Top and Tail Transformation: A Grand Challenge in Energy Networks

Principal InvestigatorDr Ritsuko Ozaki (sub-project within the Department of Innovation & Entrepreneurship)

Researcher: Dr Isabel Shaw

Funder: EPSRC

Duration: May 2011 – April 2015

There are two very particular places in energy networks where existing network technology and infrastructure needs radical change to move us to a low carbon economy. At the Top of network (the very highest transmission voltages) transcontinental energy exchange in Europe (and elsewhere) is driven by exploitation of diversity in renewable sources and that requires radical innovation in technologies. The Tail of the network is the so-called “last mile” and “behind the meter” wiring into customer premises, where more than half the capital cost of an electricity system resides.  Resistant to change, the challenge is to reengineer the way in which the last mile assets are used without changing the most expensive part: the cables and pipes in the ground, and building flexibility to meet the service expectation. The work in the Department Innovation & Entrepreneurship will focus on the ‘Tail’ of the network examining the social implications of service changes and its influence on the adoption of new energy technologies.

A consortium of universities has been brought together to address this transformation of our energy networks. Alongside the Faculty of Engineering and Imperial College Business School, other partners include: Warwick, Nottingham, Strathclyde, Manchester, Cardiff and Birmingham, and several important industrial companies such as National Grid and Central Networks, equipment manufacturers such as Alstom Grid and Converteam and component manufacturers such as Dynnex and Dow Chemicals.  The programme of work is intended to provide breakthrough advances in key enabling technologies within the context of 2050 low carbon infrastructure requirements.

There are two economic prizes at stake. A European SuperGrid is key to exploiting the renewable resources of the continent as a whole more efficiently than if seen as collections of national systems. The second gain is achieving electrification of private vehicles and building heating without an extremely expensive wholesale asset replacement of the last mile of network.

Key Research Questions

The project is arranged around 2 key areas of investigation:

  • The Top of the Network – Investigating intercontinental electrical transmission system and its technical implications;  developing new tools for planning an interconnected UK/European system that address energy transfer, reserve and the use of storage and demand-side participation; the integration of super-scale multi-terminal HVDC systems and the functionality /ratings required; new approaches for super-scale capacity HVDC cables and AC/DC converters using novel insulation and semi-conductors materials. Business School researchers working on this area include Professor Richard Green and Dr Iain Staffell
  • The Tail of the Network – Looking at customer service needs in a low carbon systems and their impact on energy network design; the simulation of disruptive technologies for improving capacity in the “last mile”; new approaches to voltage relaxation or to power quality provision; how social acceptance of changes in service and energy provision would influence adoption of new technology; how legacy infrastructure can be managed for reliability and service quality. Our research looks into how the problem of electricity overloads and high carbon emissions are conceived of by engineers, explores how their approaches to voltage relaxation are accepted by users and identifies diffusion strategies.

The expected outputs of this project include several academic and at least one practitioner journal paper, as well as empirical insights and methodologies for the collaborating companies.

For further information on this cross Faculty initiative, please visit the Energy Business Research Centre’s webpage