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Doing things differently to build relationships with network customers

Doing things differently to build relationships with network customers

Viewpoint from Paul Bircham- Commercial Strategy and Support Director for Electricity North West.

Over recent weeks the spotlight is shining brightly on the energy industry, from price caps to renationalisation to calls for a state-owned energy company in Scotland.

The one thing that is certain is that the energy industry has to and is changing and as a network operator we are proud advocates of transforming the way energy is delivered to meet the needs of our five million customers across the North West and share best practice now and for decades to come.


The transformation challenge 

The main challenges we face is the changing relationship with customers from passive to active, who we need to be proactively building relationships with and anticipating and planning for what’s next for the energy industry.

There is now an ever increasing range of customers from solar farms, to offshore wind farms to combined heat and power plant to commercial, domestic and industrial customers. With the surge of new electric cars after government plans to ban the sale of new diesel and petrol cars by 2040 and the increase in renewables the variety of customers and their energy needs will continue to increase and evolve.

The role of the distribution network operator (DNO) is no longer only to maintain the network and to keep the power on, it is now our responsibility to think smarter and get more out of the network to reduce costly new infrastructure, analyse and react to customer behaviours and help customers in fuel poverty.

We are now on a journey to become a responsive and agile network operator with a hyper-local approach enabling customers connected to our networks the freedom to buy and sell their energy safely, securely and at the lowest cost.


A new hyper-local approach

To make this a reality it requires a new service model for network management and design and the facilitation of a flexible network through local and regional balancing and the move to a Distribution Systems Operator (DSO).

Ensuring that supply meets demand is the key to keeping the power on across the UK. At the moment, that’s almost exclusively done at a national level, but there are huge variations locally in how customers want to use and pay for the power they need and the local approach is clearly the way forward. We are the lynchpin between both local and national generation and consumers and are key to ensuring that the DSO model succeeds.

Fundamentally our role will centre on identify needs and securing the most efficient means of capacity provision for customers.

We already see customers in our network looking to community energy and working with a variety of other parties such the National Grid. As this increases we will need to have a role in ensuring that our network is ready make sure we provide a reliable and safe supply of power to customers.


Benefits of an agile and flexible power network

There are many benefits of enabling this transformation and building customer relationships which include low cost and affordability, additional income streams, faster connections, reduction in carbon and costly new infrastructure, enable deployment of low carbon technologies and avoid uncertainties and risk of demand.

We are proud of our proven track record of successfully delivering projects that deliver real improvements to customers in terms of capacity, affordability and safety.

In the last five years we have won £42m of competitive funding to ensure our network is fit for the future. This includes our pioneering award-winning Customer Load Active System Services (CLASS) project and our community energy saving project Power Saver Challenge.

CLASS, which has now been implemented as business as usual and shared as best practice across the UK, provides significant benefits to domestic customers through innovative unseen demand-side response techniques. 

By using ‘automatic voltage controllers’ (AVCs) to reduce demand for electricity, without customers even noticing a difference to their service the CLASS project could save our customers around £100 million over the next 25 years and £300 million across the UK.

Our changing approach to customer engagement is highlighted in our community engagement project Power Saver Challenge. The project tested ways of encouraging customers to reduce their electricity usage to alleviate pressure on the network at times of peak demand. The Power Saver Challenge revealed that through engagement customers changed their energy usage behaviour and their attitude towards energy consumption, both during the trial and after it had ended.

These great results showcase how thinking and working differently can transform the way energy is created, stored and delivered to customers and how vital our role is in making the transformation a reality. 

The North West is rich in renewable resources and opportunities and we’re proud to support the Northern Powerhouse and help lead the way to a carbon neutral Manchester in collaboration with the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham.

It’s an exciting time to be part of the energy industry and we’re looking forward to taking the next steps on this journey.