When the recent "Beast from the East" Siberian storms sent British energy demand to its highest level in a decade, gas prices increased fourfold to 12-year highs and the national grid issued deficit warnings. It was yet another reminder that the U.K.’s approach to energy needs serious rethinking. We seem to be unable to create supply security that can deal with such demand spikes while also finding solutions to meet carbon emission reduction targets. This reflects a failure on the part of utilities and government to map out a clear future.

The majority of current solutions are costly and do not decrease costs for bill payers, whilst others haven’t been advanced because they threaten system reliability. If we are to achieve security of supply while meeting legally binding carbon budgets, a strategy is needed that takes a holistic view of the whole system.

A whole system approach is a fully integrated proposal for energy master planning and delivering energy services at a district level. It encompasses the supply and demand of all interconnected energy vectors in order to optimize the U.K.’s sustainability, reliability and affordability performance.

By revisiting the structure of each energy system through greater technology and network integration, plus the empowerment of consumers, we can achieve lower carbon emissions, enhance reliability and lower costs. These interdependent and interconnected components — working together at significant scale — can achieve the optimal use of resources and capacity and solve the energy trilemma.

Take the meteoric rise of the electric vehicles (EV) market. Once a novelty for the wealthy, today demand is rising rapidly and the pace of growth is staggering. But despite this customer demand, the electric sector remains fearful of the negative effects mass adoption will have on the existing grid network and how it will accommodate this transition under the current regulatory framework. While EVs do pose uncertainty, if they could be successfully integrated as grid assets through vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology, they would bring benefits not previously considered.

We need to think differently if we are going to take full advantage of new technologies. By utilising energy assets and services, across all energy vectors, the U.K. will make the most of existing systems and keep costs contained. This includes gas and electricity, but also heat and hydrogen networks and, crucially, transport. The creation of new markets and dynamic pricing models will engage customers and give them greater control of their energy costs. This will make real progress toward carbon reduction goals.

A new road map for the energy sector is required, which brings together all players, including market participants, technology, government and systems, to deliver a whole system approach.

First, we need a new financial model that rewards innovation and incentivises investors and developers to take risks outside of their core business to make system enhancements. Regulators also need to consider pricing models based on new features, such as connectivity, location and environmental benefits.

Second, we need to encourage community energy schemes — such as the Cheshire Energy Hub in Ellesmere Port — to bring together large-scale energy users to solve challenges at a local level. This type of innovation will create new market opportunities through the aggregation of significant supply and demand to optimize resources. By leveraging the flexibility that is available in industrial and commercial estates, we can create a platform that can flex the various energy vectors in a way that better meets the collective needs of the community.

Third, we need new pricing models that focus on putting customers in control of their energy usage. Consumers must become “prosumers” who make active decisions using real-time price signals. Empowering them to take an active role in reducing their energy bills supports decarbonisation, enhances energy security and promotes affordability.

It is, after all, customers who drive innovation, markets and demand. This whole system approach influences customer behaviour through dynamic pricing models. For example, agile pricing for electricity and transport would discourage EV charging during peak electric demand periods while simultaneously enabling it to support electric load.

Utilities must also evolve if they are to maintain relevance, and their leaders should be planning new models to achieve a 10-year vision. Moving forward, leaders should be looking to significantly strengthen their position by, for example, identifying new ways to monetise existing services.

It is imperative that network owners, generation asset owners, retail participants, regulators, customer groups and community representatives come together to address barriers, such as a lack of harmonization between regulations, policy and pricing. The whole system approach would engage stakeholders to assess how to flex capacity, develop new financial markets, and adjust policy to accelerate investment in clean solutions. Collaboration will create uniform policies that drive desirable outputs, without leaving the vulnerable behind.

The U.K. government must also start to turn strategy into action and connect the dots between stakeholders. The Clean Growth Strategy has serious ambitions but, as the Committee on Climate Change recently said, we now need to urgently firm up policies and provide more detail in order to achieve required emissions savings.

The energy market is changing rapidly, and the need for radical adaptation grows ever closer. Get it right, and the whole system approach has the potential to solve all aspects of the energy trilemma, to the benefit of all.


Technologies and the holistic planning of a whole system approach will play a big role in building the smart cities of the future.

See Our Vision

Jonathan Chapman, CEng, MICE, MIET, is the managing director for Burns & McDonnell in the UK. He has more than 25 years’ experience leading teams in securing and delivering projects in the power, water, telecom and gas sectors. He has been instrumental in enabling businesses to deliver complex solutions for client needs, working on major utility programmes across the UK.