Spoilt for choice?

Ollie Lancaster explores options for the future mix of energy for North Wales and its people

At Wales & West Utilities we keep the gas flowing to north Wales, heating homes and powering businesses. We keep the lights on by generating electricity, with the gas network acting as a virtual energy battery, providing around 8GWh of storage daily in north Wales.

In order to meet the needs of our Welsh customers, we have to consider the differences in regional energy demand. Commercial and domestic properties are more dominant in the north, whilst south Wales is more industrial.

Over recent years, the energy system has become greener, with a more integrated approach from gas and electricity networks. This is mainly due to the fact that the gas distribution network is working harder, with around 200 Combined Heat and Power (CHP) plants and two peaking generation connections in existence in north Wales. Coal and gas are currently meeting the added electricity demand from electric vehicles, however with the increase in renewable generation and smart charging the energy will be sourced from wind and solar in the future – with gas as a back-up. Despite seeing more lower cost and lower carbon gas-powered heavy goods and public service vehicles across England, we’re yet to see the same in Wales.

In order to best identify value-for-money energy solutions for customers, we’ve developed the ‘2050 Energy Pathfinder.’ Pathfinder enables any energy scenario to be modelled for a town, city, county, region or country – and the results show the costs, carbon impact and any shortfall or surplus in heat and power supply. All-electric simulations have recently been run for Swansea, Wales and Cornwall. These simulations firmly revealed the need for a mix of energy solutions; particularly for seasonal storage and intermittent sources of generation, such as tidal lagoons, wind and solar. Pathfinder will soon be available online via our website.

To continue delivering for our customers in north Wales, whilst meeting challenging environmental targets, it’s long been clear that the decarbonisation of heat is essential. However, instead of this being at the forefront of the debate, decarbonisation of electricity has taken prime position – and commanded greater public interest.

In recent years, the untested assumption has been that the decarbonisation of heat would mean the end of the gas network and result in the electrification of heat. This would be an infrastructure challenge unprecedented in British history – requiring an increased electricity network and generating capacity, whilst creating huge disruption. To the customer, the cost of contributing towards – not only the infrastructure required, but also the installation of new internal fixtures and fittings would simply be astronomical.

Instead, it’s now becoming clear that a holistic approach to energy is required to decarbonise heat and deliver a future energy system that is affordable, cost effective, secure and reliable – and sustainable too.

At the heart of all of Wales & West Utilities’ future of energy work is the customer. They’re not interested in how the energy gets to them, just that it delivers the service they want at a reasonable price. So we’ve worked with partners Western Power Distribution (WPD) and PassivSystems on the first gas and electricity network future of energy project – the Freedom Project – that brings the idea of energy network integration into the home.

A Freedom installation – of which there are 75 on trial in the ‘living heat laboratory’ in Bridgend, south Wales integrates a traditional gas boiler and electricity air source heat pump with a smart control system. This smart control system enables the switching between gas and electricity, based on the affordability and carbon intensity of each vector. When there’s a surplus of green, renewable electricity, the air source heat pump will be heating the home through electricity. Conversely, at times of peak demand or low renewable electricity generation, the smart switching technology will direct the gas boiler and gas network to pick up the strain. This switching is based on the least cost and least carbon option, and takes advantage of existing infrastructure.

Integral to Freedom is the consumer-first principle, therefore, retrofitting to existing homes is simple, necessary behaviour change is minimal and disruption to customers once the installation is fitted is non-existent.

The gas network in this integrated energy system isn’t the gas network of yesterday, but a network delivering for today’s and tomorrow’s customers. It’s a network which is, for all intents and purposes, brand new – new plastic pipes are replacing the majority of old metal ones, and transporting different gases. Working alongside our partners across the UK, we’re exploring the potential for the gas network to transport a range of renewable gases. We’re going back to injecting manufactured gas into the network for the first time since the 1970s – only this time it will be low carbon rather than town gas.

Across our network, we’ve connected 17 biomethane sites – that’s equivalent to the energy output potential of three Swansea Bay tidal lagoons. The current capacity of renewable gas connected in north Wales is able to supply and fully decarbonise 15% of domestic space heating, hot water and cooking in Wrexham. Waste and residue feedstock for renewable gas volumes in Wales offer significant growth potential to meet more domestic heat demand when compared to England – an area that needs to move further forward.

A future balancing and switching between renewable gas and renewable electricity is indicating a vital breakthrough opportunity to decarbonise heat, with minimal impact of any kind – financial or otherwise, on customers. And this is something our regulator and policy makers are clear has to be central to all future planning.

All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Oliver Lancaster is Future of Energy Project Manager at Wales & West Utilities

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