Smart Local Energy Systems: Why the time to act is now

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BLOG: Dr Rebecca Ford from Strathclyde is Research Director of the EnergyREV consortium working to tackle the challenges around smart local energy systems

 "Countries around the world are embarking on energy transitions to decarbonise their economies. In the UK smart local energy systems (SLES) are emerging in response to the increasing decentralisation and digitalisation that goes hand in hand with energy system decarbonisation. SLES often include small scale renewable resources such as solar, wind and micro-hydro, new types of loads such as electric vehicles, heat pumps, and storage, and more active participation from end-users through demand side management.

As part of the Prospering from the Energy Revolution (PFER) programme, four large smart local energy system demonstration projects are being developing in Oxfordshire, West Sussex and Orkney, and a further 10 detailed design projects are underway. While these projects are different from each other in terms of their infrastructure, stakeholders and partnerships, business models, and customer offerings, they are all attempting to make more effective use of local and renewable resources, supporting their region and the UK deliver a net-zero energy system.

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Beyond decarbonisation, SLES are expected to deliver a wide array of other benefits such as helping alleviate fuel poverty, community income generation, and improvements in local energy knowledge. They can also help improve network management, reduce operating costs and overcome energy system constraints. Managed well, SLES could also help make energy systems more resilient to failure, which has wider social and economic implications.

Digital infrastructure

Underpinning their operation, and ultimately their ability to deliver these co-benefits, is smarter digital infrastructure, including information and communication technologies, AI, machine learning and more advanced control mechanisms to help improve energy system operation. In some instances, they rely on autonomous operation, in others, the additional data and insights generated as a result of digitalisation are used to inform more effective decision making. This enables increasingly localised forms of system balancing and network management, supported by flexibility across power, heat and transport.

Regardless of the process, a ‘smart’ energy system is expected to enable better and more effective use of resources. This increase in effectiveness can take many forms. It can mean reducing costs or mitigating losses. It can mean producing larger benefits for individuals, for the system owners and operators, or for the wider world. It can mean producing the right benefits for these groups, more consistent benefits, or a wider range of benefits. Ultimately, this view of smart is about using smarter processes to drive smarter or better outcomes and opportunities

Although the PFER programme is providing key insights to drive SLES development forward, there are a number of challenges. With the increasing localisation of smart energy, there needs to be a stronger policy direction regarding the realisation of different outcomes, and clearer frameworks to see how different smart energy developments and demonstrations are delivering against each of these key policy areas.

Understanding which stakeholders are – or should be – involved is critical, as the starting point for developing a smart energy system could have a significant impact on the legitimacy of the solution, and on the outcomes achieved. While some of the key driving factors for SLES are in response to concern for climate change, energy prices, security of supply issues and energy justice, many solutions are emerging from collaborations between incumbents and new actors operating and trying to make a profit within the energy system and regulations in place today. Care must be taken to balance prevailing interests, values, and practices with these wider issues necessitating more radical transition.

Changing needs

Maintaining the smart nature of energy systems is also a challenge. An energy system may cease to be smart if doesn’t continually evolve to take advantage of new technologies and opportunities to improve, and to meet the changing needs of the energy system. Changes in the energy system are making existing cyber-physical architectures and techniques unfit for purpose. When developing and building cyber-physical architecture it’s important to consider how to make the system flexible - the extent to which the system can integrate new data sources, or adapt over time - terms like "plug and play” are common here, scalable – to cope with increasing number of connected devices over time, interoperable - able to cope with multiple standards and suppliers and non-energy data like transport, waste, health, and secure.

Standards and frameworks for developing and deploying digital infrastructure may be required to cope with increasing and emerging data streams.

As well as building a future proof smart energy system from a technical perspective, its future must also be considered from a socio-economic perspective. It is not just generation assets and smarter forms of control that are becoming decentralised, there are also trends toward more localised forms of decision-making, energy planning, and system operation, stronger end-user engagement and participation, and growing numbers of intermediaries and businesses emerging as key energy system stakeholders.

New roles

Understanding what these new roles look like, how the right skills sets can be created and sustained in the right locations, and how local and national governance structures will need to interact to deliver a smart energy future is key.

While much of this may need to happen locally, a shared vision and direction is necessary to underpin and stimulate action across many scales in a co-ordinated direction; this is a critical opportunity for government, and the time to act is now."