Humans have been solving problems with abstract thinking for thousands of years. Tamsin Kashap, National Grid’s Gas Transmission Innovation Manager, takes a look back at the history of innovation in the electricity and gas industry and explores how it can help us meet the challenges of the future.
Humans have always been innovators. From the first tool carved by Stone-Age man to incredible modern inventions like the aeroplane or wireless technology, when a problem needs solving, human ingenuity can achieve almost anything.
However, our industry faces significant challenges for the future. The race is on to meet tough environmental targets by 2020. We also have ageing assets that require careful management and replacement in order to have the safe, reliable and sustainable energy infrastructure that our customers require.
So how can innovation play a leading role in meeting these important challenges?
A brief history of energy
The electricity grid has existed for more than 75 years and gas has been in the UK for a little over 200 years. When we look back, we see two centuries of seemingly insurmountable challenges. But courage, ambition and brilliant ideas have typically provided solutions.
Proposals for the electricity grid itself appeared in 1926, when Britain was recovering from the First World War. Industry was on its knees and the country needed a reliable, cheaper supply of electricity to recapture control of markets overseas. The situation for domestic consumers was also bleak. With cross-party support in Parliament, the Central Electricity Board was created to link the UK’s most efficient power stations with consumers via a ‘national gridiron’. The Electricity (Supply) Act was passed, paving the way for the creation of the national grid and safer, cheaper electricity for everyone.
In the face of adversity
During the Second World War, the electricity grid faced further challenges. The need for power had never been greater, yet maintaining supply had never been more difficult. German bombs had destroyed sub-stations and disrupted safety, while factories and airfields needed to be built out of town. In the face of adversity, those working for the electricity grid pulled out all the stops. Incredibly, when a West Ham sub-station was destroyed during the Blitz, it was rebuilt in just 19 days. Meanwhile, the electricity grid underwent major extension to meet the challenges of the day.
Post-war Britain called for further innovation. Faced with one of the most difficult periods in the electricity grid’s history, a new 275kV ‘super grid’ was built, including more than 4,000 miles of new transmission lines. Rapid progress continued in the Swinging Sixties. Amid enormous social change and greater demands for reliable power, new 2,000MW power stations came on stream and nuclear power generation was born.
A more efficient electricity grid was required and by 1966 more than 1,300 miles of the new 400kV line had been built. Other impressive innovations include the construction of a 2,000MW link beneath the English Channel in 1982 to connect the UK grid to the Continent and the ambitious design, implementation and construction of the first wind-turbine power plants.
So big thinking has brought us to a modern age where we can flick a light switch and know that our power will arrive safely and reliably the moment we need it.
The history of gas highlights more illuminated thinking. From the first flame of an idea, where people experimented with lighting using the vapours produced from heating coal, huge human effort and invention saw the first gas company in the world open in 1812.
The development of electricity and the arrival of the electric lamp in about 1880 created a serious rival to gas in its main market of lighting. It forced the big thinkers in the domestic gas market to expand into other areas, including gas cooking and domestic appliances such as gas irons, fridges and coffee roasters.
Other inspired ideas in the history of gas include the technical advances that led to the first liquefied natural gas appearing in the 1960s and an incredible project – the ten-year conversion programme – which began in 1967 and saw the physical conversion of every appliance in the country from manufactured town gas to natural gas.
Innovation in the modern age
Innovation has been important throughout the history of our industry and in making gas and electricity safe, reliable and affordable. But how does today’s landscape compare and is there still such a need for forward-thinking ideas?
National Grid faces significant future challenges, from hitting demanding environmental targets to managing and replacing assets and improving our customers’ experience.
According to David Wright, Director, Electricity Transmission Asset Management: “Innovation is about getting where you want to get to, but by a different route and in substantially less time. It is about breaking the rules of conventional wisdom.”
With a pressing need for change, innovation has a huge role to play. And it’s something that industry regulator OFGEM recognises too. It supports various projects in each part of our business under its innovation programme called the Network Innovation Allowance and the Network Innovation Competition.
Among the innovative projects under way in Gas Distribution is the Tier One Replacement System, which sets out to develop a robotic system capable of remotely carrying out mains replacement. Keyhole excavations will mean that fewer holes have to be dug, resulting in big cost savings and less disruption for the general public.
Further revolutionary robotics include the Cast-Iron Sealant Robot, or CISBOT for short, which has the potential to fix multiple leaking joints with minimum disruption.
Neil Pullen, Director, Gas Transmission Asset Management, believes that while smart ideas play a big part in innovation, the concept goes deeper. “It’s the desire we create across our company to find new and different ways of doing what we do more efficiently and effectively,” he said.
For its part, Gas Transmission is working on a cutting-edge IT project based on intelligent 3D modelling. BIM (Building Information Modelling) is all about pegging data to 3D models throughout the design, construction and maintenance of an asset. The models can then be stored and reused on future projects. Other benefits to this include reducing project costs and lowering National grid’s carbon footprint in line with our 2020 targets.
Other pioneering projects in Gas Transmission include an investigation into flow physics in the gas-pipe network and work on reducing the noise coming from our pipes.
Electricity Transmission, meanwhile, is working on a wide range of innovative projects. For example, an exciting cable extraction project is setting out to remove decommissioned underground cables without digging disruptive and costly trenches. We’re also investigating ways in which electric vehicles and heat pumps could help in managing the more intermittent nature of renewable generation. Finally, we also want to find new ways to safely inspect and assess the condition of high-voltage equipment without having to switch it off.
A culture of innovation
These are just a few examples of how National Grid aims to put a culture of innovation at the heart of everything we do. This helps us to provide safe, efficient and reliable gas and electricity networks that deliver great value to our customers and safeguard our environment.
For me, innovation is the pursuit of solutions that address existing requirements and emerging business needs. This is accomplished through more innovative working practices, processes, technologies, and ideas that are implemented and readily available within the business to benefit our customers.
Innovation is as important today – to both our business and our customers – as it’s ever been.
National Grid will be presenting projects from its innovation portfolio at the LCNI Conference on October 20-22 at Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre.
What does innovation mean to us?
“We’re rightly investing focus on potential game-changing innovations that have the potential to deliver for customers. But we are also determined to seek out the many small innovations that, when implemented, help us become more effective in everything we do.” – Steve Holliday, CEO, National Grid.
“Innovation is about more than conceptual thinking and engineering. The real success of innovation is to have it embedded in business as usual in the operational front line, and this is as much about a cultural change as it is about the engineering invention process. For innovation to succeed, all stakeholders, especially the end-users, need to be engaged at every step of the process.” – David Parkin, Gas Distribution Network Strategy Director.
“To me innovation involves taking a critical and objective look at what we do and asking ourselves if this is still the best way to do it.” – David Oram, NIC Manager, National Grid.
“Innovation will be vital for energy network companies as we meet future challenges. There are significant benefits from partnership and collaboration. As we move forward, enhancing our partnerships will be vital.” – Paul Auckland, RIIO Strategy and Innovation Manager (Electricity).