Q&A: Dr Richard Dobson – getting energy to join the data revolution

The energy sector has been slow to join the data revolution, but an ambitious new strategy developed by the Energy Data Taskforce looks set to propel it to the forefront. Dr Richard Dobson, co-author of the report, explains to Stephen Cousins the key drivers for opening up and improving access to energy data.

Why is more and better quality data important in the energy sector?

If you have more granular data about the energy system, energy networks and the generation capacity available within that, you have a much better chance of creating an optimised system, whether that’s from a central point, or devolved down to distribution network operators, local area energy markets, or individual consumer premises.

Great visibility of the data makes it easier to reliably forecast supply and demand. It can help with scenario planning and understanding the impact on the system of, for example, a 30% uptake in electric vehicles or battery storage in a local area.

The energy system outage a few weeks ago (9 August 2019) could almost certainly have been averted if we had known what flexibility was available within the system and been able to call upon it.

Data can help us think about cross-energy vector optimisation and understand the value of shifting demand from one energy vector to another, for example from gas to electricity using systems like hybrid heat pumps.

When you start cross referencing systems data with individual consumer demand data, there’s a huge amount of value in terms of new products for consumers that are also good for the energy system. It could be heat as a service, or managed electric vehicle charging whereby consumers can plug in a car to charge anywhere and the system knows which car it is and which account needs to be billed.

How can we update approaches to meet modern data needs?

The Energy Data Taskforce (EDTF) was established by government, Ofgem, and Innovate UK to create a data strategy for the sector based around two key principles: filling in data gaps by requiring new and better-quality data, and maximising its value by embedding the presumption that all data is open.

The strategy was published in June and aligns closely with wider goals, developed by the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) and currently being delivered by the Centre for Digital Built Britain (CDBB) to create a digital framework for infrastructure data, including new data standards and a National Digital Twin.

The focus is on energy systems data, which we see as being incredibly valuable, in some ways more valuable than domestic and business smart metering data, from an operational and market point of view.

The report recommends that all energy data is ‘Presumed Open’, isn’t that a challenge in the context of data privacy and data security?

We are not saying that data should always be open, but that we should start from a position of openness and then work out the circumstances when that might not be appropriate.

There are lots of good reasons why you can’t publish open data: if it is consumer data GDPR rightly prevents open publication of raw data. Releasing data about the network could identify a site of critical national infrastructure that needs to be protected.

However, many organisations are using public money to build energy infrastructure for the public good and part of that process should be to ensure that the associated data is also available for the public good. As a private individual or organisation, I can’t go out and collect data on UK energy networks, therefore we need to make sure the energy networks are working in a collaborative way and able to share open data where possible.

Isn’t there reluctance from energy utilities to share data they perceive as commercially sensitive?

There’s a natural concern when companies are asked to publish their data openly, but when we start to work through this with them they understand the value that this could provide. Businesses all want data from other organisations, but have historically struggled to get access to it, now they are thinking open data will be good for me and for everyone else too.

Are big investments required to upgrade infrastructure with new sensors and data monitoring?

Data analytics, data modelling and data science techniques have moved on hugely over the last few years, so it’s not necessary to monitor everything to the nth degree, you just have the ability to be intelligent about how you deploy your sensors.

There will definitely be a need for investment, but a sensible approach might be to monitor a statistically representative sample of areas using existing data, add in some clever monitoring, analytics and data science techniques, and then extract great value from it. Maximising the value of every piece of data collected whilst minimising the cost.

What are the major holes in energy sector data?

The biggest omissions tend to be around the locations of networks, particularly low voltage networks, their capabilities, and the capacity of cables installed. This is due to the fact that many were installed years ago, before access to data was relevant. In the 1970s, no one was thinking ahead to things like electric vehicles and decentralised energy and why it might be necessary to model the network.

We generally have a good picture of large-scale assets connected to the distribution network, but as things get smaller and connected, particularly behind the meter, we have little to no visibility and that’s where a huge amount of value can be extracted.

A major issue is the lack of data about what data exists, which creates inefficiency because people spend time searching for data that just isn’t available, or they build business models based on the false conception they will be able to get data that doesn’t exist, or they try to collect data they could have simply gathered from somewhere else at a much lower cost.

To address this, we have recommended the creation of a Data Catalogue intended to increase visibility of what datasets exist and if/how they can be accessed. The Catalogue would apply across government, the regulator Ofgem and industry. Industry participation would be mandated via regulatory and policy frameworks.

Has any concrete action been taken since the report was published?

A working group was convened between Ofgem and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and they are pushing the report’s recommendations forward and looking at what they need to do over the coming months and years to implement them.

The EDT has set a primary goal to get its first two recommendations [to direct the sector to adopt the principle of Digitalisation of the Energy System, and to adopt the principle that Energy System Data should be Presumed Open] peppered through regulation and legislation over the next few years. The Data Catalogue is a near term target, with progress on its development already made by Ofgem, the BEIS and Innovate UK.

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