‘It’s great to power a world city like Lon­don’

The chief ex­ec­u­tive of UK Power Net­works tells Jil­lian Am­brose how he is ready­ing the grid for a revo­lu­tion in re­new­able en­ergy

The Sunday Telegraph - Money & Business - - Business - Basil Scarsella

This is why I love com­ing here.” Basil Scarsella looks to­wards the twin­kle of lights emerg­ing as the early win­ter dark­ness draws in. Be­tween the rooftop of Lon­don’s new­est elec­tric­ity sub­sta­tion and the glit­ter of Ca­nary Wharf lie dozens of con­struc­tion sites where thou­sands of homes, busi­nesses and schools will soon emerge as part of Lon­don’s steady march to­wards the east.

Scarsella and his team of engi­neers are tasked with con­nect­ing the former Dock­lands waste­land to the UK Power Net­works’ (UKPN) grid of more than 100,000 miles of wire and ca­bles. The £17m project is part of the largest re­gen­er­a­tion pro­gramme in Europe.

It is also one of Scarsella’s smaller chal­lenges as the chief ex­ec­u­tive of Bri­tain’s largest distri­bu­tion net­work op­er­a­tors. The com­pany be­hind the elec­tric pulse of Bri­tain’s cap­i­tal city is at the cen­tre of the en­ergy in­dus­try’s big­gest revo­lu­tion in more than a gen­er­a­tion.

Scarsella has pre­vi­ously de­scribed the change as be­ing “as sig­nif­i­cant for elec­tric­ity as the ad­vent of broad­band was for telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions”.

Elec­tric­ity net­works are at the fore­front. Sim­ply put, they serve as the re­gional B-roads to the vast elec­tric­ity mo­tor­way, which car­ries high volt­age power from Bri­tain’s largest power plants to cities and towns across the coun­try. UKPN qui­etly de­liv­ers elec­tric­ity to more than a quar­ter of the Bri­tish pop­u­la­tion across 11,000 square miles of densely pop­u­lated ar­eas in the south east of the coun­try. Last year alone this re­quired in­vest­ment of well over half a bil­lion pounds to main­tain the grid as new users steadily plug in.

But Bri­tain’s en­ergy land­scape is fast chang­ing in what is prov­ing to be a ma­jor sub­ver­sion of the tra­di­tional re­la­tion­ship be­tween sup­pli­ers and con­sumers.

Home own­ers have al­ready be­gun to flip from en­ergy con­sumer to en­ergy gen­er­a­tor with the help of rooftop so­lar pan­els. Home bat­tery stor­age and elec­tric ve­hi­cles make the flux be­tween th­ese roles all the more com­plex. It’s a revo­lu­tion ac­cel­er­at­ing with the boom in smart tech­nolo­gies, which could soon mean small busi­ness own­ers can sell self-gen­er­ated power to their neigh­bours di­rectly in small-scale re­gional power mar­kets.

“It sounds hard to be­lieve. but it’s hap­pen­ing,” says Scarsella. “Peo­ple say the tran­si­tion is com­ing. But I’d say the tran­si­tion has been here ar­guably for 10 years.”

The mo­men­tum be­hind the roll-out of so­lar pan­els and wind tur­bines was al­ready build­ing by the time Scarsella joined UKPN as chief ex­ec­u­tive in 2011.

“At first, peo­ple were ask­ing how net­works would man­age to con­nect the in­flux of re­new­ables. Well, we’ve con­nected a level of re­new­ables projects at a rate that was 15 years ahead of the most op­ti­mistic fore­casts,” he says.

Al­ready UKPN has had ap­pli­ca­tions for it to con­nect 16GW worth of bat­tery stor­age to its grids. He ad­mits the rate of change is set to ac­cel­er­ate rather than de­cline. The trick is try­ing to pre­pare for the fu­ture, without try­ing too hard to pre­dict it.

“In­vari­ably you will get it wrong. If you in­vest in ar­eas that then are found to be re­dun­dant then you’ve wasted cus­tomers’ money. So what we try to do is to re­tain the flex­i­bil­ity to be able to re­spond,” he says.

Elec­tric ve­hi­cles are a case in point. UKPN is work­ing closely with Trans­port for Lon­don, the Greater Lon­don Au­thor­ity and ma­jor taxi com­pa­nies to help re­spond to the switch from diesel to elec­tric ve­hi­cles (EVS). “Lon­don is par­tic­u­larly in­ter­est­ing for EVS be­cause there won’t be as much off-street park­ing. You need to ask what sort of charg­ing in­fra­struc­ture you can have, and what does that mean for the net­work?

“Ca­bles trail­ing out of peo­ple’s win­dows into the street is not sus­tain­able,” Scarsella says.

“But then, some mo­tor ve­hi­cle man­u­fac­tur­ers say not to worry too much about charg­ing in­fra­struc­ture be­cause bat­ter­ies are de­vel­op­ing so quickly that by 2020 we’ll al­ready have bat­ter­ies with a range of 300-400 miles. Then charg­ing be­comes a bit more like petrol. Petrol sta­tions could be­come recharg­ing sta­tions,” he says.

“There is a lot hap­pen­ing but no one is able to say ex­actly how things will change and what needs to be done. So what are we do­ing? We’re try­ing to re­tain our flex­i­bil­ity so we can en­able the tran­si­tion rather than be­come an ob­sta­cle,” he adds.

One way in which UKPN will foster neigh­bours us­ing blockchain tech­nol­ogy. Whereas once en­ergy net­works were the for­got­ten cogs of Bri­tain’s en­ergy machin­ery, they are poised to take a front-and-cen­tre role in an in­dus­try step-change, which has never been more fo­cused on the con­sumer.

The new vis­i­bil­ity comes at a time when util­i­ties are un­der in­creas­ingly in­tense scru­tiny over the value they of­fer cash-strapped con­sumers.

A few years ago the idea of na­tion­al­is­ing util­i­ties was al­most un­think­able be­yond the fur­thest realms of the Left-wing agenda. To­day, the threat is very real.

A re­cent in­de­pen­dent re­port from Pro­fes­sor Di­eter Helm into the cost of en­ergy, man­dated by gov­ern­ment, called for all re­gional en­ergy net­works to re­turn to pub­lic own­er­ship.

The En­ergy Net­work As­so­ci­a­tion hit back say­ing the move would de­rail the bil­lions in pri­vate in­vest­ment that op­er­a­tors at­tract into the in­dus­try. By 2020 around £80bn-worth of in­vest­ment will have been made in en­ergy net­works since 1990, while costs have fallen 17pc in real terms. Scarsella is more mea­sured.

“I wouldn’t want to dis­miss the re­port. There are a lot of im­por­tant ideas there, some of which need more work to un­der­stand, but it’s a start­ing point for a dis­cus­sion,” he says.

A clearer di­a­logue is ex­actly what Scarsella be­lieves could prove redemp­tive for net­works, too of­ten tarred with the same brush that has painted a gloomy pic­ture of en­ergy sup­pli­ers in re­cent years.

“I don’t sit here and say that we’re be­ing treated un­rea­son­ably. En­ergy prices have gone up and en­ergy forms a large part of peo­ple’s ex­penses. But I’d like to see en­ergy bills that are itemised to show the distri­bu­tion charge, so we’re not rolled into the same con­ver­sa­tion as other en­ergy com­pa­nies,” he says.

For the 8.2 mil­lion homes pow­ered via UKPN the av­er­age cost of their ser­vice makes up £78 a year on an en­ergy bill of around £1,000.

“So, if I had a bill ev­ery month that showed that the distri­bu­tion cost was roughly £6 a month and is likely to stay pretty con­stant …”

He trails off. It is half a ques­tion, and half an an­swer to the prob­lem of win­ning con­sumer trust.

“There’s no ques­tion that as an in­dus­try we haven’t helped our­selves in terms of com­mu­ni­cat­ing our value to the wider pub­lic,” he con­tin­ues.

“It’s easy to look back and say ‘look at the per­for­mance we’ve de­liv­ered’. But we also need to com­mu­ni­cate what we’re do­ing to­day, and what we will do in the fu­ture.”

UKPN is per­haps more com­fort­able with the pres­sure that comes with a higher pro­file than its smaller peers. An ex­plod­ing pave­ment along Ox­ford Street at­tracts far more crit­i­cism than a sim­i­lar fault in a ru­ral area. There is also more pres­sure pow­er­ing the ex­pan­sion of Europe’s fi­nan­cial hub, chal­lenges Scarsella rel­ishes.

“It’s great to power a world city like Lon­don, but you do need to ac­cept that you’re in the frame ev­ery day,” he says.

“It’s chal­leng­ing but it makes the day go quickly,” he laughs.

‘There’s no ques­tion that as an in­dus­try we haven’t helped our­selves in terms of com­mu­ni­cat­ing our value’

Basil Scarsella, chief ex­ec­u­tive of UKPN, top right, in­spects a sub­sta­tion with his team. Above, elec­tric ve­hi­cle charg­ing in Lon­don poses a ma­jor in­fra­struc­ture chal­lenge, he says

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.