03 November 2021


03 November 2021

Northern Powergrid launches a first-of-its-kind ‘smart grid’ pilot in Newcastle and Northumberland

Northern Powergrid, the electricity distribution network operator for the North East, Yorkshire and northern Lincolnshire, is to pilot a pioneering technology innovation that will maintain power supplies to critical infrastructure and isolated communities, futureproofing the network for a rapidly changing energy landscape.

The £2.5m first-of-its-kind smart-grid programme, known as Microresilience, uses energy storage systems and innovative communications technology. It’s being piloted at two key locations – Newcastle’s historic Swing Bridge, and the remote forest village of Byrness, Northumberland – each chosen for the unique challenges they present to the resilience of the energy network.

As the UK and Northern Powergrid’s region decarbonise in the push to reach net zero, customers will become increasingly dependent on electricity to power their lives. Protecting people’s power is more vital than ever, but electricity networks are under increasing threat from extreme weather events and cyber-attacks. In June this year, the UK Climate Change Committee highlighted protecting the power system from climate-related failure as an urgent priority. And think-tank Institut Français des Relations Internationales identified the power sector as a prime target for cyber-criminals, with both the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity and the UK electricity system’s administrator Elexon coming under attack in 2020.

Resilience against these threats is at the heart of Northern Powergrid’s future – protecting communities and assets, bettering safety standards, and maintaining the reliability and availability of the network. That’s the big picture. Microresilience zooms in to meet unique local needs, delivering bespoke technology solutions that protect and increase the resilience of individual ‘micro’ areas of the network.

Iain Miller, Head of Innovation at Northern Powergrid, said: “We work constantly to find innovative ways to improve our network and protect our customers from a power cut. This Microresilience project offers a blueprint to deliver the most reliable, affordable, and sustainable power possible for the parts of our network that need it the most.

“Microresilience will enable us to test and build a more robust, storm-resistant, community-centric network, with customers, communities and locations directly benefiting from lower risks of a sustained power cut. The learnings from this project will also inform a wider roll-out of smart technology across our region and the UK.”

Microresilience is a Northern Powergrid collaboration with Smarter Grid Solutions (SGS), the innovative smart grid software company that will use the pioneering Open Field Message Bus (OpenFMB) protocol on their control platform to enable the real-time communication between the network and the Microresilience technology. Northern Powergrid is also collaborating with Turbo Power Systems (TPS), a company that will provide an innovative power electronic device.

Glasgow-based SGS’s Strata Resilience distributed energy resources management software (DERMS) will be used to manage the network as a set of separate microgrids, able to operate as ‘islands’ if a fault develops across the wider network. The project will show how battery storage can ensure renewable energy is available when electricity demand is high and help power these ‘islands’ when the grid is under pressure, for instance during a storm.

Dr Graham Ault, Executive Director at Smarter Grid Solutions, said:Combining renewable generation with energy storage and intelligent grid management software builds network resilience and draws more value out of clean energy.

“Our Strata Resilience technology utilises the *OpenFMB platform to act as a bridge between the main grid and local energy needs, flagging when communities or key infrastructure should switch to its own battery-powered ‘microgrid’ when the main grid is down and reconnect when it’s up and running again. This combination of energy storage, clean energy, the grid and smart grid technologies delivers much better outcomes for network customers.”

Nigel Jakeman, Engineering and Business Development Director at TPS comments “We have worked with Northern Powergrid for a number of years now on many initiatives which all aim to create resilient supplies for their customers. We are particularly excited to work on this project because of its local significance. By creating a reliable microgrid to feed the Swing Bridge and Byrness Village, we can guarantee stability even during power outages. We’re really looking forward to working collaboratively with Northern Powergrid to progress this exciting initiative.”

As an essential part of Northern Powergrid’s £83m smart grid enablers programme, Microresilience will also prepare the regional economy for rapid growth of electric vehicles, domestic heat pumps and renewable power. In particular, the project will pave the way for innovative uses of electric vehicle batteries. In the future, new batteries are not likely to be cost-effective and so car batteries are expected to provide essential flexibility. For instance, a Nissan Leaf battery can power an average home for four days. Microresilience will provide valuable learnings for how these car batteries could provide new flexibility and help keep the lights on for customers.

Iain added: “As we become more reliant on electric vehicles and electric heating in response to climate change, our goal is to use the most affordable and effective smart technologies to achieve true resilience at the lowest cost to our customers.

Case study: Newcastle Swing Bridge
The Swing Bridge is a beacon of hydraulic innovation. The Grade II*-listed structure, which spans the River Tyne between Newcastle and Gateshead, was built by visionary British engineer William Armstrong and, at its opening in 1876, was at the forefront of engineering. It remains an iconic landmark, and symbol of the area’s proud industrial heritage.

The Swing Bridge uses hydraulic power to drive its original 19th-century turning mechanism – but the cables that supply the bridge with electricity are dated and need replacing. Microresilience will see Northern Powergrid upgrade the infrastructure, installing a 100kWh lithium-ion battery system to provide power to open and close the bridge, ensuring its resilience to power cuts.

Newcastle City Council cabinet member for Development, Neighbourhoods and Transport, Cllr Ged Bell, said: “The Swing Bridge is one of Newcastle’s best-loved landmarks and an iconic example of the city’s proud engineering heritage.

“I very much welcome this latest investment in the bridge’s power supply, which will not only keep its streetlights on during a power cut, but improve the reliability of the bridge opening on special occasions, which I know caused disappointment recently.

“Hopefully the problems can be addressed and the Swing Bridge, which opened in 1876, will continue to delight people for many years to come.”

Case study: Byrness, Northumberland
With its 50 homes and the smallest church in the county, Byrness is the last point of habitation on the Pennine Way. Here, in a landscape populated by roe deer and red squirrels, the electricity network snakes its way to the end of its route via a single overhead power line. The vulnerability of this cable to high winds and storms frequently threatens the power supply to the village, with residents far more likely to be cut off than people in Newcastle, 40 miles away. Equally, delivering a back-up generator can be challenging during snow or flash floods, thanks to the famously winding single-road route.

Microresilience will switch Byrness customers from the local network to a 200kWh back-up battery when there is a power cut, maintaining a seamless connection without so much as a blip. Wi-Fi will stay on, mobiles will keep charging, and customers will remain connected to power. For vulnerable customers, or those medically dependent on electricity, this technology will provide additional reassurance for the time it takes for engineers to find and fix faults to restore their power. In a major power cut, customers will be alerted that they are ‘on battery’ and urged to conserve power until a generator can be delivered.

Rochester with Byrness Parish Council said: “We are pleased to be working with Northern Powergrid on this pilot scheme. The Parish Councillors and Byrness residents are excited about the improvements this will bring to the resilience of the network in locations prone to supply fluctuation.

“We are looking forward to strengthening the partnership with Northern Powergrid during construction and installation. It is hoped that the experience gained from this project will improve the supply for many more communities both in the UK and globally.”

*OpenFMB enables real time, peer-to-peer grid communications between distributed smart-grid technologies, such as energy storage batteries and renewable generators. It will enable greater interoperability between different smart grid devices, supporting improved decision making, and avoiding the need for data to travel to a centralised control system.