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Q&A: Steve Johnson, Electricity North West

What exactly does Electricity North West do?

We are a Distribution Network Operator (DNO) and we run the distribution network in the North West. We are purely involved with infrastructure, not generation or supply. Between 2010 and 2015 we invested £1.5bn in the region’s infrastructure, with a further £2.4bn planned over the next eight years.


How does distribution work?

The National Grid distributes electricity across large distances at huge voltages, such as 400,000 volts. We then take this electricity and step it down so it can be used by heavy industries (33,000 volts), in factories (11,000 volts) and then ultimately through small sub stations into homes for domestic use (415/ 215 volts).

We are also seeing a growth in local low carbon generation, or distributed generation, from small-scale technologies such as wind, biomass and photovoltaic, and it’s also part of our role to connect this energy to the network.


What are the issues facing energy distribution?

We are facing huge challenges and it’s all to do with the move to the low carbon economy and meeting carbon emission targets for 2020. To hit these targets, the energy sector has got to be decarbonised, which means closing coal-powered power stations and decarbonising generation. There will be a much bigger role for renewables but nuclear too, as we will still need big power stations to meet demand.

However, this alone isn’t going to be enough to hit the targets, so what the Government is encouraging is decarbonised transport, through electric and hybrid vehicles, and also decarbonising heat and moving people away from gas-fired central heating to ground and air source heat pumps.

This all means we need more electricity. Government estimates show consumption growing from between 40-60% by 2050 – a huge increase in usage nationally and it all needs to be cleanly produced.


What needs to be done to make sure the network can cope with this increased demand?

In the past, the response would have been to build a bigger network by ‘putting more cable in the ground’. That’s disruptive and expensive work and also involves a lot of embodied carbon, from manufacturing the cables to digging up the road. Instead the answer is innovation and developing what’s become known as a Smart Grid, which is a range of technologies that will enable us to match supply with demand in a more optimised, efficient way.

Electricity North West – and the region in general - are considered industry leaders when it comes to the innovation that’s needed to make this a reality. Much of this work is done in partnerships with AGMA, and links in to the Low Carbon Network Fund, which funds trials in this new technology.


Is there a good example of this innovation?

Take C2C, or Capacity to Customers; across the UK we operate very strict standards covering how big the network has to be. So at any one time our network can only be 50% loaded. The reason for this is that if we get a fault on one part of the network, we can pick up the load on the unused part very quickly, which is a key reason why we have one of the most reliable networks in the world.

We started to look at ways in which we could use this spare capacity but still ‘take it back’ if we did have a fault.

Take a large supermarket, for example, that wants to put electric vehicle charging points at every space in their car park. That would be a huge additional load and involve a massive reinforcement of the network with bigger cables and transformers that would need to be met by the supermarket.

Instead, what we are doing is connecting them to the network with no reinforcement on the agreement that if there is a fault, we can take that capacity back by switching off those charging points, usually for just a couple of hours - that’s a very attractive and cheaper option for the supermarket.


You’re also faced with a lot of new generation being connected to the network, particularly renewables. How are you dealing with that?

We can do the same with wind farms, which are usually located in remote areas where we would need to reinforce the network in order to transport the generated electricity. Instead, we can carry out minimal reinforcement but offer contracts which say that in the unlikely event of a fault, we will cut you off for a while. It makes real commercial sense to the generators.

We’re offering similar deals to our domestic customers too, and if they’ve got some discretionary load – through PV panels and the like - with no notice we can switch off that load but we will pay them every year to be on that type of contract.

The benefit to us is that as load grows across the North West, we don’t have to put bigger cables in the ground – and that’s good news for customers because if we have to spend money on building bigger networks, bills go up.


Is it true you’ve developed a sensor that can sniff out electrical faults before they actually happen?

The very worst faults we can get are in low voltage cables that run down the street. If one gets damaged, moisture eventually gets in and that blows a fuse in the sub station. However, the act of the fault often dries the cable out, so our engineers can’t find it. This can happen six or seven times before the fault becomes permanent, and you can imagine what that’s like for customers.

Now we’ve put in some really sophisticated technology – when the fuse blows once, we fit this kit which is like a sonar. It sends signals down the cable all the time. The nature of these faults is that they don’t just blow, they send out little discharges before they finally go. This sonar picks them up, building a picture of where the fault might be.

When the monitor thinks the cable is going to go, it will tell us where to we need to drill a hole to access it. The fault itself releases certain gases, so we then introduce the Sniffer, which is a fantastic piece of equipment that is going to transform how we manage low voltage faults. By reacting to the gases it can pinpoint exactly where the fault is going to occur so we can dig down and joint it out before it even happens.


How is this type of technology developed?

We get innovation funding from our regulator, the Gas and Electricity Markets Authority, and work as the development partner with a company called Kelvatek. Because of this everything we develop is rolled out across the industry, which is great for the UK as a whole. Instead of the IPR (Intellectual Property Right), what we do get is a discount on everything, which benefits the region as it keeps bills down.


What other ways are you helping the region to cut its emissions?

The business has also done a lot to actively manage the voltage across the low voltage network. Through voltage optimisation we can make our customers’ appliances as much as 5% more efficient.

We are also helping wind farm developers who can now access a map on our website that is overlaid to show where our spare capacity is on the network and where this coincides with windy areas. The map also shows the record of local authorities in that area for granting planning permission.


And the future?

There’s a huge amount going on which is of real significant to cutting carbon emissions, and the North West is up there with the best. I think Community Renewable schemes are going to become huge and we’re already meeting with groups in Cumbria.

It’s a very exciting time – it’s all about keeping customers’ cost down while we’re dealing with the big increase in electricity consumption and generation that’s needed to meet our low carbon agenda.


Visit the Electricity North West website to find out more.