National Grid is aiming to be net zero by 2050
As National Grid gear towards becoming a net zero operation, we explore the different pieces to this puzzle with Carolina Tortora, Head of Digital Transformation and Innovation Strategy at National Grid.
13 October 2020
To truly understand the extent of the challenges the world faces, it helps to have a global perspective when it comes to confronting them.
For Carolina Tortora, Head of Digital Transformation and Innovation Strategy at National Grid, this type of outlook is something deeply ingrained in her, defined as much by a constant desire for knowledge as it is by her DNA.
Born in Canada to Colombian and Italian parents, the journey to her new home just outside of London has been far from conventional. From studying rocket science at MIT and then working for NASA to heading up innovation at Terna Spa, one of Italy’s largest energy companies, via a stint working as a marketer in New York, and becoming the definitive authority on grid scale battery storage along the way.
Carolina is someone clearly driven by change and the power of change; the challenge of ‘net zero by 2050’ is something perfectly suited to her and the team she leads at National Grid. The question now? How they plan on getting there.
The first piece of the puzzle: Zero carbon operation by 2025
“To get to where we want to be in 2050, we have a number of different objectives we need to meet along the way. Our current focus is zero carbon operation within the next five years. My job is to understand what it means to operate a system of our scale that is zero carbon, and how that looks and feels when it comes to our day-to-day operations.”
More specifically, this means finding room for manoeuvre using renewables – energy technologies that, when used traditionally at least, are nowhere near as flexible as the majority of the oil and gas power sources currently in operation.
“We can’t tell the sun when to shine, or the wind to blow, or let either source know how much of it we need. At the moment, we mostly use gas turbines to match demand with generation; our operational forecasts are mainly based on what kind of demand curves we’re going to see tomorrow, on our long understanding of how we believe people or factories are going to behave given a certain temperature, time of year, or of day.“
“But now, the world is changing. Carbon-producing generators will soon be offline, and we’ll be fully reliable on clean generation. That’s the energy transition, that’s the challenge, and it requires a great shift in our business model, in technology, and in culture – but that’s how we’re going to get there.”
A little bit of magic
One way of managing this change is harnessing the massive amounts of data the system creates, and then using it to develop effective simulations that can help us construct a model that is both energy and cost-efficient.
“Thanks to the incredible progress in AI and machine learning, we’re getting to the point where technology is so advanced, it’s almost indistinguishable from magic – and some of the technology solutions we’re developing to solve our problems really do feel like magic!”
“For instance, we are using AI to stretch time. Crises that used to take minutes now take fractions of a second to precipitate. It means we need to shift our focus on what happens before an accident takes place, and change how we face the issue and how we can speed up our own response to it when it does, thus effectively stretching time to fit our response.”
So what does that look like?
“It means introducing machine learning in our processes, so that AI can learn from our own engineers and react within the required time interval. Keep in mind, it’s not just a speed problem, we’re moving from a system that had ‘just’ a few hundred generation supply points (GSPs) to one that will soon have millions.”
“Being able to have oversight of them, a good understanding of their forecasted positions, and control over their actions is a huge part of our work. Ultimately we’re talking about data, and how we need to harness AI systems to help us rationalise and structure and use those vast amounts of information, and automation to effectively multiply our capabilities and range. Again, magic!”
“Our data science teams are focusing on how we can extract as much information from the data as possible, and then plotting how we can not only use it effectively, but share it too – because this is not something we’re doing on our own. From customers with a solar panel on their roof or an electric car in their garage to our stakeholders and aggregators: everyone has a part to play.”
Inspiring a cultural shift
The notion that everyone has a part to play is something we’ve heard a lot throughout this series. For Carolina, this manifests itself in a number of ways. For instance, the technological shift we’ve talked about has inspired previously-unseen forms of collaboration from right across the digital space.
One example? A ‘federation’ of organisations and educational institutions developing digital twins – digital replicas of bricks-and-mortar power sources – that share APIs and data across an entire network to help develop a home-powering system from the bottom up.
Another, though, is more nuanced. What type of person, exactly, does it take to become an innovation professional in this space? The task is not only exploring the pathways towards a net zero goal (and beyond), but inspiring those around you to believe that the route you’re taking is the right one. Engineers, like pilots, are traditionally reluctant to enact changes that see them relinquish complete control over their operating systems. So how do you go about managing this need for a psychological shift?
“These conversations take time. It takes a very specific type of personality to work in innovation. You have to learn how to influence people in the right way, you have to inspire them to a point they really believe in the change, that they’re excited by it – not just scared or distracted. If they can’t see it as a good thing, they’ll never understand what is truly at stake – that if we don’t change, we won’t survive.”
The road to the future
Naturally, there is a real sense of urgency to all of this – something that has been exacerbated by forces beyond the industry’s control.
Brexit, COVID and regulator expectations on behalf of society have all combined to cause a significant loss of money for most companies in the space, as well as a lack of new investment in areas seen as critical for its sustainability. The instability is causing governments to become increasingly risk-averse but, as any innovation professional would tell you, it also means that the opportunity for disruption is ripe.
“At the moment, the industry is distracted by old business and old interest. The reality is that a lot of families are going through hard times when it comes to energy, something that we all take quite seriously in our own work at ESO, and that means there is an opportunity to explore new, sustainable solutions to help them.”
Net zero by 2050 is a necessity for National Grid, but with Carolina, you get the sense that this is just one of many steps the industry can – and will – take to revolutionise the way the UK transports and consumes its energy.
“I truly believe we can change the world from here. Right now, I just don’t think we’re moving fast enough.”
This article is a part of our Innovation Leaders in sustainability series. For further articles, valuable insights and a look into sustainability solutions, visit our Innovation Leaders page here.
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