Electricity is used in a myriad of ways, that can include keeping the household warm in the winters and cool in the summers, preventing produce from spoiling in the fridge, keeping spaces lit in the dark, and facilitating the manufacture of the goods we buy. As we move towards electricity systems dominated by renewables, and as transport and heating are increasingly electrified, there is a pressing need to ensure our power grids can support 100% greenhouse gas emissions free electricity. A new global project is aiming to address these challenges.

Countries across the globe have begun decarbonising their electricty sectors to renewable energy alternatives, with the International Energy Agency predicting that over 42% of global electricity generation will be produced from renewable energy by 2028. In the United Kingdom (UK), green house gas emissions stemming from electricty generation have decreased by 69% since 2010. While these developments highlight an important step towards the global decarbonisation of electricity, current approaches to grid management make the integration of very high levels of renewables unachievable, a fundamental challenge to delivering a carbon neutral future.

In response, the University of Edinburgh is part of a consortium of Universities in the UK (Imperial College London and University of Strathclyde), the United States (US), and Australia who have joined forces to tackle some of these challenges. The ‘Electric Power Innovation for a Carbon-free Society’ (otherwise known as EPICS) global centre, is an ambitious 5-year project bringing together academic, policy, and industry experts from across the three participating countries and beyond. It hopes to change the international landscape of power systems management for a greener future.

On the EPICS Project

Led by Johns Hopkins University in the US, the EPICS Center aims to develop tools, analysis, and policy recommendations in computing, economic, engineering, and policy methods and tools to enable a 100% emissions-free power grid together with electricity system operators across the globe.

Their goal is to address the challenge of integrating high levels of variable renewable energy (VRE) sources to power global systems in a cost effective, reliable, fair and secure way. VRE sources, such as wind and solar, are sensitive to changes in weather conditions, creating challenges in how to match supply and demand minute by minute whilst maintaining grid stability.

At the heart of the EPICS project is the focus on power systems engineering which incorporate the engineering and computational hurdles of this energy transition. However, ensuring policy and governance are supportive of change, and that citizens are engaged in the process, are of equal importance to an effective transition.

The development of policy, regulation and business models that support distributed flexibility at the consumer scale is the focus of Dr Jess Britton’s (she/her) work, a Research Fellow in the School of Social and Political Science at the University.

How do we distribute highly sophisticated grid technologies? And how can the average consumer make the best use of them?

Dr Jess Britton is the University’s co-investigator for the EPICS project. Her role is focused on investigating the socio-technological implications of 100% emission free power grids. The two areas that Dr Britton is addressing are 1) policy, regulation and governance support for distributed and end-user flexibility, and 2) the intergration of social science into the wider work of the centre.

Her research will investigate the conditions under which policymakers, regulators and grid operators can accelerate the delivery of demand-side flexibility, where consumers and sources of demand adjust their energy use to match the availability of VRE supply. This includes evaluating what new approaches to valuing consumer flexibility are being developed internationally and how they assess fairness across different parts of society.

“Regulation and policy in support of demand-side flexibility is developing very rapidly with extensive experimentation in different countries. My work deals with investigating how policymakers and regulators could develop more transformative policies to increase demand-side flexibility. Historically, the logic of energy systems, especially on power grids, was based on supply meeting demand in a very centralised way. A decarbonised future will require a much more dynamic management of power grids including a strong role for decentralised flexibility.

What impact does EPICS have on sustainable energy and climate change?

The work of Dr Britton and her international colleagues can help address the common problems faced by countries wanting to shift to renewable based energy systems. The impact can be felt from an international, and local scale. Further, developing the grid system can expand the decarbonization of other sectors beyond electricity, such as industry and transport.

Through cooperation and by using comparative work, lessons learned from EPICS and its participating countries can be applied to improve international and domestic energy systems.

Within the UK, research and innovations developed through EPICS support the UK’s Net Zero Strategy to decarbonize the UK economy by 2050, along with its plans to decarbonize electricity systems by 2035. In Scotland, the commitment towards net zero emissions of all greenhouse gases by 2045 is supported through this project and its involvement of the local energy systems operator: the National Grid (‘ESO’).

EPICS holds great promise in transforming our understanding of energy and power systems management. It is also a great testament to the power of international cooperation and coordination to tackle climate change, as well as the importance of holistic, interdisciplinary projects.

Keep your eyes open for the opportunity to join this EPICS adventure.

Dr Jess Britton welcomes the support of future researchers in the University’s contribution to the EPICs project. A research fellow post supporting the work of the Centre will be open for applications in Spring.

For more information on the University’s contribution to this project, please contact Dr Jess Britton: jess.britton@ed.ac.uk.