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“Data is vital for innovators” Cleantech for UK speaks to Jon Saltmarsh at the Energy Systems Catapult

March 18, 2024

Energy Systems Catapult is an independent research and technology organisation. Their mission is to accelerate Net Zero energy innovation. We spoke to Jon Saltmarsh, Chief Technology Officer at the Catapult about their work and the challenges of Net Zero for the UK grid.

How does the Energy Systems Catapult support innovative technologies?

The Catapult was set up to accelerate the innovation needed for the journey to Net Zero. The Catapult does that in two main ways. One, is to help innovators create the right products for the right time and market. For example, we helped Ventive develop a solution for Net Zero retrofitting.  Secondly, we help regulators and government understand what has to be done to support innovation and create an enabling regulatory environment. Our work for Nick Winser’s electricity commissioners report is a great example here.

We run the Energy Launchpad, which offers incubation support for energy innovators. It’s very much focused on helping innovators develop the tech that’s key to reaching Net Zero, and enabling them to understand and test their innovations within a representative energy system. For example we helped Digital Engineering, who produce asset health software for powerlines, develop their route to market, partnerships, and business model.

We also run a Living Lab to trial new innovations in real households. Over 2500 people have signed up to be part of the trial homes and these are networked together and also linked into the PNDC – formally the power networks demonstration centre at University of Strathclyde. This enables us to emulate the wider energy system. It helps us test and understand what impact a certain technology would have on the system as a whole, if installed into millions of homes. We’re currently working with Sunamp to test their new heat battery within our Living Lab.

Do you think government/companies/advocates are doing enough to engage with the public on Net Zero?

Absolutely not – but my big fear is that Net Zero becomes a political football between political camps. Building legitimacy for Net Zero is a lot about how to present the changes needed, so that people can understand how they might be able to save money or benefit in other ways. The challenge is to convince people of the need without making them feel lectured.

Here, we see more success from local governments, community energy programs, and individuals sharing their experience. Such actors have an easier time engaging with local communities and can be much more powerful than national communications campaigns.

At the end of the day, we’re trying to make the case for big strategic changes. An example is what happened during the hydrogen trials, well-orchestrated community campaigns resulted in the government scrapping their hydrogen heating trials. But the real message that we need to move away from burning methane was lost in the debate.   

For example, the Catapult does not have a huge platform with which we can address the public. We aren’t organised to engage with 65 million people, but we can support those who are able to so. We can share our learnings with interested actors and organisations, and equip them with our data.

In our report, we talk about the importance of access to data, what role does data currently play in developing innovation and how can innovators get better access to data?

Data is vital for innovators so that they can understand how their products will work in practice. Traditionally, energy companies have had a protectionist approach to data but based on work the Catapult did for the Energy Data Taskforce the presumption is now that data should be open and shared unless there is a good reason not to.

Innovators currently struggle to know where to find and how to access data. For example, smart meter data. It is possible to request access to data via the Data Communications Company but that requires negotiating a complex permission route. The Catapult can help through the data it collects from our Living Lab. Innovators can also access data from the University College London’s Smart Energy Research Lab, but it would be much easier if energy companies provided open access to aggregated data as a matter of course.

What role will cleantech play in reducing excess curtailment and supporting the ESO in managing flexibility? Is the system operator doing enough to integrate innovation into the system?

Flexibility requires moving use of energy from one time to another, and in all honesty, customers may not be too happy if they can’t use energy when they want to.

The question is, how do we make flexibility easy and transparent to the energy consumer? How do we make sure their car is charged when they need it and their home remains warm when they are home? What we really don’t want is to impose flexibility on citizens, an additional task and extra complications they need to manage. And here, innovation can take away the burden of people having to get involved – because over-involvement will lead to loss of engagement.

It will be interested to see whether people continue to stay engaged with the Demand Flexibility Service trials as the number of sessions increases and the value of savings reduces. People get easily bored by repeated requests to take action particularly when the savings are small. We need to take away the need for consumers to be that active. Building a tech landscape that enables this will transform how demand response is delivered and how effective it can be.

Is the ESO doing a good job embracing technology?

The Strategic Innovation Fund is clearly their way to drive innovation and new tech, helping the distribution network operators. It has evolved from experience with the Network Innovation Allowance and Network Innovation Competition. It’s not managed by the ESO though, but rather primarily through Innovate UK using their expertise in managing innovation funding. We’re in the early stages of this new process.

Tech development is one thing, but for it to be taken up across the sector, it needs support from actors such as the ESO and Ofgem.  At the same time, new projects take inordinate amounts of time to roll out. It can take 14 years to gain a new grid connection, and while the Winser report which the Catapult helped develop, showed how to shorten this by half, a decade is the blink of an eye in energy terms. There needs to be a radical step-change here. But many of these issues are not within ESO’s control, for example reform of our planning system.

The need to reform planning is clear, but once you start fiddling with it, you are likely to upset a lot of people. One of the major causes of delay is the right to a judicial review and any attempt to modify this immediately becomes very sensitive. This all boils down to successfully engaging with the local people. This is much easier for assets like power stations where there are local benefits in terms of jobs and potentially reduced energy bills, but it’s much harder for linear assets such as pylons, that are just passing by and perceived only as a net-loss for the locals. We need to connect with such communities to build a genuine interest in adopting new types of infrastructure.

Thank you for sharing your expertise!