Energy networks deliver us the energy we need for our everyday activities. This energy must be affordable, reliable and crucially, sustainable. Practically, this means that energy systems must provide us with affordable energy which is flexible enough that we can power any of the appliances we want when we want, and their operation must be reliable. Since the inception of national electricity networks, the vast majority of the energy delivered has come from fossil fuel generators and energy networks have operated under a 'demand-led' paradigm. This is because, in general, energy provided by fossil fuels has been cheap, easily dispatched and there are significant economies of scale during generation. So, for example, when we turn on an appliance, (typically) a gas-generator somewhere in the electrical network uses incrementally more fuel to provide the electricity we need for the appliance. However, as the need to decarbonise energy systems becomes evermore urgent, we are adding more and more low-carbon generators into the energy system. These low-carbon generators, especially wind, solar and nuclear, do not have the flexibility of fossil fuel generators and can introduce supply side fluctuations. Hence the electricity network must have sufficient flexibility to manage these fluctuations as well as the demand-side fluctuations introduced by the human end-users.
Furthermore, the electricity system is undergoing profound changes at the present time. This includes the introduction of several new energy technologies which change the way in which the system operates, like PV panels and batteries. For these modular technologies, economy of scale is much less important and they can be implemented by end-users in the system, moving generation from centralised large-scale powerplants to the ends of the network at the low-voltage level. There is also a movement towards widespread electrification of heat and transport, as we switch to EVs and low carbon heating systems like heat pumps. As a result, the demands on the future electricity network may be much more severe than those placed on the current system. Accurate models of the electricity system are therefore needed to understand the best policies which can be put in place to future-proof the system and make sure that the investments made into the system are used in the most cost-effective way.
Pathways for heat decarbonisation
Our current research in the ESES lab concentrates on the pathways for heat decarbonisation and modelling this within the context of the whole UK electricity system. In the UK, it is likely that low carbon electricity for heating (via heat pumps or electric heating) will come from a massive increase in wind capacity. This will necessitate increased levels of storage, since heat must be provided with high reliability for the prolonged cold and still snaps that arise in winter, often bringing snowfall to the UK. Our work is therefore investigating what the required levels of storage will be and how this changes under different scenarios - for example scenarios in which the thermal performance of the UK building stock is significantly improved or business-as-usual.