitates the real time visibility, and control of, remote network assets. Historically, this capability has only been deployed to a limited number of key network assets. What this enables includes:

  • Rapid response to system outages and/or faults;
  • The control system to automatically address demand and supply changes;
  • Core to ‘Black Start’ and kickstart Electricity System Restoration;

The potential of this capability is increasingly important as the operating model shifts from a ‘passive’ top down approach to a dynamic, distributed, and disaggregated supply context.

The panel concluded that the digitalisation of the UK’s energy system is fundamentally dependent on secure, resilient, and robust operational control of an increased diversity of network assets to deliver a flexible and adaptable system as the UK transitions away from fossil fuels. This conclusion is even more prescient as government reflects on the recommendation made by the National Infrastructure Commission’s Second National Infrastructure Assessment that it “should identify the specific telecommunications needs of the energy, water and transport sectors and ensure that infrastructure is delivered to meet these by, at the latest, 2030 for the energy and water sectors and 2035 for the road and rail sectors.”

What is the burning bridge?

Consideration was also paid to the impact of the shift from fossil fuels to low-carbon technologies (LCTs), electric vehicles (EVs) and heat pumps particularly in relation to the low-voltage layer and lack of visibility or control. This layer is also constrained by the lack of automation, which is exacerbated by energy flows in two directions. Furthermore, the increased demand from EVs and heat pumps will be unsustainable as the system gas been designed to operate passively, i.e. it is not flexible or adaptable.

The panel also noted the withdrawal of resilient public networks, such as the PSTN, when the need for resilient communications systems capability is increasing dramatically.

What does the do nothing scenario look like?

Finally the panel addressed; ‘If we are unable to establish enhanced OT capability for the Energy Networks, what does the do nothing scenario look like?’ – in summary, it results in a delayed and more costly transition to Net Zero for UK plc.

The cost of the transition will significantly increase due to the additional investment required for passive ‘dumb’ infrastructure. Research has shown that energy networks could pass on nearly £12bn in savings if a dedicated radio communications network is used to support the implementation of a more complex, active system. Additional or excess generation capacity will be necessary to address peaks in load, leading to additional and unwarranted emissions. Plus, consumers’ ability to leverage the benefits of LCTs will be compromised as the low-voltage layer will not be able to accommodate the anticipated demand at scale. This risks increased instability of the system and frequency of outages as the networks are unable to respond to rapid changes in the demand / supply context.

Overall, there was positive recognition of the importance of enhanced OT capability for the energy networks and the government stakeholders present emphasised that there is activity in hand to address this need.


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Authors

Peter Couch

Peter Couch

CEO, Joint Radio Company

Dr Peter D Couch is Chief Executive Officer at Joint Radio Company working with the Energy Network Operators to establish the optimum regulatory regime to facilitate the Smart Grid future. An innovative, highly driven strategic thinker with 20+ years’ experience of enhancing enterprise value in regulated businesses within the Energy, Technology, Media and Telecommunications sectors.

At JRC Peter is responsible for all Management and Operational activities supporting the Operational Telecommunications needs of the UK Energy Network Operators and works closely with key stakeholders in DESNZ, Ofgem, DSIT and Ofcom to ensure that the UK Energy sector has the appropriate spectrum rights and regulatory interventions to facilitate 'Smart Grid' developments.