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The most anticipated and innovative trends in the energy sector – interview with Richard Shackleton

More efficient electricity supply networks as well as smart grids are a key element in the decarbonisation of the energy sector. 

The International Energy Agency (IEA) reports that although investment in electricity grids declined in 2019, falling 7 per cent from the 2018 level, investment in the full suite of digital technologies, including advanced metering infrastructure and utility automation made up more than 15 per cent of total grid spending.

Ahead of the Third Energy Innovation Forum, an exclusive workshop on innovation in the energy sector organised by the British embassy in Budapest, CEENERGYNEWS spoke with Richard Shackleton, British Deputy Head of Mission about the most anticipated and innovative trends in the energy sector and what we can learn from leading technologies from the United Kingdom.

Indeed, compared to other regions, smart grids are a concept that is not very trendy in Central and Eastern Europe.

“Knowledge and information are important,” agrees Mr Shackleton. “There are lots of stories around that claim that any new technology either won’t work or can’t be done cheaply, therefore, until the information on how much a project will cost and how it will pay back over its lifetime become more available, events like the one we’re holding on Thursday this week, are opportunities to raise awareness of both the technologies and their related challenges and solutions.”

But what is a smart grid? The IEA defines a smart grid as an electricity network system that uses digital technology to monitor and manage the transport of electricity from all generation sources to meet the varying electricity demands of end-users.

“For a grid to become smart, it must respond to the demands in the system and to the supply that goes into it,” says Richard Shackleton. “It should allow for energy to be taken from the grid and to be put back in at various points (including different power sources such as individual small generation projects rather than at a single power station source).”

It must also ensure the security of supply. To him, integrated and flexible are the keywords to ensure this challenge can be met and that significantly more energy can be transferred seamlessly between larger and more diverse groups of generators and consumers.

In particular, Thursday’s Forum will be looking at platform technology providers, energy storage systems, distributed generation and the demand side, which all have a role to play in the development of smart electricity systems.

Even though on paper we can recognise the importance of smart grids and smart metering, not everybody can afford a solar rooftop and becoming a prosumer of energy. For Mr Shackleton, energy efficiency is a key contribution.

“Ways to use less energy help with the overall decarbonisation of the grid,” he underlines. “A really simple and very small idea is to wear warm clothes and turn down the heating (even by one degree) in our homes and offices to save energy and do something to save the planet. Solutions like solar panels, even if they come with an upfront cost, are also a way to meet the challenge of energy poverty. That’s a challenge that affects all countries and is not limited to the developing world.”

“That’s also where climate-conscious development (including funding programmes) can make a difference by both giving more people access to energy and, expanding the energy system in an inclusive and sustainable way.”

He explains that on funding, the UK has a scheme called Green Homes Grant to enable homeowners to make energy efficiency improvements to their homes (for example installing or improving home insulation, installing low-carbon heating) and the Hungarian government is also running similar programmes that enable people to upgrade the energy efficiency of their homes.

Basically, collaboration, cooperation and dialogue are key for a future that is based on innovative solutions and the UK can provide best practices in decentralised energy, innovative tariffs and other regulatory incentives, as well as smart and digitalised solutions, or energy storage.

“But we are also leading the way for offshore wind – not so relevant in Hungary perhaps, but the concept of volume investment bringing down costs throughout the supply chain is key here,” Mr Shackleton adds. “The use of solar power within our grids – even if we’re not famous for the number of sun hours we get in the UK, is still one of the main inputs we’re depending on for energy production.”

“The concept of trying new technologies to boost the diversity of sources within our energy mix is key. If some work better than others, they can be brought on stream from the test phase quite quickly.”

He goes on noticing that the changes in energy generation have had a lot of positive impacts for us: ten years ago, 40 per cent of the UK’s electricity came from coal. Now, coal stands at 2.1 per cent (2019 numbers) and renewable energy sources – wind, solar and biomass in particular – make up the biggest share of our energy mix at nearly 36 per cent.

“It means that the UK has achieved a 67-day, 22-hour and 55-minute coal-free streak in April-June last year, during which no coal-fired electricity was generated (for the first time in 138 years),” he points out.

In other words, the UK government is very much leading on this sort of transition and last November, Prime Minister Boris Johnson unveiled a ten-point plan for a green industrial revolution.

“This is a plan that sets out a range of measures targeted at economic recovery from COVID-19 through investment in green technologies and industries,” Mr Shackleton explains. “It will mobilise 12 billion pounds [13,6 billion euros] of government investment, spurring up to three times as much private investment by 2030. It includes new measures to support alternative clean energy sources such as offshore wind, hydrogen and nuclear and to decarbonise road transport by ending the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030. It aims to make homes and public buildings more energy-efficient, to harness the power of finance and innovation, and to make the UK into a world leader in carbon capture. This will involve significant changes to the UK economy, while also creating and supporting up to 250,000 jobs. With this plan, we aim to end the UK’s contribution to climate change by 2050: a significant announcement as we prepare to host the COP26, the United Nations’ Climate Change Conference, in Glasgow in November.”

Smart grids are only a part of the innovative trends to look at in the energy sectors: geothermal, e-mobility, hydrogen, smart cities and big data have all a role to play.

“Some innovations have actually been around for quite a long time, for example, geothermal energy (heat derived from the ground),” Mr Shackleton recalls. “The city of Bath is famous for its hot springs, which have been known at least since Roman times. In Southampton, a geothermal power station and combined heat & power district heating and chilling scheme has been in operation since the 1980s. We also work towards e-mobility: in addition to a transition to zero-emission road transport, including a ban on the sale of all new diesel and petrol cars and vans as of 2030, the UK is also leading the way on R&D in batteries, with the Farraday Challenge enabling companies and start-ups enter battery development and manufacturing.”

In terms of hydrogen, the UK has several hydrogen consultancies and R&D companies and its greatest strength lies in its engineering and R&D skills and innovation.

“The Smart Cities Project for Central Europe on which our Embassy led the work also demonstrated that cities/municipalities in the countries in the region are very much interested in getting greener cities and promoting smart solutions,” he emphasises. “A great example for UK – Hungarian collaboration in smart cities is a Memorandum of Understanding recently signed by the cities of Paks and Milton Keynes. The latter city is a best practice example for a Smart City in the UK and Paks in Hungary is determined to work with it on implementing clean transport and EV solutions, as well as work on energy storage issues.”

Other than these, a mention goes also to 5G and Big Data for Cities, smart traffic management, electric refuse vehicles or other smart infrastructure solutions, in which Central European cities are interested as well.

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