Project LEO: Redesigning the energy system at a local level

The UK needs energy systems that are cheaper, cleaner and consumer-friendly. Project LEO (Local Energy Oxfordshire) has the potential to show just how innovation can deliver this energy ambition for the future

Oxford City skyline. Image by Shutterstock

Oxford city skyline. Picture credit: Shutterstock

The UK needs energy systems that are cheaper, cleaner and consumer-friendly. Project LEO (Local Energy Oxfordshire) has the potential to show just how innovation can deliver this energy ambition for the future

Project LEO is a substantial 3-year Innovate UK funded grant led by the Department of Engineering Science’s Energy and Power Group, with significant collaboration from commercial energy providers and governmental organisations. Dr Masaō Ashtine, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Oxford e-Research Centre, is Data Manager on the project. Professor David Wallom is an Associate Professor of Engineering Science and Associate Director – Innovation at the Oxford eResearch Centre.

The following article was written by Masaō Ashtine and David Wallom. It originally published in EIC Energy Focus (Summer 2020)

Project LEO is a £40m+ multi-stakeholder consortium making Oxfordshire one of the UK’s largest testbeds for local energy systems. Announced in April 2019, it is funded by the Industrial Strategy Challenge fund (£13.8m) which is managed by Innovate UK, and private funding from project partners (£26m+).

To achieve net-zero goals by 2050, networks and operators must foster holistic and equitable approaches to tackling power, heat and transport systems. Operating locally, LEO will sync operations of the distribution network operator (DNO) Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks (SSEN) with industry partners such as EDF, Origami and Piclo, and local energy initiatives through the Low Carbon Hub. This partnership aims to extract value from innovative market platforms and flexibility services.

Locally driven

Trialling local energy systems is a core element of LEO, with its partners developing  complex stakeholder engagements to provide smart and fair solutions to network constraints and grid decarbonisation. Findings will inform policy at a national scale, with the replicability of activities being embedded into the project’s framework.

SSEN leads the project via monitoring of local primary and secondary substations in Oxfordshire. The University of Oxford and Oxford Brookes University, the local county and city councils, and the Low Carbon Hub are also major partners.

The Low Carbon Hub, a social enterprise supporting community energy projects, has a diverse portfolio of generation and renewable energy assets in Oxfordshire. This allows LEO to engage with local communities and test the impact of local flexibility services on reducing grid constraints. Initial findings have already helped SSEN to better understand its transition from DNO to distribution system operator (DSO), where networks work to enable the provision of flexible services to connected communities.

As it evolves to being a DSO in the wider energy network, SSEN has incorporated its TRANSITION project into LEO for the facilitation of new energy markets such as peer-to-peer trading and demand-side response services. LEO and TRANSITION will thus catalyse local energy transitions through a neutral market platform to provide enhanced and flexible network services to communities and commercial assets.

Agile ecosystems

The UK’s energy transition will gain empty outcomes without the strategic and well-coordinated planning of multiple stakeholders, each with their own goals for net-zero targets.

LEO encourages a multi-perspective approach to strengthening local energy systems, recognising the diverse needs and cultures of various ‘energy agents’. The participants, interconnecting processes and monetary flows are evolving towards a systemwide optimum that maximises social value; the term ‘ecosystem’ is thus used.

Project LEO has adopted a lean-ecosystems methodology that allows for fast-iterative feedback loops. This optimises knowledge and outcomes, enhancing processes and stakeholder engagement – a model that is often lacking in energy system design.

Progress is tested through a series of minimum viable systems (MVSs) – quick, low-risk, iterative trials that feed findings back to participants in an agile manner. This, in turn, influences future MVS trials and is hardcoded into LEO to accelerate system learning and the evolution of the ecosystem.

LEO’s MVS structure has so far aimed to actively iterate findings through five sub-categories of energy services: prosumer, generation, smart neighbourhoods, aggregation, and portfolios. Trials in ‘future system planning’ and ‘informing policy’ will be brought on in later phases of the project.

Year 1 findings

Flexibility service coordination has already been trialled in LEO, uncovering many useful findings for the next phase of trials in Year 2 and beyond. Market trials done with Piclo, partner universities, the Low Carbon Hub and other key LEO stakeholders have shed light on the market forces at play and the underpinning system requirements for fair and accessible local energy flexibility markets.

Data are instrumental in driving the MVS process, both for market operation and as learning metrics. DSOs and affiliated partners need open lines of communications and data in order to validate flexibility services and fully extract value from these new models. LEO is also drafting the data infrastructure needed to engage with local energy and communities for other energy system projects.

Lessons have come from both success and failure to deliver flexibility. Inaccessible data streams, asset specifications and unexpected environmental conditions have unearthed the operational and organisational minutiae involved in trialling flexibility services.

Project LEO has engaged energy stakeholders in new ways, enabling participants to better understand the nuanced constraints in local systems. These findings are then distilled and disseminated to a wider audience.

Looking ahead

The first year for Project LEO has revealed many underlying processes that constrain networks, and those that are needed for more flexible energy markets. LEO is ushering in a new model of energy trials and system development. Transitions must germinate from local systems that will further inform broader system and national policy.

With an increasing portfolio of assets and plug-in projects, the second year of LEO’s activities will bring new challenges and greater lessons for stakeholders and affiliated communities. MVS trials will move into new territory in which ‘aggregation’ and ‘portfolio’ asset services will be tested, bringing further insight as energy system trials are broadened under SSEN’s operations. Mapping these findings and associated data through spatial tools are also core dissemination tools.

Future work will see increased publication, community engagement and innovative data analysis, pushing the boundaries of conventional markets and network services. MVS trials will explore new categories of flexibility services (smart neighbourhoods, EV integration and V2G modelling, aggregator services, etc), and the further development of spatial mapping tools for local energy systems within connected Oxfordshire regions.

Innovative MVS trials around the category of ‘informing policy’ will also ensure the dissemination of key lessons to better inform policymakers, local communities and councils within the final project stages.

Continuity, replicability and active engagement have driven and will drive progress in building resilient local energy systems. Post-LEO, our consortium has a strong vision for sustained learning after the project’s lifetime. Data will be seated within the county council’s resources, and within the Data and Analytics Facility for National Infrastructure energy data repository for long-term open access, to accelerate the UK’s energy transition towards net-zero.