Monthly Archives: March 2020

How far does the Ofgem Decarbonisation Action Plan support the transition to a net zero UK?

Dr Sara Walker and Professor Janusz Bialek comment on the recently published Ofgem Decarbonisation Action Plan.

About the authors

Dr Sara Walker is Associate Director of the EPSRC National Centre for Energy Systems Integration, Director of the Newcastle University Centre for Energy and Reader of Energy in the University’s School of Engineering. Her research is on energy efficiency and renewable energy at building scale.

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Professor Janusz Bialek FIEEE is Professor of Power Energy Systems in the School of Engineering, Newcastle University. Janusz’s background is in power systems but he has closely collaborated with economists, mathematicians and social scientists. He has published widely on technical and economic integration of renewable generation in power systems, smart grids, power system dynamics, preventing electricity blackouts and power markets.

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While most our worries relate now to the COVID-19 pandemic, we should not forget about the biggest long-term threat to the human race – the climate emergency. In this blog we comment on a recently published “Ofgem decarbonisation action plan” which is a welcome opportunity to see the thoughts of the regulator on the unprecedented need for rapid transitions in our energy systems.

The plan provides some context to the 2050 net zero target with a graph (Fig. 1), showing a 40% reduction in GHG emissions over the period 1990 to 2017. However, the linear reduction proposed from 2017 to 2050 is perhaps misleading the sector in thinking the 27 year 40% reduction to 2017 is similar to the rate of change we now need moving forward. This is not the case, we need an exponential decrease in emissions if we are to come close to the targets set by the Conference of the Parties in Paris. Also it should be appreciated that the closer we get to the net-zero target, the more difficult and costly it will be to reduce the emissions any further. The reason is that once the cheapest means have been exhausted (so-called low-hanging fruits), more expensive ones will have to be used.

Source: Ofgem (2020) Ofgem decarbonisation action plan. London, Ofgem.

Much of the discussion in the Ofgem plan talks about the need for better interconnection across the energy vectors, and across uses/users. In discussing the power sector, the report refers to key scenarios in the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) report and therefore Ofgem assume Carbon Capture and Storage is needed in order for gas generation to continue. This is an area of contention for the CCC report, since Carbon Capture and Storage technology is currently not commercially available. Alongside gas is nuclear generation, and the Ofgem report assumes nuclear and gas will generate 50% of the UK’s electricity needs. The competitiveness of new nuclear is uncertain, with new offshore wind prices under the Contracts for Difference Scheme being cost competitive with the fixed price of electricity to be generated by the new Hinkley power plant (although one has to acknowledge that nuclear power provides a better security of supply than relatively highly variable and less predictable wind power).

Greater strategic co-ordination and increased investment in generation, network infrastructure, stoppage and other flexibility services are all raised as important in the plan. However, what has not been made clear is a need for a substantial network investment in view of electrification of transport and heat. The report concentrates on the need for proper price controls for network companies but does not address the question by how much the current power network has to be expanded and how to do it in the face of fierce public opposition to construction of new lines.

To understand the problem, check the diagram below which shows seasonal variations in the demand for electricity (blue), non-daily-metered gas demand (red) and total gas demand (amber). Clearly gas demand (which largely corresponds to the heat demand) dwarfs the electricity demand both on average and in terms of seasonal variations. The Ofgem plan recommends that decarbonisation of heat be through a combination of heat pumps, hydrogen and heat networks, but that heat pumps will likely contribute the majority of the heat demand.

Source: Deakin et al (2020) Calculations of System Adequacy Considering Heat Transition Pathways (arXiv:2002.11570v1)

With regards transport, the Ofgem plan talks about the current >30 million cars in the UK in 2019, and the expected 46m electric vehicles by 2050. “Increased uptake of electric vehicles creates a rare opportunity for a win-win-win for society”. 46m electric cars in the UK by 2050 will mean significant increases in congestion, and significant increase in electricity demand, along side some (albeit reduced) emissions. We would welcome a greater emphasis on public transport, rail and the heavy and light goods vehicle sectors.
Hence electrification of heat (either directly or by heat pumps) and transport would require not only a substantial new generation capacity but also a significant strengthening of both the transmission and distribution networks. But how to do it when any attempts in the past to build a new, or even strengthen an existing, transmission line (see the case of Beauly-Denny line) led to years of arguing and public enquiries? We simply do not have time for that. This is a big elephant in the room.

Flexibility is key to minimise the overall system costs (again check the diagram above to appreciate large fluctuations in energy demand) but the needs are currently highly uncertain given the assumptions around generation from wind, solar and nuclear (all of which are relatively inflexible), along with a potential reduction in load flexibility if significant energy efficiency measures are achieved in future.

Currently the Electricity System Operator (ESO) monitors only transmission connected wind and solar generation and has no direct means of monitoring the distribution-connected generation (DG). This makes it difficult for the ESO to balance the system, and DG was already one of the contributing factors to the GB outage on 9 August 2019. The situation is becoming increasingly difficult to manage, as DG was already 1/3 of installed generation capacity in 2018 and is bound to increase more. In other countries, like e.g. Ireland, the System Operator has visibility of all plants bigger than 5 MW and we see no reasons why GB should be any different.

The Ofgem plan states that regulator has a responsibility to consider the distribution of costs for system changes, particularly for vulnerable customers. Early adopters of technology such as EVs and smart controls are better placed to benefit from energy transitions (since early adopters are usually more wealthy), and those left behind are often in the lowest socio-economic groups. If the costs and benefits of energy transitions fall on different groups, in different locations, at different points in time, then the regulator will need to consider trade-offs in light of its core priorities of protecting the environment, supporting customers, and delivering competition. Perhaps these core priorities need to be weighted, or revised, in light of the Climate Emergency.

What will the UK’s future energy research and innovation infrastructure look like?

Dr Zoya Pourmirza and Dr Hamid Hosseini talk about their recent work as part of a team of energy experts from Newcastle University helping UK Research & Innovation with an analysis of the UK’s existing research landscape and future infrastructure requirements.

About the authors

Dr Zoya Pourmirza is a Research Associate in Newcastle University’s School of Engineering. She is involved in a number of research and teaching projects. Her principle research interests are in smart energy systems and information and communication technology (ICT) with particular emphasis on making the ICT infrastructure energy aware and cyber secure.

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Dr Hamid Hosseini is a Research Associate in Newcastle University’s School of engineering. His principle research interest is in the simulation and analysis of energy system. In his work for the EPSRC National Centre for Energy Systems Integration (CESI), Hamid has been investigating the planning, optimisation and operation analysis of integrated energy networks.

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UK Research & Innovation (UKRI) has recently published two reports giving an analysis of the UK’s existing research landscape and identifying its future infrastructure requirements. These reports make recommendations across six broad research sectors key to ensuring the UK remains a global leader. These six research sectors are Biological Sciences, Health and Food; Physical Sciences and Engineering; Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities; Environmental Sciences; Computational and e-infrastructure and Energy.

As members of a multi-disciplinary team of EPSRC National Centre for Energy Systems Integration (CESI) academics and researchers from Newcastle University, we were commissioned by UKRI to consult with the energy community. The team, led by CESI’s Director, Professor Phil Taylor, worked with UKRI to draft reports detailing our findings and recommendations. In carrying out this work, we made a substantial contribution to the preparation of the energy sections of the UKRI Research Landscape and Research Infrastructure reports.

Consultation exercise

The consultation exercise had three main aims: to inform future research and innovation infrastructure priorities, to provide the groundwork to ensure the UK remains a global leader in research and innovation and to set out the essential infrastructure needed to reach this long-term vision.

The team consulted extensively with leading UK energy industry and academics with expertise across a wide range of sectors, including nuclear, renewables, hydrogen, conventional technologies and whole energy systems. The consultation process was also extensive, including two questionnaires, four facilitated workshops at different locations across the UK and over one hundred 1-1 interviews with experts.

Initial analysis and findings

Based on the feedback received in the first stage of the consultation process, we drafted an interim report to UKRI giving an initial analysis of the UK Energy research infrastructure and a description of the existing energy research landscape. This interim report was included as a chapter in the UKRI Infrastructure Roadmap report alongside chapters for each of other five key research sectors.

An important finding of our initial consultation exercise was that opportunities to grow future energy research and innovation infrastructure could be classified in seven key themes. These informed further rounds of consultation, and are listed in the UKRI initial analysis report as follows:

  • Whole energy systems, including energy demand and power distribution networks
  • Fuel cells and hydrogen
  • Energy storage
  • Renewable energy sources
  • Alternative fuels
  • Nuclear energy – fission and fusion
  • Carbon capture and storage
Energy sector themes overview [Graphic: UKRI]

Final reports

Following this second consultation exercise, we incorporated our findings into two detailed reports for UKRI on the existing energy research and innovation landscape and on the sector’s future infrastructure requirements. These formed the basis of the Energy sections in the two recently published UKRI reports:

These reports referenced key energy research undertaken across the UK, including research involving multi-disciplinary teams from Newcastle University such as CESI and the Active Building Centre (ABC).

Key findings and recommendations

As a result of the consultation exercise, we helped to develop a snapshot view of existing infrastructure of regional, national and international importance. We identified thirty-three dedicated energy infrastructures and help to write case studies of existing key energy research infrastructure which were published in the Landscape Analysis report.

In the report identifying opportunities to grow our capacity, our findings contributed to recommendations for how the energy themes can be progressed and identifying case studies for each. The published case studies include one of CESI’s research demonstrators, The Integrated Transport Electricity Gas Research Laboratory (InTEGReL), as infrastructure offering a whole-systems approach to the UK’s energy use. Newcastle University is working in partnership with Northern Gas Networks and Northern Powergrid to develop the site. Its aim will be to allow academia, industry and government to explore and test new technologies in the electricity, gas and transport sectors in one place, delivering a more secure, affordable, low-carbon energy system.

The Integrated Transport Electricity Gas Research Laboratory (InTEGReL) [Graphic:Northern Gas Networks]

Of particular relevance to CESI are the recommendations for the whole energy systems theme. These include a new interdisciplinary centre for excellence in energy analysis integration and a decarbonisation of heat demonstrator, both of which will make an important contribution to investigations into how we might achieve a net-zero energy future.

UKRI Research and Innovation Infrastructure: Energy
Project team

Professor Phil Taylor
Dr Damian Giaouris
Dr Sara Walker
Dr Zoya Pourmirza
Dr Hamid Hosseini
Laura Brown
Alison Norton

Getting it done? The UK 2020 Budget and the support for a net-zero transition in the energy sector.

About the authors:

Dr Sara Walker is Reader in Energy at Newcastle University and Director of Newcastle University Centre for Energy.

Professor David Flynn is Professor of Smart Systems at Heriot Watt University

Both Sara and David are Associate Directors of the EPSRC National Centre for Energy Systems Integration, a £20m collaborative research programme with industry and government investigating the social, ecconomic and technical value in energy systems integration.

March 2020 Budget

On 11th March 2020, the Chancellor Rishi Sunak presented to Parliament the Government budget¹. This was an opportunity for the UK Government to clearly signal its commitment to deliver on the net-zero greenhouse gas emissions target for 2050 and to also lay the groundwork for COP26 as the host nation.

Albeit the language of the previous administration associated with “industrial strategy” was dropped, the Government retained a reference to the Grand Challenges, indicating that there is likely to be continued investment into energy innovation and climate change mitigation. A key indication of this is the commitment to at least double investment in the Energy Innovation Programme.


The first mention of issues related to energy in the Chancellor’s speech came with an announcement to continue the freeze on fuel duty. For comment on this, and other transport initiatives in the Budget, we refer you to DecarboN8’s review². In a separate announcement, Business Secretary Alok Sharma previously confirmed a £36.7 million investment to design, test and manufacture electric machines. £30 million will be used to create a national network cutting-edge centers led from Newcastle University – based in Newport, Nottingham, Strathclyde, and Sunderland – to research and develop green electric machines including planes, ships, and cars. This represents the “demonstrator” element of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund Driving the Electric Revolution Challenge.

And then …

The second mention of energy came in an announcement, as part of the Research and Development (R&D) spend, of £900m funding for nuclear fusion, space, and electric vehicles. As employees of research organizations, we welcome the announcement of £22bn per year by 2024-25, in research and development. However, the role of new nuclear in the Committee on Climate Change Net Zero technical report³ is relatively minor.
On housing, the Budget refers to £12.2bn for the Affordable Homes Programme over 5 years, a push for 300,000 new homes per year, and reforms to planning to accelerate development. No commitment is made to the standard of new homesª, or retrofit of existing homes, which is inconsistent with the Committee on Climate Change Net Zero report, which found that high levels of energy efficiency are needed to get close to the zero targets.

What does this mean for energy sector? 

There is a clear need to improve the quality of UK homes, in a way that reduces energy use and moves us towards heating systems that use lower-carbon fuels. We need to make urgent changes in this area, from research to improve the performance of individual technology like heat pumps, to understanding possible future housing performance and the energy needs associated with that. The EPSRC National Centre for Energy Systems Integration (CESI) is looking at these types of research challenges.

The meat of the Budget from an energy perspective is in the Budget report section on “Growing a greener economy”. There is an announcement to double the size of the Energy Innovation Programme as mentioned previously, although some of this money is for R&D and therefore likely to be included in the figures above. A further £800m was announced by the Chancellor for the development of two Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) sites through the creation of a CCS Infrastructure Fund. CCS support was removed by previous administrations but is integral to many scenarios within the Committee on Climate Change Net Zero report.

No figures are mentioned, but the Budget report includes a new support scheme for biomethane funded by a Green Gas Levy, and a Low Carbon Heat Support Scheme to enable the installation of biomass boilers and heat pumps. £270m is promised to enable new and existing heat networks to adopt low carbon heat sources, to follow on from funding of £97m for the final year of the Heat Networks Investment Project (HNIP). There is a rise in the Climate Change Levy on gas (for 2022-23 and 2023-24). The Renewable Heat Incentive is extended to 31st March 2022. Furthermore, £10m in 2020-21 is to support the design and delivery of net zero policies and programs. Heat networks are an area of research for the EPSRC National Centre for Energy Systems Integration (CESI), and we also expect to investigate more scenarios with hydrogen and CCS now that the goal for the UK has changed from 80% to a net-zero target.

And Finally

Given the critical interdependencies of our energy infrastructure to other vital services e.g. water, transport, services from public buildings, we also see opportunities to accelerate and distribute the efforts in decarbonisation by utilising the opportunities of the Making the most of Government knowledge assets initiative. The public sector holds around £150 billion of knowledge assets (intellectual property, tech, data, etc.), which is vital in shaping the operation and planning of decarbonised services. However, the absence of any Budget support for solar, wind, and storage – elements seen as vital with renewable generation four times current levels in some Committee on Climate Change scenarios – is of great concern. As is the lack of investment to decarbonise the building stock.

Getting it done isn’t the same as getting it right. And for the UK energy sector, there is very little in the budget which gives confidence that we are doing enough, let alone doing it well.


  2. with for example: £403m for the Plug-In Car Grant; £129.5m to extend the scheme to vans, taxis and motorcycles; Vehicle Excise Duty exemption; £500m over 5 years to roll out rapid charging; removing red diesel tax relief; £304m for NOx reduction; freeze of fuel duty; £20m midlands rail hub; £5bn for new buses and cycling; £500m pothole fund; all dwarfed by the £27bn between 2020 and 2025 for road investment. Aviation is also mentioned with regards regional connectivity.

ª “2.95 Future Homes Standard – The government is committed to reducing emissions from homes and to helping keep household energy costs low now and in the future. In due course, the government will announce plans to improve the standards of new built homes.”

UPDATED: What does the power outage on 9 August 2019 tell us about GB power system?

About the author:

Professor Janusz Bialek is Professor of Power and Energy Systems at Newcastle University, UK.

9th of August Power Outage on GB system

UPDATED to include reference to the authors, Energy Policy Research Group working paper with Cambridge University¹ 

The power outage on 9th August 2019 that affected over 1 million customers in England and Wales and caused a major disruption to other critical infrastructures was a major news item and sparked wide-spread discussions about who is to blame. Power outages are like stress tests exposing strengths and weaknesses of the power system as the whole and its constituent elements and other critical infrastructures connected to it so our main aim is to consider the title question: what does the power outage tell us about the state of GB power system?

A uniformly accepted (N-1) reliability criterion stipules that there should be enough fast power reserves to respond to a loss of one power station, as the probability of two power stations simultaneously failing is very low. On 19 August a lightning strike caused two power stations to trip, so it was (N-2) event. Consequently, frequency dropped below the statutory limits to 48.8 Hz which triggered under-frequency load shedding. Frequency was then returned to 50 Hz in about 5 mins and power supplies were restored within 40 mins. The main adverse effect of the blackout was a severe disruption to rail service around London due to an unexpected failure of trains when frequency dropped below 49 Hz. Hence, everything seemed fine as the power system itself responded exactly how it was designed to. Should we then be happy about the state of the GB power system? The answer is: not really. The blackout has uncovered important fault lines which may significantly affect reliability of the system in a near future.

August 2019 blackout frequency drop

Changing landscape 

Over the last 10 years or so the GB power system has changed quite rapidly and significantly with renewables, often embedded in the distribution level, replacing traditional gas/coal generation and increasing deployment of energy storage, active demand and smart grids technologies. To put in simple terms, it means that a lot of new gear and controls were added to the system in a very short time. Hence it is increasingly difficult for the Electricity System Operator (ESO) to fully monitor, model and control the whole system. As a consequence, the probability of hidden common modes of failures, affecting one than more unit, has increased – as exemplified by the 9 August outage. This would suggest that it might be prudent to strengthen the old (N-1) security standard by providing extra security margin.

There were also other issues highlighted by the outage. Embedded generation reached such a high penetration level that it cannot be treated any longer as negative demand. Its importance for real-time power balancing and in a response to disturbances requires a new approach. Traditional under-frequency load shedding disconnects indiscriminately all customers on the disconnected feeders, including embedded generation and frequency response units which are essential for the system to survive. With rapid advances in telecommunication, it should be possible to assess in real time the actual loading on individual feeders so that load shedding has the maximum possible effect and perhaps also implement load shedding at 11 kV level, rather than 33 kV, hence allowing more selective operation.

Lessons learned

As power systems are more likely to be affected by large disturbances due to the reasons outlined above, the ability of critical infrastructures and services to ride through the disturbances has to be closely monitored and tested. Not only back-up supplies have to be regularly checked but also compliance with the regulations must be enforced to make sure that the infrastructures can survive large frequency deviations.

Finally a question arises why some GB outages that affected hundreds of thousands of people over the last two decades attracted a public attention and media coverage and others did not. Our conclusion is that short-duration outages matter only if they affect critical infrastructures, especially transport, in London and the surrounding areas. What really matters to the public is not the number of people affected by a power outage but how the disturbance affects their life. Hence if a disturbance is of a relatively short-duration and does not disrupt significantly critical infrastructures, it does not attract much attention. Also outages affecting metropolitan areas such as London are more likely to attract the attention of media than those happening elsewhere.