An innovation conversation - interview with Zain Habib at UK Power Networks
By Tim Hustwayte
As part of a wider look at innovation strategy at the UK networks we interviewed Zain Habib at UK Power Networks to learn more about how they plan and manage innovation projects.
What is your name and what do you do?
My name is Zain Habib and I am the Innovation Programme Delivery Manager at UK Power Networks. I have been in the company for about two years. Prior to that, I was at National Grid –for about five and a half years, and before that for a couple of years at a consultancy now known as DNV GL. My role is looking after a team of about eight to ten project managers and innovation engineers. In total, the Innovation team is made up of 30 individuals and two core delivery teams, one of which I lead.
Why did you get into this area of work?
I grew up in Pakistan and back in around 2007-2008, we started to experience load shedding or ‘brownouts’ on a local level, which really disrupted people’s lives and the businesses across the country. I was studying in the UK at the time and used to go back to Pakistan quite often during the holiday period. Living in the UK, you would never actively think about electricity or the reliability of supply. But back in Pakistan, you had to manage and work your routine around the brownouts – like charging batteries and having your phone constantly on charge. That's when I decided I would specialise in power engineering to try and give something back to society. Personally, that's what drives me.
Can you talk me through a typical day at UK Power Networks, what is it you do?
I am primarily responsible for the delivery of a portfolio of innovation projects that revolve around decarbonisation, decentralisation and digitalisation of the energy ecosystem, with a specific focus on improving and enhancing the performance of the network and reliability of assets.
In my portfolio, we have about 25 live projects which come with a unique set of challenges and stakeholders. So, as you can imagine, there is a lot going on at any one point just to make sure that things keep moving and that we continue to deliver these projects on time, budget and to scope.
What is the current strategy for innovation at UK Power Networks?
We recently released our updated Innovation Strategy which sets out what we are trying to do. There are three main pillars; Efficient and Effective, Net-Zero Ready and Future Ready.
What Efficient and Effective means is that we deliver smart solutions to enhance the efficiency of our networks here and now. We explore how to make our network perform better for our customers, and how do we enhance the reliability and cost-effectiveness of our assets to ensure we keep the lights on for our customers today.
Net-Zero Ready is about connecting renewable energy and low carbon technologies in a faster and cheaper way to our networks - and to ensure we do it with the minimum disruption to customers at the lowest possible cost.
Future Ready is about how we’re moving from our traditional role of a distribution network operator to becoming a distribution system operator, managing complex power flows in a world where anyone can be a producer and consumer of energy, and all the challenges that come with it. It’s integrating active network management into our network and creating flexibility markets. We are learning and growing as time progresses, using emerging tools powered by AI and big data to be more dynamic.
“The underlying message is that we want to ensure we continue to meet our customers evolving needs. We are tackling the climate change challenge and ensuring that no one gets left behind, especially our most vulnerable customers.”
Zain Habib Programme Delivery Manager, UK Power Networks
Which of the three strategic areas will be the most challenging?
To be honest, there are many different lenses to look at a project from. Let me give you an example. We have our Active Response project which is one of our flagship Network Innovation Competition projects and it is basically to facilitate the uptake of electric vehicles. So that is Net-Zero Ready obviously, but from a technical perspective, it’s meshing different substations so that we can utilise spare capacity by sharing load between them. You could argue a project like this sits in either Net-Zero Ready or Efficient and Effective. But if I had to pick one, I would say Net-Zero Ready is the biggest challenge. If you keep that as your goal, then everything can revolve around it.
EVs are of course very topical, what will happen with charging electric vehicles in London? We are working very closely with charge point operators, energy suppliers, vehicle manufacturers and government at local and national level to ensure that during this transition, we are the enablers. We strive to help accelerate and facilitate the uptake of electric vehicles.
We will probably see a lot of charging hubs emerging across London and the wider country. In fact one of our innovation projects, Optimise Prime, is looking at working with different fleet depots. We are working with Uber, Centrica and Royal Mail to see how they can accelerate this transition. The biggest challenge for many fleet operators is how to charge them. Once you have these depots electrified, there will be an influx of power required at certain times of the day and we will have to prepare our networks to meet that demand profile.
So yes, EVs or any new trend can be disruptive. However, from a technical perspective, it's mainly the same issue; you just want to ensure you have enough solutions to enable it at the lowest cost and in the most efficient way for everyone.
You mentioned technology, what is UK Power Networks experience with AI and machine learning?
Yes these are emerging technologies and so we are exploring them. As a company we are technology agnostic - what we want from suppliers is that they resolve our problems and help us facilitate the transition to Net Zero. We have explored some solutions like AI in a project called Synaps. AI was used to detect and build a library of faults. We set out to analyse the waveforms so we could detect faults before they even happened. It’s an exciting area and one that is only likely to grow in importance.
What about Big Data? Do you find managing and handling all the potential data sources a challenge?
Yes, we have a lot of data and the question is how are you going to utilise it? We are already doing it, but how we use big data is continuing to evolve and improve. Data is a by-product of almost every innovation project and so it’s a great opportunity to explore. As a company we have just launched our Open Data Hub to share datasets with industry and academia.
If someone has an innovation project what are the challenges both for the DNO and the supplier in getting this accepted?
The main challenge is to first help us solve a problem and then to transition the project or solution into business-as-usual so that we can deliver the benefits to our customers. We have funding available for innovation and we'll engage with any business or organisation, large or small, as long as someone provides us a feasible solution.
From a Network perspective if I have to give any advice, I would say start by looking at our Innovation strategy as it gives you a good feel for the challenges that the networks are experiencing. Second - engage with us. Make the most of events to come and talk to us directly, or indirectly through the likes of the Energy Innovation Centre to help bring your product to the market.
How has regulation affected innovation at UK Power Networks?
At UK Power Networks, we innovate through a variety of routes. For all of our innovation activities, we work to ensure that we pursue the most appropriate source of funding, including innovation mechanisms, price control allowances, and direct funding from our business.
We, and our regulator Ofgem, recognise that most innovation carries a higher risk than our everyday practices and is not always best conducted through our primary allowance mechanisms. Such activities are therefore best driven forward through our regulated innovation funding - Network Innovation Allowance and Network Innovation Competition, which reflect the innovation risk and reward balance by sharing up-front costs with customers. They provide for an industry-wide sharing of benefits and intellectual property arising from innovation enabling it to benefit all customers.
Want to find out more?
UKPN Innovation strategy document: https://innovation.ukpowernetworks.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/UK-Power-Networks-Innovation-Strategy-2020.pdf
UKPN idea submission form: https://innovation.ukpowernetworks.co.uk/submit-an-idea/