In part five of our innovation interview series, Lucy Grigoriadi spoke with Shira Lappin, Innovation Project Lead at UK Power Networks.
UKPN is the UK’s biggest distribution network operator, delivering power to 8.3 million homes and businesses across London, the East and the South East of England. Shira focuses on facilitating the uptake of electric vehicles and the roll-out of public charging. An economist by background, she develops innovative approaches to incentivise investment in public charging through regulation, collaboration and new commercial models.
Lucy: What do you see as the role of electricity networks in driving innovation, and how do you think it has evolved over the last few years?
Shira: I think a successful innovation program is key to delivering as an electricity network and to being the number one distribution network operator in the UK. There are three strands to our innovation work: we plan to be net zero ready, future ready and help to create a more efficient and effective network. The energy industry is undergoing a huge shift as the focus to get to Net Zero intensifies and so does the need to innovate. We really see it as vital to be at the forefront of that and to be prepared for the uptake of EVs and electric heat. We also have to make sure that no one is left behind in that transition and continue to deliver reliable supply to our customers.
Lucy: Any examples of innovation projects that you worked on that have made a real impact?
Shira: Every innovation is important, it’s about making life better for our customers and having a positive impact on the communities we serve. From enabling the low carbon revolution to providing a safer and more reliable service to putting in place a smarter network for the future, we need to be able to do all of it.
Two recent examples I think have the potential to make a real impact on Electric Vehicle (EV) adoption are our ‘Charge Collective’ and ‘Enable’ innovation projects. In both projects we are looking at public EV charging and working with local authorities to make sure that no one, including drivers with disabilities, is left behind in the EV transition.
Another one to mention also relating to the Net Zero transition is the Smarter Network Storage innovation project, which was also known as the ‘big battery’ project. This project improved the technical and commercial case for large scale electricity storage and paved the way for much more renewable energy in our homes and businesses.
Lucy: These are indeed very important projects for overcoming barriers in the Net Zero transition. What are key innovations that you will think will help the electricity networks prepare for low carbon heat and EVs?
Shira: We are preparing our network for heat and EVs by forecasting, monitoring and investing strategically. There are a number of projects that allow us to do this better, for example:
- Project Optimise Prime is the world’s largest commercial EV trial that aims to understand exactly how much energy a fleet needs to charge, so we can model charging demand over the day and night to achieve the lowest cost.
- In Project Shift we work with energy suppliers to create products that reward customers for charging their EV outside of peak times to help us manage demand on the network. As part of this project, we explored ways that network price signals could be used to incentivise EV charging outside of peak demand and as a result reduce the need for investing in significant reinforcement of the electricity grid.
- Lastly, Communiheat is helping rural community in East Sussex that are not on the gas grid move from carbon intensive oil to renewables. The project is a first of its kind and helps to create an approach that is data-driven and replicable for others to follow.
Lucy: Thinking about the practical elements of running an innovation project - what do you think is different about running an innovation project or team compared with the “normal” projects that you do on a day to day basis?
Shira: Although I think the principles are similar, in innovation we're doing things that haven't been done before, so we need to be team players, who are flexible, creative and committed to making things work.
In innovation projects, we employ a wide range of skills and value diverse backgrounds. We’ve got data specialists, IS wizards, economists, chemical engineers and communications specialists, alongside traditional electrical engineers. Getting a wide range of views on projects and powering them forward is critical.
Ultimately, we are developing solutions that will change the way that the business operates. So stakeholder engagement is vital from the start and that means internal stakeholder engagement as well. We need buy in from those who will be delivering the tools when they become business-as-usual from the beginning if we are to enact the changes that we need to see. I think part of that communication story is really important, because if people believe in what you're trying to do, it makes the whole process a lot easier and more seamless.
Lucy: How do you manage the pressure for the innovation to be successful given that all learning including failure should be valuable?
Shira: We are always aware that we are spending our customers’ money on innovation, so we have a duty to be responsible with it. There is no silver bullet that will solve every challenge we face and we are not really looking for moonshots or only looking at projects that will be useful in 20 years’ time. It is important to look at the short/medium term too, what can we do now that will help? What solution will provide benefits today whilst also prepare us for the future? Things that can help us trace faults on the network more quickly, or do something new to support vulnerable customers or interpret data in new and useful ways are just as likely to interest us as large-scale net zero projects.
I think having that balance in our portfolio is helpful, we are changing the way we work to meet those changing customer needs and have initiatives to engage with our customers directly. We keep processes transparent with customers so they can see the value in what we are doing and we are communicating what is working and what is not.
Lucy: What are the most important lessons you have learnt since starting your innovation role?
Shira: I would say two things. First, the importance of collaboration will all relevant stakeholders, particularly since the challenges are too big for any one organisation or sector to solve alone. So you need that collaboration with other industries, the government and with customers most importantly. Second, the value in having a diverse team full of different approaches and ways of thinking – it is really needed to help inspire new ideas, find solutions and overcome challenges.
QUICK FIRE ROUND
If one thing was missing from most innovation portfolios today it is…
… more customer engagement - don’t underestimate the importance of customer engagement in better understanding customer needs and shaping innovation projects that follow to make sure they meet those needs.
If you want to create more incentives to innovate you should…
… get to know the people you want to work with and how you can help them solve their challenges.
If you want to innovate faster you need to…
… be agile and adapt as customers’ needs and expectations evolve.
If you want to create successful innovation partnerships you need to…
… be honest and open, innovation doesn’t always go to plan, that’s okay but you can only work together and overcome challenges if you are honest about that.
If I could change one thing about how innovation works today it would be…
…make it more inclusive and accessible.
If other industries could learn one think from energy about innovation it would be…
… the importance and value of open data across the industry to drive solutions and improve efficiency.