Published On: January 11, 2024

The journey to Net Zero heavily relies on energy system transformation through digitalisation, but the crucial role of communications infrastructure has been overlooked. In this article for NPC, Eric Brown, Director, Grid Scientific Limited, highlights the need for proportional attention to communications systems to avoid them becoming a barrier in the transformation process. The co-dependency between digital and energy systems poses risks, including cyber-security threats. The article points to the need for proactively evaluating and including communications systems in a strategic plan to prevent delays and impediments to achieving Net Zero.

Energy system transformation forms a key part of the journey to a Net Zero future. Digitalisation – the strategic adoption of digital technologies and processes – is widely considered to be essential for delivering this transformation successfully. Communications systems provide the connectivity necessary for digitalisation to work.

There are very high expectations of digitalisation, and much effort is underway to advance its use but communications infrastructure is not being given sufficient attention, and will become a barrier to progress if its critical role is not recognised and acted upon.

An insightful analogy can be drawn from how prioritising offshore wind for decarbonising electricity generation, without a parallel emphasis on network infrastructure, has hindered infrastructure delivery and posed a barrier to power system decarbonisation. Similarly, directing efforts towards digitalisation without a proportional focus on communications systems may lead to connectivity becoming a barrier in the journey towards energy system transformation.

What does energy system transformation involve?

Electrification will play a central role in enabling the energy system to achieve decarbonisation commitments. The power system must be Net Zero by 2035 as a significant contributor to achieving the national Net Zero target by 2050 (and by 2045 in Scotland).

The architecture of today’s electricity system is centralised and top-down; electricity flows in one direction, from generation to the consumer. Large scale central generation produces electricity, which is delivered through transmission and distribution networks and retailed to consumers. Generation sources are largely synchronous machines, fed by fossil fuels (principally gas following the reduction in coal-burning), with nuclear also an important generation source. Consumers are largely passive, buying units of energy from retailers. Demand is highly predictable and allows for the efficient distribution of generation precisely when and where it is needed. The system operator function ensures that supply and demand across the energy system remains balanced at all times, and assures the operational integrity of the network.

Both supply and demand will be transformed in the future electricity system. The architecture of the system will become more decentralised and interconnected. Distributed renewable energy sources such as wind and solar will become dominant; nuclear and clean gases e.g., hydrogen, will have an important role as might natural gas in combination with Carbon Capture Use and Storage (CCUS). Generation will be connected at multiple levels in the network, as will storage. There will be substantial change in demand, and flexibility in the management of supply and demand will be critical. Consumers are also expected to be less passive and more engaged.

The ambition for digitalisation…

Digitalisation is expected to affect many, if not all, aspects of the energy system value chain. This includes helping to address the yet unanswered question of how to operate an electricity network where intermittent renewables dominate generation, through to enabling new markets, value propositions, business models, approaches to regulation and new methods of engaging with consumers. It is expected to facilitate the uptake of Low Carbon Technologies such as electric vehicles and heat pumps, and release the benefits and value of flexibility. It will play a significant role in helping make a much more complex energy system more resilient, and in assuring energy security.

In serving these functions, digital systems will attract risks such as cyber-security-based threats; but the benefits in terms of new business opportunities, extraction of value from infrastructure and enabling lower carbon outcomes, justify the need to find ways to manage such risks. However, one key risk that is not receiving adequate attention is the dependency on communications systems.

… and the need for communications systems

Communications should be considered integral to energy system transformation: and they should be designed in, not assumed or added on. There exists a certain level of complacency regarding communications, with the assumption that the required amount, at any given time, in any location, and at the necessary quality, will be readily available. This expectation arises from the seeming “ubiquity” of communications that supports our everyday home and working lives. However, the nature of communications required to support the energy system cannot be assumed.

Today’s communications systems do not deliver what will be needed. The resilience and availability to support critical national infrastructure, such as the energy system, requires enhanced systems and infrastructure to be deployed.

Security and resilience… and dependency

Digitalisation of the energy system creates a very substantial and growing co-dependency between digital systems and energy (electrification in particular). The energy system will use digitally enabled systems and processes for its operation and to deliver services. These digital systems and processes will rely on electrically powered digital infrastructure, including communications systems. Loss of electricity supply means the digital infrastructure will not work, and if the digital infrastructure does not work, the energy system will not work. When one fails, both will fail unless specific measures are taken. The consequences of not having appropriate communications systems and infrastructure amount to no less than placing energy system resilience and security of supply at risk.

The reliability and resilience of the communications networks are also critical considerations. Both are perceived to be good, but this perception does not align with the demands that realistic circumstances can create. The risk and the impact when there are physical damage and loss of power for an extended period are made very obvious by disruptive events such as Storm Arwen.

This dependency is particularly complex in extreme circumstances, such as when the electricity system has completely failed and must be restarted, a situation known as black start. National Grid Electricity System Operator (NGESO) has undertaken extensive work focused on this issue, and highlights the need for collaboration between the electricity and communications sectors in order to address it.

These examples underscore the issue of resilience of both digital and energy infrastructure in the face of disruption or degradation. There are other types of communications-based risks to security and resilience, for example: cyber threats; behaviour of digital monopolies in communications systems where service offerings or commercial interests may become misaligned with energy system priorities; and connectivity losses that prevent consumers lowering or shifting their demand in response to market signals or operational need.

Other reasons communications systems matter

Flexibility: Flexibility is seen as playing a critical role in the future energy system by aligning demand with supply, where supply is going to be more unpredictable given the use of intermittent renewable sources. Benefits will be measured in terms of reducing the amount of generation and networks capacity that must be built if peaks in demand can be managed. Flexibility will also be the source of new value propositions and business models, creating economic opportunity as innovators build new product offerings that consumers value, such as shifting their consumption to times when costs are lower. Communications systems enable flexibility – whether technically (by providing the connectivity to access and assure flexible demand provision), or commercially (by delivering price signals and other market interactions). These systems must be reliable and resilient. They must also be available across a broad geography so that a large set of flexible assets can be connected and so consumers who wish to participate will be able to do so on a fair basis.

Network visibility: Future networks will be much more complex. Operating these networks to ensure that supply and demand remain balanced, that assets are performing well, and that high quality services are being delivered to users, will require sophisticated tools and processes which will rely on digitalisation. Network and asset visibility and monitoring will play a key role. These functions will require reliable, resilient communications systems that offer connectivity to enable accessing data and support of high integrity system operation.

Market and economic enablement: The requirements for communications systems and infrastructure are not limited to technical and operational considerations. The delivery of price signals on a timely basis, supporting new value propositions and business models, enabling interaction with consumers who wish to participate in new markets, collecting data that drive new regulatory models are further examples where reliable, resilient and available communications will be needed.

Why do we need to act now?

The risks arising from inadequate communications systems to support digitalisation are substantial but cannot be precisely defined owing to the uncertain and dynamic nature of energy system transformation. There will never be a perfect set of requirements for communications capabilities, nor a perfect plan for delivering solutions. This could lead to reluctance to act, and a desire to have clarity on matters such as when things will break, and in what order, before engaging seriously. However, waiting for certainty will mean that it will be too late to act effectively.

We need an approach that facilitates the creation of credible, viable, and adaptive plans, ensuring the timely availability of effective solutions. The critical first step in addressing this issue is to recognise this uncertainty, and to acknowledge that the associated risk is increasing as energy system transformation gathers pace. There are two courses of action available:

  • Do nothing: accept the risk, reckoning that it will be possible to react sufficiently well to individual requirements as and when they arise, and to address related impacts on cost, pace, resilience, security, consumer experience and carbon.
  • Act: proactively evaluate the need, engage with the right stakeholders and determine a coherent path forward.

Acting means undertaking work to consolidate current efforts and assess, qualify and quantify the situation properly, and then to develop a well-founded strategic, technical and business case for enhanced communications systems and capabilities to support and enable energy system transformation.

This case will allow communications system capability to become an explicit part of the plan for energy system transformation. Evidence and insights obtained from proper evaluation will reveal options for delivering required outcomes and inform decision making.

There are cross-sector calls for a cohesive strategic plan for energy system transformation: the National Audit Office, the Climate Change Committee, and the National Infrastructure Commission are just three of the many strong voices. Communications systems must be an explicit part of that plan. If the communications need is not included now, it will become invisible, until it becomes critical and seen as a barrier to progress, leading to delay, increased cost and an impediment to achieving Net Zero.

The stakeholder community needs to be brought together to support this work and help ensure there is alignment of purpose. The Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, Ofgem, Ofcom, the National Infrastructure Commission, Energy Networks Association, Joint Radio Company, techUK, Smart DCC, communications network operators and supply chains are key players.

The emerging Future System Operator (FSO) could play a key role in co-ordinating and facilitating the effort needed to ensure that communications systems are an enabler of energy system transformation, and not a barrier. This implies that communications systems should be included in the mandate of the FSO. This is not to suggest that the FSO takes ownership of communications policy or implementation, but that it is required to ensure that interests are aligned and that needed outcomes are delivered on a timely basis..

Today’s communications systems do not provide the connectivity required to enable digitalisation to play the role expected of it in transformation of the energy system. Action is needed now to remove unnecessary barriers and risks to progress to achieving Net Zero.

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