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NIE Networks: Data and digitalisation helping shape the future of energy

As we all head towards a net zero future, NIE Networks is ensuring it is prepared for increasing energy demands as we transition to a low carbon economy. Andrew Cupples, network development manager, speaks to Ulster Business about that continued journey with a focus on data, smart solutions and digitalisation, to help ensure a strong and stable energy future for all

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Andrew Cupples pictured at Belfast City Council’s Royal Avenue cultural hub

Andrew Cupples pictured at Belfast City Council’s Royal Avenue cultural hub

Andrew Cupples

Andrew Cupples

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Andrew Cupples pictured at Belfast City Council’s Royal Avenue cultural hub

Andrew Cupples and the rest of the network development team are focused on what they want to achieve to ensure Northern Ireland’s electricity network is at the forefront of technology and ready for future burgeoning demands as we transition to net zero.

For NIE Networks, it’s focusing on moving towards low-carbon technology, and dealing with a rise in network demands as we move away from fossil fuels and towards the electrification of our homes, cars and public transport.

Andrew Cupples is now network development manager and has been a stalwart with NIE Networks for just over 12 years, operating across a range of roles – starting out as a graduate in electrical engineering and moving his way up to his current post.

His role includes network planning with a focus on the integration of low carbon technologies and renewable power generation across the network.

“The key focus is to target network investment in a timely and efficient manner,” Andrew tells Ulster Business.

“It’s being able to cope with the increased demands on the network. Particularly, the driver for that at the moment includes the electrification of heat and transport, along with the connection of renewable generation as well.”

NIE Networks is in the process of developing its new business plan to 2030 – influenced not only by Stormont’s new Energy Strategy, but also engagement with experts and customers, to help strengthen and shape the network in the years to come. And a key focus of that is the use of smart solutions, data and digitalisation.

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“This role encompasses our innovation team and also our whole systems team, where we are seeking to collaborate across the entire energy sector,” Andrew says.

“It also includes the network planning function and looking towards low-carbon technologies uptake, where we are focused on forecasting future demands on the network and investing to facilitate those demands connecting onto the network.

“The key is collaboration – both internally across NIE Networks and across different utilities and industry – to ensure there is a joined-up approach on the decarbonisation journey.

“We are working on the innovations that are required to facilitate further renewable generation connections at the lowest cost, while ensuring a continued safe and reliable supply for all customers.

“We are also very mindful that every decision is taken with every customer in mind. As we go through the energy transition and adopt innovations, we must ensure that it’s a fair and just transition and that we don’t leave any customer behind, particularly the most vulnerable.”

NIE Networks is implementing six innovation projects which will help to create additional capacity on the distribution network at a lower cost than traditional reinforcement solutions.

One area in which it is focusing on for households and businesses, is the use of smart meters and receiving close to real-time data across its network. “Smart meters can help customers reduce their energy bills, but they also allow us to monitor the network and identify issues or constraints. Where we see an issue, we can then resolve it,” Andrew says.

“Historically our options would have included larger transformers and bigger cables, but now we are exploring smart solutions where we manage the network more actively, along with using flexible solutions from customers.”

That includes customers being able to increase or decrease their demand at the appropriate time to help manage the network, and in some cases receiving a financial incentive for doing so.

“One of the key things in managing the network more accurately is around data and digitalising the network.

“That’s where we see network monitors, and smart meters for example, being really crucial to helping identify constraints in close to real-time and being able to respond to those in the most efficient way.”

NIE Networks has its own plan and strategy out to 2024, but Andrew says planning is currently well underway for the next stage which reaches to 2030.

“We’ve been closely involved in the development of the Department for the Economy’s new Energy Strategy which is a key driver for our upcoming business plan as well as the growth of the electrification of the energy sector,” he says.

“As we develop the next business plan we will launch a consultation for customers and stakeholders later this year to be able to feed their views into our plan also,” Andrew says.

“We are also keen to collaborate further with academia and other utilities – including water and gas – in terms of developing solutions regarding decarbonisation and where we can take a joined-up approach or learn from each other.

“We will then look at forecasting and modelling to see where on the network the growth is most likely to occur and then how we deal with that in the most cost-effective way.

“Net zero by 2050 is the ultimate goal driving a lot of our agenda and plans, and how the network can then accommodate the likely hundreds of thousands of electric vehicles and heat pumps which will be connecting to it over the next decade.”

NIE Networks is also firmly on its own clear journey to achieving net zero. “Within NIE Networks we are also looking at how we can decarbonise our own fleet and our own buildings,” Andrew says

And he says the 2050 target is achievable, given Northern Ireland’s current rate of renewable generation.

“Northern Ireland was hitting almost 50% in terms of renewable generation over recent years and by 2030 that is likely to be at least 70%.”

But there needs to be continued investment in the grid to facilitate both on-shore and development of new offshore technology, to ensure Northern Ireland meets its net zero targets.

In 2021, NIE Networks launched two significant research reports in relation to reaching a net zero economy.

The first, Networks for Net Zero, sets out options and pathways for decarbonisation in Northern Ireland and how electrification can play a significant role, while the second sets out how the electrification of heating and transport systems would be transformative for both our economy and environment, creating around 5,000 jobs, reducing the spend on imported fossil fuels by £1.4bn a year and playing a significant role in putting Northern Ireland on the pathway to an 82% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

And investment is required at each stage of the way. NIE Networks currently spends around £100m a year in maintaining and upgrading the electricity transmission and distribution network, transporting electricity to over 895,000 customers including homes, businesses and farms.

And through the employment of 1,200 employees and payments to local businesses and authorities, the company contributed over £160m to the Northern Ireland economy in 2021.

“That investment exists to help accommodate growth in load, connections to renewables and the replacement of older assets to maintain a safe and secure network,” Andrew says.

“We expect that to ramp up during the coming years due to the substantial increase in the number of electric vehicles which will be connecting to the network.” And while key investment in traditional infrastructure, such as substations, will continue, Andrew says there remains a renewed focus in the move towards a digitalised energy system.

The pivotal role electricity will play in the decarbonisation of heat and transport as we move towards a net zero economy will place significant pressure on an electricity network infrastructure that was originally designed to manage a different level and type of demand.

The role of NIE Networks is to directly facilitate the energy transition and decarbonisation of energy production, while supporting the electrification of heat and transport.

“We are positive and we believe that electrification will be key in the decarbonisation of every sector and touch point across our society,” Andrew says.

“Further investment will be required to facilitate that, but, we believe as well as having the technological solutions, we also have the key innovation, people and skills within NIE Networks to drive that forward.” 


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