28 November 2022

Matt Hindle, Head of Net Zero & Sustainability at Wales & West Utilities

Matt explains how digital energy simulation can help us overcome the challenges facing decentralised local energy planning.

The shift to renewable energy sources needed to meet the ambitious decarbonisation targets set out in the Paris Agreement has changed the way we produce, distribute and store energy. For the UK’s traditionally centralised energy infrastructure, this requires radical change to meet citizens’ growing energy needs without threatening the environment. Decentralised solutions are now being developed to produce energy closer to where it is consumed.

But as the UK continues to move from a centralised to a more fragmented energy landscape, local and regional authorities need more sophisticated tools to accommodate the green energy transition in a way that satisfies local requirements, whilst also working in the context of wider decarbonisation plans. Here Matthew Hindle*, Head of Net Zero and Sustainability at Wales & West Utilities, explains the challenges ahead and how digital energy simulation can help us overcome them.


The benefits of decentralised energy

Localised grids and on-site generation solutions powered by renewables, waste, hydrogen or biomethane can lower carbon emissions, reduce transmission losses, and secure a steady energy supply to consumers. This creates a more resilient and sustainable infrastructure.

With so many technologies available, local authorities can take a more active role in determining how energy is produced and distributed in their region. This allows consumers to enjoy more choice and benefit from a closer connection to their local infrastructure. Decentralisation also means that larger energy users are now able to sell excess power back to the grid, securing new revenue for their businesses while supporting the transition to a more dynamic, sustainable and interconnected energy market.

Whilst electricity has traditionally been the focus when it comes to decarbonisation and energy planning, it is only one part of the picture. Today, the gas system carries around three times more energy than electricity networks on an annual basis. The gas network serves around 23 million domestic customers across the UK, all of whom will need some form of transition to decarbonised heating in the coming years. Several groundbreaking gas decarbonisation initiatives are now underway and so it’s vital that national policymakers and local authorities have a clear view of whole system options and the impacts of each.

The pace and scale of energy decentralisation is likely to grow. However, this raises the question of what our national energy map will look like as we move towards a net zero power system, and how local and national decision making will interact.


The challenges of decentralised energy

To progress with decarbonisation, we need energy solutions that offer a balanced approach to the three main challenges in the energy sector – reliability, sustainability and affordability. We also need to consider that different regions may be starting from very different positions in terms of emissions levels, clean tech uptake, physical landscape and current and future energy needs.

But perhaps the biggest challenge we face is to combine the data that comes from different regions and projects and analyse it in the context of our national agenda for decarbonisation.

The devil is in the detail when it comes to energy planning, especially when we’re looking at differing consumption behaviours across a vast number of generation and supply assets.

The good news is that there’s lots of data available at a granular level. The real trick is in harnessing that data in a meaningful way, so policy makers and local authorities can confidently forecast a variety of scenarios and understand how localised initiatives can contribute to achieving a green, resilient and efficient national power system. This is where digital simulation can lend a helping hand.


Finding a path forward

To support local authorities in their energy planning endeavours, Wales & West Utilities developed the 2050 Energy Pathfinder. This is an energy simulation model that considers an area’s heat, light and power requirements and assists energy managers and planners in assessing the viability of different energy mixes.

Designed in-house, the 2050 Energy Pathfinder can accurately model future energy supply and demand for a range of realities - from business parks, towns and local authority regions up to entire countries. Using simulated hourly intervals throughout the year, it offers a detailed overview of costs, risks and trade-offs when designing energy systems that work on a local, regional and national scale.

The 2050 Energy Pathfinder integrates heat, transport and power demand with electricity and green gas generation, and considers the role of interconnection and storage vectors. Policy makers and asset managers can have a holistic view of a system’s investment and planning needs and ensure that gas and electricity networks and suppliers work together rather than in isolation.


A practical planning tool

We first realised that we needed an energy simulation model in 2015. Wales & West Utilities took part in an advisory capacity project to evaluate the feasibility of creating a completely renewable Cornwall.

The project required some very specific modelling, and the resulting simulation demonstrated that using 100% local renewable electricity for heating would have required unaffordable investments in large seasonal storage. This triggered the decision to look into alternative and more cost-effective energy system power solutions. After that, we realised that a generic energy simulation tool would be extremely useful, and this led us to develop the 2050 Energy Pathfinder.

Since then, the energy simulator has been used to model several potential energy solutions, including an integrated energy scenario for Swansea, where it demonstrated the potential value of tidal lagoons.

The 2050 Energy Pathfinder has also been fine tuned to respond to the needs of different users, which resulted in the development of both an expert and a user-friendly version – Pathfinder + and Pathfinder Light, respectively.

The resulting simulations are already helping local authorities to model different ways of decarbonising their communities and plan for a greener and more resilient energy future.

Acquiring reliable data is just one step in the process. Digital tools like this are made to support decision making and offer a starting point for action, rather than as a solution in themselves. The next key step will be to ensure that local authorities do not plan in isolation, but collaborate to progress on the national path to net zero.


More information on Pathfinder can be found at The WWU future of energy research hub (wwutilities.co.uk).

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