Northern Powergrid has unveiled wide-ranging plans to deliver a smarter and cleaner grid across the north of England
Could the region that gave birth to the first industrial revolution play much the same role in the low carbon industrial revolution that promises to transform power grids around the world?
That is the question prompted by the news today that grid operator Northern Powergrid has announced an £83m programme of network upgrades to support the rapid growth of electric vehicles (EVs), domestic heat pumps, and renewable electricity. The goal of the new programme is as simple as it is ambitious: to place the region "at the forefront of the low carbon revolution".
Dubbed Smart Grid Enablers, the upgrade programme is designed to build the backbone of a genuine smart grid, supporting low carbon technologies that could reap up to £500m savings by 2031, according to the electricity distributor.
The company calculates it would have to spend roughly £400m-£500m more from 2023-2031 if it eschewed the chance to switch to smarter grid technologies now and instead relied on "conventional solutions".
Instead, the £83m programme announced yesterday will run to 2023 and promises to deliver "the most radical change" to Northern Powergrid's network since the 1970s.
The investment will transform the firm's ability to monitor, control and communicate with more than 8,000 substations delivering power to 3.9 million homes and businesses in the North East, Yorkshire and northern Lincolnshire, it explained.
Patrick Erwin, policy and markets director at Northern Powergrid, said the programme would future-proof the grid in anticipation of as host of emerging, power-reliant clean technologies.
"It will make us ready to support rapid growth of electric vehicles, heat pumps and solar power in the next decade, while maintaining a reliable system and keeping costs as low as possible for all our customers," he said in a statement. "This is the most comprehensive upgrade programme of any UK network operator and will give us a state of the art command and control capability, enabling us to respond to real-time information about power flow on our network."
The news comes in the same week as a new report from Aurora Energy Research argued that the many 'scare stories' about the impact of EVs on the grid could be avoided, but only if grid and charging network operators switch to smarter charging technologies.
Northern Powergrid's programme will also underpin the firm's transition to becoming a distribution system operator (DSO), providing a platform to roll out "smart, cost-effective solutions to actively manage a network with complex power flows that are hard to predict", the company said.
Nearly 100 specialist engineers will support the complex overhaul of Northern Powergrid's communications network, while the firm is recruiting and training staff to install and operate more dynamic control systems and support smart grid technologies of the future.
Specific upgrades sought include installing bandwidth digital communications to replace old analogue links, replacing and upgrading transformer monitoring units and substation controllers, and creating new data warehouses to process data from substations from domestic smart meters.
The announcement is just the latest signal that regional hubs in the North of England are looking to clean technologies to boost their economies in response to the rapid changes afoot in the UK's energy system.
The Northern Energy Taskforce, an initiative launched in 2016 by progressive think tank IPPR, is currently developing a low carbon energy transition roadmap for the region through to 2030 in support of the government's much-trumpeted 'northern powerhouse' economic vision. If properly planned and implemented, IPPR estimates a new energy economy for the region could be worth £15bn by 2050, potentially supporting 10,000 jobs.
In recent years, several projects have sought to demonstrate the green economy opportunities on offer for the region. Historic fishing and trading ports on the North East coast such as Hull and Grimsby have secured huge sums of investment from companies such as DONG Energy - now Orsted - and Siemens in support of the UK's world leading offshore wind industry.
In Leeds, meanwhile, the H21 project gained £9m backing from Ofgem in December to support its vision of delivering hydrogen heating to the city, a scheme which it is envisaged could potentially provide a low carbon replacement for the local gas network.
Similar moves towards supporting smarter, low carbon electricity grid have of course been made by network operators elsewhere, such as UK Power Networks in London and the South East. However, Northern Powergrid claims it is the first local network operator to develop a coordinated programme to futureproof the electricity network for the low carbon revolution, and has set out a clear economic case for doing so - not just through savings for its own business, but through support for regional businesses involved in clean energy, electric vehicles, and AI-enabled demand response services.
It demonstrates how the 'northern powerhouse' vision - so often criticised for lacking real substance - has the potential to move beyond being a political buzzword, and deliver a meaningful plan of action that can drive clean growth and a less London-heavy UK economy. With an increasing evidence basis and the government seeking a means of closing the emissions gaps in its Clean Growth Plan, expect pressure to grow on other regions to follow a similarly green path.
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