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Energy infrastructure and innovation - National Grid ESO at Future Cities Forum

National Grid ESO, Head of Innovation Strategy and Digital Transformation, Anna Carolina Tortora, speaking at Future Cities Forum

At Future Cities Forum's recent discussion event on 'Infrastructure, construction and energy' we were very pleased to be joined by National Grid ESO's Head of Innovation Strategy and Digital Transformation, Anna Carolina Tortora. The organisation is leading a digital twin innovation strategy, helping the UK to decarbonise the electricity grid.

In March this year, the National Grid reported that by June 2024, National Energy System Operator (NESO) would be a new, independent, public corporation that will be responsible for planning Britain’s electricity and gas networks and operating the electricity system. It will be tasked with ensuring that Britain’s energy system is secure and affordable as well as forging the path to a sustainable future for everyone. 

Anna Carolina Tortora commented at Future Cities Forum:

'This ambition to (reach net zero) by 2035 cannot be done in our current set-up so we are getting new roles under strategic energy planning. We need a high level view of how renewable energy infrastructure will work across Great Britain and to ensure that same land you are looking at, to develop water or gas infrastructure, is not being promised already to someone developing PV panels.

'We have a queue waiting time of 15 years for connections as there are zombie projects and we are sitting on ageing infrastructure across all areas - including water and gas . You mentioned data - well my day job is head of innovation, and I get the privilege of seeing what is coming up the track as I get asked lots of questions on issues to solve. Five years ago I got lots of questions around data. What is the data on how people use EVs? There has been the assumption that people would use EVs in the same way as petrol and diesel cars. But they don't! They are concerned that the batteries will run out, so people use them for shorter trips.

'We looked into tools and analytics to see how to process all the information. Colleagues in the control room wanted up to date data, so we talked about how to model, to see how demand is moving. How much energy will be needed by EVs looking in real time etc. We need clear understanding so we need good data. How can people best share data so we can adapt to demand? The problem is always people, not the technology. We have the technology but getting people to agree is a challenge.

'Everything in the UK has to be market driven (of course!) so you have to make a case, not just from an infrastructure perspective or from the government's but from the people's angle. There is an IT debt to overcome and catch up. We are all trying to catch up, and create the data sharing infrastructure. If we can create a virtual reality of all our physical infrastructure we can all benefit by sharing the data. The energy providers want data. We are collecting data sets from the (energy) networks and we also have projects with the water industry.

When asked about the place issue and whether communities will have to put up with more and more pylons marching across the landscape, Anna Carolina responded:

'The Nimby effect is a real one. The UK is at this point 'copper plate', compared to the rest of Europe. There are similarities between the UK and Italy where I worked previously in a similar role. The countries are long and thin in shape with renewable energy generation at one end and major consumption at the other. In Italy the renewables are in the south, and industry and major businesses with most demand are in the north. In the UK the renewables are in Scotland with London and the south as major users of energy.

'One of the biggest issues for both countries, which is why I was brought over here, is the congestion problem. Because there is no demand in Scotland you get literally energy traffic crossing the border between Scotland and England. To solve this we have come up with a million ideas! What happens today is that the gigawatts worth of wind produced in Scotland cannot evacuate to England because the marginal cost is very low it gets priority dispatch. We throw it away and then we re-dispatch to the south. When you re-dispatch you are then paying the gas and nuclear energy dispatch price from Europe, and that is not cheap.

'We have a few ways to fix this. There will be some infrastructure and a holistic network design plan. You may note that a few years ago we came up with a £50 billion offshore connection plan. Why it is so expensive is because all the offshore wind plants had different landing points on beaches which upset local authorities. So we are looking at consolidating these arrival points and achieving a 'meshing' of the offshore grid. Then it was requested that the landing point be south of the problem. There is also a European piece going on as the Germans want our wind, so our grid offshore has to connect via Belgium to Germany, and we are creating an offshore TSO (Transmission Service Operator). We are also looking at using demand and flexing that demand as a way of using that excess energy, and by creating services for people, such as an app (like Alexa) informing you that the National Grid wants you to do your washing or put your kettle on'.

In March this year, National Grid ESO announced:

'To help accelerate energy sector digitalisation, and support the transition to net zero, our Virtual Energy System Programme and the National Digital Twin Programme, led by the UK Government’s Department for Business and Trade, have signed a Memorandum of Understanding to collaborate in developing an energy system data sharing infrastructure.

'This collaboration will further the aspirations for sector-wide secure and resilient data sharing outlined by the Energy Digitalisation Taskforce, Ofgem’s Future Systems and Network Regulation (FSNR) decision, and the recommendations set out in the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero’s recent Transmission Acceleration Action Plan.

'There is clear benefit in ensuring alignment and interoperability between an energy system data sharing infrastructure and the cross-sector Integration Architecture being developed by the National Digital Twin Programme.

'This agreement will initially focus on developing integrated high-level technical design and architecture, which identifies the interfaces between components of the future energy system data sharing infrastructure. It also aims to scope the technical, process, and policy requirements for achieving and developing an integrated Minimum Viable Product that both programmes can use to practically demonstrate connected digital twins.

Image below courtesy of National Grid


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