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Why DNOs are vital in reaching Net Zero

More often than not, conversation around decarbonising energy infrastructure in Britain focuses on how energy is generated. What is perhaps not talked about so often but is just as significant, is the role of Distribution Network Operators or DNOs in the journey towards Net Zero and the digitisation of the power network.

What are DNOs?

DNOs are responsible for the delivery and maintenance of networks that transport energy from power stations into our homes and businesses. They manage the assets that make up our local energy networks, extending them and fixing them when they go wrong. They balance supply and demand, ensuring that when we want to boil a kettle or turn a light on there is sufficient power in our homes to do so. In addition, DNOs connect millions of low carbon technologies – including solar panels, battery storage systems, heat pumps and electric vehicles, to the electricity grid.

Now the balancing part seems very obvious and all very logical, but ensuring supply meets demand is trickier than you might think! A crucial part of system balancing is maintaining a frequency of exactly 50Hz. When demand exceeds supply the frequency drops and additional supply needs to be brought online. Conversely, when supply exceeds demand the frequency will rise and supply needs to be reduced. Failure to balance the network results in a power outage.

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Digitising Energy

Currently we forecast electricity demand and schedule supply based on historical data that details what we use, when we use it and to some extent what we use it for. Furthermore, the available supply is determined by the number and capacity of our power stations. Moving forward we will forecast electricity supply and schedule demand using as near to real-time data as is possible, based on new usage patterns for new technologies (ie EVs & heat pumps) and a significant proportion of our supply capacity being weather and time of day dependent.

Success in achieving Net Zero will require that we use energy produced today more efficiently while we expand our renewable energy capacity.

DNOs are changing, transitioning to become DSOs (Distribution System Operator) to deliver a smart, flexible system that connects large-scale energy generation to solar panels, battery systems and electric vehicles installed in homes, businesses, and communities right across Britain.

This is often referred to as the ‘Smart Grid’.

This means that rather than adding additional overlapping low voltage network capabilities, costing tens of billions of pounds, DSOs will digitally manage, and balance, new connections and increased energy consumption through the development of Smart Grids using new sources of flexible generation and storage informed by real-time data. This new balancing capability is the main responsibility of the new distribution system operators (DSOs), who will work with demand side response providers (DSRs) and the energy flexibility providers to maintain the UK’s excellent supply resilience.

A smart, flexible energy system reduces consumer energy bills by reducing the amount of generation and network assets that need to be built to meet peak demand.

It gives consumers greater control over their energy bills, through access to smart technologies and services. It facilitates the integration of local solutions for low carbon power, heat and transport.

Enablers: DCC and the data

At the heart of Britain’s future smart flexible energy system is data provided by the DCC network. As more and more meters are connected to the DCC network, the picture becomes clearer for DNOs/DSOs in how they manage and distribute power to and from homes and businesses, allowing them to become more efficient, reducing costs and making the most of carbon-free renewable energy. The smart meter itself is also the entry point for consumers into a whole new range of home technologies, services and opportunities to help them reduce cost and carbon.

Tom Notman
Meet the author

Tom Notman

Director of Policy & Market Analysis