Electricity Networks

Almost every aspect of electricity supply, distribution, and consumption is changing in ways that create great uncertainty and risk, while the cost of electricity is a matter of growing public concern.

The contribution of distributed intermittent renewables is growing.  The grid is increasingly required to accommodate multiple connections between diverse sources and users, and bidirectional flows of electricity. Improved monitoring and real-time feedback between suppliers, consumers and operators will enable better management of demand and the introduction of new pricing mechanisms. The use of electricity in transport and heating is expected to grow.

Electricity networks will have to evolve to accommodate these changes, while the way they evolve will in turn influence future supply and use. Planning and implementing this evolution will be technically very challenging (in terms of controls and handling large data, as well as adopting new technologies), and striking a balance between the demands of suppliers, distributers and customers (domestic, small businesses, large commercial and public) will continue to raise major economic, regulatory, social and political issues.

Research in Oxford

Oxford is addressing a wide range of challenges involved in smartening the grid and designing future electricity markets, as well as working on low carbon electrity supply, electrity storage and the use of electrity in transport – see Bioenergy, Marine, Solar, Nuclear, Storage, and Transport. The Oxford Martin Programme on Integrating Renewable Energy (see accompanying case study) is tackling the technical and market challenges in order for the grid to accommodate increasing contributions from intermittent sources. For research on oil and gas networks see Fossil Fuels.

Researchers at Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute lead a seven university Infrastructure Transitions Research Consortium which (working closely with partners in government and industry) is developing a new generation of system simulation models and methods to inform analysis, planning and design of national infrastructure in the energy (including gas and electricity networks), transport, water, waste and telecoms sectors.  They consider vulnerabilities and risks associated with different infrastructure options and their impact on economic growth in a holistic way.

Groups in the Oxford e-Research Centre (OeRC) and Engineering Science are studying the necessary ICT infrastructure that will support the transition from the current ‘smartish’ system to a future fully intelligent grid network, with mass deployment of network equipment sensors and instrumentation, the possibility of millions of smart meters, small-scale embedded generation, and responsive loads.

Scientists in OeRC, Computer Science and Mathematics are developing the scalable algorithms and technologies that will be needed to analyse and exploit, mostly in real time, the vast amounts of data that will be generated by future smart grids and meters. This is needed to monitor accurately the state of network equipment and to improve the performance and control of the network. Detailed analysis of existing smart meter data sets is being undertaken to ascertain what insights may be distilled and how these may be exploited, including the provision of tailored consumer benefits and customer centric propositions. Other work includes the development and publishing of datasets that can be used by researchers at Oxford and around the country.

Researchers in Mathematics are working on modelling, forecasting and control problems associated with domestic and small business consumers on low voltage networks. They consider (smart meter) data-driven models of consumers’ behaviour, investigating distinctive patterns in usage. This will allow companies to contrast populations of consumers, and to identify drivers of network compromise or aberrant response (especially as new technologies become available and are deployed in a very non uniform manner, due to social networking for example). They are deriving short term, rolling (real time) forecasts, for extremely spikey profiles to predict peaks and aid control algorithms. They also consider network response under different medium to long term scenarios, defined by response to time of day tariffs and pricing; to current (e.g. storage, demand side response) and future technologies; and to public attitudes (to lifestyle benefits, ethics, fairness and risk perceptions).

Consumer behaviour
Oxford has a long history of work on consumer understanding of energy, for example the effects of education, information, personal advice and feedback, including through smart meters and in-home displays.  Most of this research has been focussed on permanent demand reduction, but it is also very relevant to demand response.  Current research interests include understanding the most desirable balance between automated switching and active consumer engagement in demand response, as well as related issues in social acceptability and governance (for example customer concerns related to data protection and the ability of energy companies to control appliances).

Oxford works with retailers on understanding the challenges for the data rich and the data poor, examining policy, strategy and compliances; creating novel ways to build awareness of energy consumption issues (see WICKED).

Energy markets
Power sector research at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies (OIES) focusses on the economics of electricity networks and the way in which electricity markets function, in order to promote good policy making and better planning decisions, both nationally and globally. Researchers at OIES have collaborated in looking at high level policy issues with an international focus. Other activities include investigating the implications of a low carbon energy sector for investment, coordinated planning, wholesale market design and regulation, merit order operation, pricing, and the roles of demand and storage in decarbonized electricity sectors, within the context of the new opportunities and challenges presented by smart grids. The respective roles of markets and regulation in this new world will continue to be critical policy questions, especially due to the natural monopoly status of electricity networks within energy markets.

OIES have also examined a number of sector or country specific questions – including the effect of changes in the UK the power sector (such as increasing wind power generation) on the market for natural gas, Indian power markets, and tensions between national and EU policies in relation to climate change.


Meet electricity networks researchers