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How can the UK move to a net zero power grid by 2035?

Updated: Jul 21, 2022

National Grid ESO and Regen have shared insights about what a day in the life of the UK energy system could look like in 2035. We look at what that means for data and digitalisation, as well as what companies can do to start changing their mindset.

What would a fully decarbonised UK electricity system look like in 2035?

That is the fascinating question that National Grid ESO (Electricity System Operator) and UK not-for-profit organisation Regen have sought to answer this month in their report, ‘A Day In The Life’. The title relates to how a net zero electricity system in the UK could operate even on a cold, calm and still winter day. It picked those conditions as power demand would be high but wind or solar production would be low.

The report looks at how such a grid would work, as well as the system components of energy supply, demand, flexibility, storage and interconnection that it would need. This enables us to see the role that digitalisation will play in helping optimise such a system, and the digital services that companies in this system will come to rely on.

In this article, we will share the report’s headline findings and consider some of the shifts that companies in the sector will have to make so this future can be realised.

What could a net zero UK power grid in 2035 look like?

The report suggests that a net zero power system is achievable in 2035, even with some legacy fossil fuel generation in reserve.

It said this is a “massive endeavour” that requires a comprehensive plan to speed up investment in low-carbon generation, sources of flexibility, network infrastructure and digitalisation, as well as new system and market capabilities. It needs mobilisation of all parts of the energy sector and other stakeholders, with wider public support.

The report identifies eight necessities for a net zero power system:

  • Energy storage alongside low-carbon dispatchable generation: Long-duration storage is critical to make best use of low-cost energy, to balance supply and demand, and to operate the system.

  • All types of demand-side flexibility will be needed: Both domestic and business consumers must be able to participate actively in energy markets.

  • Smart technologies and agile markets: New sources of energy demand, from smart car chargers to data centres, which can help balance the system.

  • Integration, interconnection and diversity of supply: The net zero system can be resilient if it can draw on a range of technologies at different times.

  • System operability is critical: Managing the quality and continuity of power supply will become more challenging, but this is key to ensuring reliability.

  • Markets must be efficient: It needs high levels of information transparency, good forecasting, competition, price discovery and market efficiency.

  • Collaboration and coordination are needed: Technical and market solutions identified in the report require close collaboration, based on digitalisation and shared data, as well as organisational and regulatory changes.

  • Address socio-economic and equality issues: Securing public support for net zero means tackling fuel poverty, energy efficiency and green jobs, while giving carbon-intensive industries the tools that they need to transition.

National Grid ESO and Regen said this would be an “unprecedented level of change [in the UK energy system] in a little over a decade”. That is absolutely right, and the level of digital change that this requires should not be underestimated. If the UK is to achieve a decarbonised and decentralised electricity system within 13 years then it is up to companies to adapt their mindset and processes now so they can thrive.

How can energy companies respond to these digital demands?

The net zero system identified in the report will make digital demands on companies and other stakeholders across the energy system. However, the report highlights that some of this progress on digitalisation is already being made.

For example, National Grid ESO is now developing automated and integrated control room functions that could support a carbon-free electricity network by 2025. Its plan is to add to this by 2035 with greater use of data and digital software that can boost situational awareness and improve firms’ decision-making, to support new markets.

This work builds on recommendations this year from the UK’s Energy Digitalisation Taskforce, which we covered in this post on 7th March 2022.

In brief, this sets out how digitalisation of the UK energy system is needed so it can cope with millions of new assets, from grid-scale batteries to electric vehicles.

The clear message from all of these sources is that the net zero grid will rely on a diverse and distributed set of solutions – both software and hardware – and that the only way to keep the system resilient is with systems that can analyse a wide range of data streams at once. This is a fundamental change that firms must prepare for. The benefit for energy companies is that the last 20 years have seen a revolution in digital communication, software and artificial intelligence. All of these will be vital in a market that is decentralised and can respond to short-term changes efficiently. This is complex but manageable and will give the UK’s energy system more protection than it has at present from the global forces of energy supply and demand.

The challenge for companies now is to get to grips with the disparate data streams that will be fundamental to their success in the grid of 2035, and find ways to ensure they are working effectively together. Digital tools are at the heart of this revolution.

In recent months, we have seen the impact on UK consumers of operating a system that is exposed to the vagaries of international energy markets and politics. That is a position that is increasingly untenable, but reports like National Grid ESO and Regen give us an indication of a possible future. We must be brave enough to embrace it.


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