From the fax to the future: the system operator needs to take a big leap

National Grid’s system operators are both doing a great job – in gas and electricity – balancing supply and demand and managing the system through the Coronavirus crisis. It is groundbreaking stuff.

It’s not made any easier by the legacy structures and technologies the system operators have to deal with.

One potential problem mentioned by NGESO for companies with power assets that have to come on or off line in response to the system operator’s instructions: what if CV-19 access problems mean you can’t get to the fax machine where the instructions are sent?

What? The fax machine? (For younger readers, this is an elderly way of transmitting images, including letters, to a printer at a remote site. Health secretary Matt Hancock won some headlines in 2018 when he took over the post, because he discovered thousands of fax machines still in use in the NHS and decreed that they had to be phased out by 2020).

If you thought that was a misprint, the National Grid Gas system operator also raised that as a practical issue, but reassured users that email could be used as a potential ‘backup’.


Accessing the data

As the system operators take on the challenge of circumstances described as ‘jumping ten years into the future’ in terms of managing variable supply and demand, with a high proportion of renewables and users not following their of normal patterns, they have pleaded for more information.

NGESO wants to know about how commercial and industrial customers, in particular, are using power so it can refine and benchmark its models and be better prepared to meet demand. It also wants to understand exactly what capability power assets have when they are in operation, on case they want to send instructions. But there should be lakes of data out there about both.

Suppliers have been required to roll out automatic half-hourly meters to commercial and industrial customers for years, which should have live data about exactly how much each is using half-hourly. Energy efficiency initiatives have also, in many cases, involved sub metering across and within sites, so for those, it ought even to be possible to tell whether specific parts of the industrial activity are furloughed, on half time, or still running. I am sure any large supermarket, for example, knows where it has turned off the fridges. And a parts factory knows which production lines are still running.

That data is there: using it effectively is about permissions, managing confidentiality and GDPR requirements, ensuring it is compatible – or developing some machine learning that can bring separate data sets together – and being able to extract it from different suppliers and present it in a way that is compatible for the system operator. We have some big data organisations like the Turing Institute that ought to be able to tackle that.

Meanwhile, power plant operators have for decades run continuous monitoring on their plant and equipment to determine, for example, the condition of components. Extracting information from that very varied data is more ambitious, but still: power asset owners should be able to tell the System Operator a lot about how plant might operate beyond normal limits, and for how long, if that became necessary.

National Grid ESO has announced that it wants to be able to manage the system without the need for fossil fuels by 2025. The Coronavirus emergency has forced it to run hard in that direction and it has responded. As we come out of the pandemic it has revealed some open technology goals for achieving that 2025 target: get rid of the faxes and move to modern communications; get moving on understanding the data that is already out there and make sure it is usable. Both will be fundamental to managing our future distributed, demand-responsive and decarbonised energy system.


Incidentally, New Power has suggested before that it is time to re-examine the strict separation between gas and electricity control rooms; the fact that the two initially organised their Coronavirus briefings to industry at exactly the same time, just illustrates once again that more co-ordination is required.