Greater electricity grid access – evolution rather than revolution

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The Ulster Farmers’ Union is continuing to lobby on the future of energy policy in Northern Ireland and progress has been frustratingly slow.

Without a functioning executive and ministers in place, progress is unlikely to pick up anytime soon. In the meantime, we continue to work on matters that are achievable.

Such an area is greater access to the electricity grid (distribution network) in Northern Ireland. NIE Networks recently completed a full consultation (including a Call for Evidence [CfE] and a stakeholder workshop) on this topic and we submitted our response on 20 May.

NIE Networks have recognised that the demands on the electricity network are changing. Renewable generation and its use continue to develop; electric vehicle and electric pump use is accelerating, energy storage is rapidly improving and crucially as far as our members are concerned, and more consumers now have the ability to produce their own electricity, in other words they are “prosumers”.

The word prosumer accurately defines many UFU members who have wind turbines and solar PV installations on their farms, and who make use of the energy generated.

The electricity grid was designed originally to facilitate the flow of electrical energy towards the customer, and this was the traditional function of a distributed network operator (DNO) which is NIE Networks in its current form. In the consultation, NIE Networks have recognised that they need to evolve into a more active role in network control and management. They have recognised that they need to evolve from a DNO to a DSO (distribution system operator). A DSO securely operates and develops an active electricity distribution system comprising of network, demand, generation and other flexible distributed energy resources (DERs), and crucially enables customers to be both producers and consumers.

The consultation set out the transition process for NIE Networks. Grid congestion would be managed through energy storage, demand side response and peer-to-peer energy trading. NIE Networks are adopting a “least regrets” approach to the evolution from DNO to DSO, which means that they can “evolve their current systems and processes as opposed to investing in wholesale changes”. In other words, this approach will defer traditional reinforcement and does not do away with it altogether.

Whilst the UFU acknowledge that NIE Networks have recognised that smart solutions can be introduced in the management of the grid, longer term, a radical new direction is needed in terms of the grid infrastructure development.

The Faraday Grid (grid system architecture that delivers power from anywhere to anyone across the grid) may provide such a revolutionary option through their exchanger technology hardware. It is a drop-in ‘plug and play’ device located at any network connection point that dynamically balances and smooths two-way power flow from highly volatile inputs across the energy system.

The Faraday Exchanger is complementary to both existing distribution networks and other technologies, improving performance and efficiency whilst being significantly cheaper than the sum of the technologies it replaces. Crucially, it has been proven to allow higher proportions of renewables onto the grid, with no costly infrastructural changes and no detriment to the stability of the network.

Much secrecy has shrouded the Faraday Grid, but their CEO has likened the technology to an internet router that adjusts power flows instead of data traffic. The exchangers are intended to work together to cut grid losses by up to 15% and will be sold to electricity network operators as a replacement for traditional transformers.

UK Power Networks have embarked upon an independent trial of the system and are due to report back on their findings. Although it is also worth pointing out that the University of Strathclyde have conducted positive tests on the system. Whilst the UFU are not endorsing this specific technology, we do know that the current grid infrastructure is out of date, and solutions such as that offered by Faraday could deliver alternative and longer-term grid access.

NIE Networks must be praised for their ambitious evolutionary path. However, as we set out in our response to the Call for Evidence, there is a need for a more radical approach in the long term. Judging by innovative companies such as Faraday Grid, there may be a more revolutionary solution available which does not involve wholesale regulatory changes to the way the grid is designed.