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NIE Networks: Taking a flexible approach to power

NIE Networks is looking ahead to the future of energy, and as part of that is now launching its new FLEX project, offering financial rewards to customers in return for helping NIE Networks operate the network in a more flexible way. Jonathan Pollock, network development manager, outlines what consumers can do to get involved

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An electric car charging

An electric car charging

An electric car charging

NIE Networks is looking towards a smarter and more flexible way of operating the network here in Northern Ireland.

And its most recent innovation project, called FLEX – launching in February – will see it working directly with customers to be flexible with their electricity consumption or generation as and when the network requires it, in a bid to maintain security of supply and defer the need for some infrastructure schemes.

The man heading up the team behind the project is Jonathan Pollock, network development manager, who has been with NIE Networks for the last six years.

“I recently took on the role as network development manager – effectively that means I’m responsible for looking after the investment needed to accommodate growing demand on the distribution network,” he said.

“That includes areas such as normal load related growth and more recently, areas such as low carbon technologies – from heat pumps to electric car chargers and rooftop solar generation.

“My role also encompasses the future networks department which looks at trialling innovative solutions for the electricity network and meeting the renewables targets of the future.

“Latest figures show that 47% of the total annual electricity consumption in Northern Ireland is being generated from local renewable sources. NIE Networks, has played a critical role thus far by providing the network connections for the renewable sources and investing almost £400m in the network to facilitate the generation. But we are now looking towards the future and the electricity network is going to be a key facilitator for the green energy transition.”

NIE Networks is responsible for transporting electricity to almost 900,000 customers in Northern Ireland – throughout homes, businesses and farms. It invests around £100m annually in maintaining and upgrading the electricity transmission and distribution network.

The company is also developing its own strategy on the role of the electricity network in Northern Ireland’s energy transition. The strategy will be a key influencer to the Department for the Economy’s ‘Northern Ireland Strategic Energy Framework to 2030’, which will define the government’s approach to the energy sector here over the next decade and working towards a 2050 net zero economy.

With governmental aspirations for achieving a minimum of 70% renewable energy here in the next 10 years, Jonathan says NIE Networks will play a crucial role if the target is to be met.

“The network, which was designed to facilitate the flow of electrical energy towards the customer, is now experiencing significant energy flows in the opposite direction. Our role needs to evolve and move from being a static distributor to becoming a distribution system operator.

“Central to that evolution are innovation projects such as FLEX which, if successful, will help to defer some of the infrastructure required to deliver future energy targets – instead of continuing to build out the network, in some cases we can do something smarter by working with our customers.” 

The new demand-side response project FLEX will evaluate the effectiveness of ‘non-wires’ solutions to congestion on the electricity network. Instead of installing bigger transformers, or putting more copper in the ground, NIE Networks will trial contracting with customers to adjust their electricity consumption or generation during periods in which the network is under pressure.

That means working with customers within the distribution and low voltage network, including businesses and domestic customers and offering financial rewards to decrease or increase power to help manage the network of the future.

“We are being technology agnostic and removing as many barriers to participating in the project as possible. As long as a customer meets our specification the project applies right down to domestic level technologies such as electric vehicle chargers and heat pumps.”

NIE Networks has spent the last year designing and developing the project and is now rolling out the scheme for initial interest before a tender process. This month will see the company publish the 17 areas, covering approximately 15% of NIE Networks’ customer base, where flexibility could help to provide a solution in the future.

“One key element is that it helps democratise the sector for customers. It allows customers who consume power only, as well as ‘prosumers’ – those who both produce and consume power – to play their part in our energy system and to be financially rewarded for doing so. NIE Networks will be making up to £500,000 available for customers participating in this initial FLEX trial,” Jonathan says.

“If successful FLEX will be more widely deployed as a business as usual solution. It’s what’s required for the future of the network and the future of energy overall.

“To deliver infrastructure, such as building overhead lines, can take time – FLEX is a potential solution which can be delivered relatively quickly and allows us to respond efficiently and manage loads on the network until infrastructure is delivered if required.

“We are now asking those interested to ‘express an interest’ in FLEX, whether that is directly or through an aggregator. We want the involvement of customers at all levels of flexible technologies such as electric vehicle charge points, heat pumps and industrial and commercial customers.”

Customers can find out if they are located within one of the designated areas and how to submit an expression of interest via the NIE Networks website.

NIE Networks will also be hosting a FLEX information event in February, where customers can find out more about the project. The expression of interest window will then open to customers for six weeks, with the first services expected be up-and-running in October.

For more information on FLEX or to register for the launch event visit www.nienetworks.co.uk/flexibility

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