20 November 2020 Energy Management, Net Zero

Government’s net-zero plan: smart demand management deserves more than zero mention

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Boris Johnson’s 10-point plan for reaching net zero carbon is ambitious, momentous and highly welcome. But the lack of reference to the critical role that grid flexibility will play in getting there is surprising.

By Guy Bartlett, Managing Director of SMS (Energy Services) 

The Prime Minister’s new ten-point plan to kickstart Britain’s ‘green energy revolution’ has been roundly and rightly welcomed by energy and sustainability professionals across the country, including those of us at SMS who have been eagerly awaiting the Government’s blueprint for net zero.

Whilst Boris Johnson’s announcement stops short of providing a decarbonisation roadmap, what the plan does offer is much needed clarity on the Government’s key net-zero pillars and how it intends to achieve the 2050 target. The commitments laid out are unprecedented in ambition and scale and will give companies operating within the UK’s green economy, like ourselves, the direction and stimulus required to align with a central strategy and fully support the country’s low carbon journey.

Smart energy infrastructure key for decarbonisation

Though welcome and inspiring as the plan is, there are some key discussion points, particularly those themes that could be considered conspicuous by absence. As a business immersed in laying Britain’s smart energy infrastructure, not just through the rollout of smart meters (an essential enabling technology) but through the funding, installation and operation of low-carbon assets such as electric vehicle chargers and batteries, the lack of a specific reference to demand management – an absolute prerequisite for decarbonisation – is somewhat surprising.

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SMS is delivering a combination of zero-carbon asset funding, installation, operation, and grid flexibility services across the UK grid, including the ReFLEX Orkney project.

With the announcement, and indeed much of the media narrative, rightly giving focus to the ambitious declarations on renewable energy, electric vehicles, and the rollout of heat pumps in all new homes, the role that flexible demand management must play in facilitating these green technologies deserves more than zero mention. As is widely recognised, the electrification of heat and vehicles alone will place enormous strain on our current energy system. So being able to deploy greater zero-carbon generation alongside an increased ability to distribute it efficiently, whilst at the same time creating flexibility for new technologies to manage demand with, is crucial to the success of the net-zero programme.

Fast-tracked EV policy an enabler for change

At SMS, we of course give our unwavering support to the greater penetration of renewables, but this will need to be undertaken in tandem with the transition to a smart energy system and the deployment of supporting infrastructure in order for businesses and consumers to take full advantage. The acceleration of the approach to remove petrol and diesel new car sales by 2030 is equally a real enabler for change, providing a significant catalyst for smart energy infrastructure specialists, charge point manufacturers, and local authorities to come together on projects to rapidly ramp up the rollout of smart EV chargers required to facilitate uptake of EVs and their integration onto the grid.

But similarly, we will again need to be mindful of the additional capacity requirements in electricity and develop smart ways of generating and managing peak demand in a way that enables greater penetration of renewable generation in the market. We’ll also need to address issues of intermittency through storage and flexible demand management.

Finance and innovation will unlock net-zero goals

It is interesting, therefore, that there seems little recognition of this in the ten-point plan, including any indication of support for the development of battery storage infrastructure that will be pivotal to realising the flexible demand required. One would hope that the Government offers up more detail on exactly how it intends to achieve this in the much delayed, but soon expected, Energy White Paper.

All that said, what is particularly encouraging about the plan is the very direct nod given to the essential role of innovation and finance, which gives clear license to energy sector players like ourselves who have the funding capability to deliver grid flexibility and smart energy system solutions for the UK market. In order to further facilitate these funding opportunities that the private sector can offer to accelerate the deployment of net-zero technologies, going forward it would be encouraging to see devolved administrations – as well as central Government – encourage greater public and private collaboration.

Collaboration, after all, is key to the success of Britain’s decarbonisation plan. With Government and industry pulling in the same direction, those key finance mechanisms will be central to delivering innovative carbon reduction asset programmes, ultimately unlocking the transformation to a smart energy system that will see us reach our net-zero goals.

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