With energy supply responsible for 65% of global greenhouse gas emissions, the transition to renewable energy sources is a critical part of the fight against dangerous climate change. We have the resources and the technology – the challenge is creating a reliable supply of power, both for developed countries used to having electricity at the flick of a switch, and for developing nations for which a stable, affordable power supply is an essential foundation for economic growth.

Exactly how we go about transforming the energy landscape is the question that the Oxford Martin Programme on Integrating Renewable Energy, established in 2015, has set out to answer. Its ambition, broadly, is to build an understanding of how to integrate renewables while at the same time retaining a secure energy system, an issue which – above cost or availability – is now regarded as the main barrier to large-scale adoption of renewable sources. The challenges and uncertainties are both intrinsic – namely generation, distribution, storage and end use – and extrinsic, such as new technologies, business models and finance, social acceptability, and governance and regulation. The team, which includes economists, social scientists, materials scientists and engineers, set out to look at how all these factors influence and interact with each other, and what opportunities, synergies and constraints these interactions might present. 

'The central question is, "How are our systems going to have to adapt and change to enable far more clean technologies to provide energy for society?",' says Professor Malcolm McCulloch, who, with Professor Nick Eyre from Oxford's Environmental Change Institute, leads the programme.

'The impact of human activity is now making a substantial difference to the planet's ability to provide us with the services we depend on: fresh water, oxygen, stable temperatures, biodiversity – provisions that allow us to do everything from breathing through to making a mobile phone. We need to transform that environmental capital far more effectively, at much lower cost, and reverse some of those environment-to-society flows.'

Of course it's going to require a lot of investment. But you're balancing out the cost of the conductor with the cost of having assets that are uncoordinated.

Professor Malcolm McCulloch

Fossil fuel sources have been successful for many reasons. Key in this context is the relative simplicity they present for the energy system as a whole. 'The amount of land that a coal-fired power station takes up is very small and focused, whereas renewables tend to be distributed over much larger areas,' says Professor McCulloch, of Oxford's Department of Engineering Science. 'Going from point-based resources to decentralised, distributed resources has strengths and weaknesses. You need far more power sources, but these sources can be located far closer to customers, be those individuals, businesses or even electric vehicle charging facilities. You'll also have a much wider range of people owning assets as the costs to start a solar "power station" are much smaller.'

All this is good, he says, but it means the system as a whole becomes much more complex and difficult to control. The ability to digitise information means it's no longer prohibitively expensive to create a smarter distribution system, but organisations face a big challenge in how they adapt to dealing with all that data.

Enter Project LEO (Local Energy Oxfordshire), whose underpinning basis was developed by the Oxford Martin programme. Announced in early 2019, the £40 million initiative was one of only four energy projects to win funding from the UK government's Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund. Led by distribution company SSEN, it will use Oxfordshire as a test bed to explore how local energy demand can be balanced with local supply, and will include renewable energy sources, electric vehicles, battery storage and vehicle-to-grid technology. LEO and the three other 'demonstrator' projects are designed to show how local systems approaches can deliver cleaner and cheaper energy, producing better outcomes for consumers and contributing to economic growth for the UK.

It's widely acknowledged that what's going to be required over the coming years is a fundamental change from our current distribution network operator (DNO) model, to a distribution system operator model (DSO). A DNO can be thought of as the owner of the wires and the transformers, whereas the DSO would actively control the system, telling people whether energy needs to be put in or taken out, and what power sources need to be wound down.

'You can think of the DNOs as members of the orchestra, and of a DSO as the conductor,' says Professor McCulloch. 'Previously there was only a very simple piece of music being played, and the only decision to be made was whether another person could join the orchestra. But with the piece now getting more complex, the timing between the instruments gets more important.'

Exactly what the shape of the conductor's role will be, and who might fulfil it, are issues that have been worked through by Professor McCulloch and his colleagues on the Integrating Renewable Energy programme. They're now being tested in the real world with the LEO project.

The programme team's expertise is also helping to drive a number of other major energy initiatives, both in the UK and overseas. These include the Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions (CREDS), led by Professor Eyre, the Faraday Battery Challenge, the Energy Revolution Research Consortium (EnergyREV), and RELCON (Robust Extra Low Cost Nano- grids), a Global Challenges Research Fund project investigating radical approaches to new energy systems in Africa, which is being led by Professor McCulloch.

The push for change to UK energy systems is coming from both business and government, he says. 'Of course it's going to require a lot of investment. But you're balancing out the cost of the conductor with the cost of having assets that are uncoordinated. This way you are able to unleash a whole lot of capacity in the network that currently isn't available, because no-one is conducting the orchestra at the moment. The additional value created far outweighs the money spent.'