How location is tackling the big challenges in the utilities sector

security

The UK has pledged to reduce its carbon emissions by 45 per cent by 2030 and

reach net zero by 2050, in accordance with its obligations under the Paris

Agreement. All eyes are on utilities providers as we transition to a net zero future,

but it’s not as simple as flicking a switch and swapping to renewable energy

generation. Here Paul French, Chief Commercial Officer at Ordnance Survey (OS),

Great Britain’s national mapping service, explains how access to accurate

location data can support utilities companies in futureproofing their networks for

2050 and beyond.

Heat mapping

The climate crisis is the single greatest issue of our generation. However, location data

can provide insight into how we are using our land, helping us make the most of our

green spaces and heat traps.

2022 was one of the hottest years on record in the UK, highlighting the effects of climate

change on air temperature. The UK is already leading the way in climate adaptation by

using space data to monitor and understand the impact of climate change. For example,

in a project backed by the UK Space Agency, OS is collaborating with the National

Centre for Earth Observation and Space4Climate to use satellite data to monitor and

map heat in locations at greatest risk. This project was made possible by OS’s highly

accurate location data, overlayed with earth observation data.

Revealing locations that are at greater risk allows local governments to plan better and

implement effective policies to deal with extreme weather events. Accurate location data

can also be used to optimise tree planting and land management, ensuring that

planning is resilient to future change. It’s not just local governments that can benefit

from such insight. Utilities companies can use location data to better understand their

network and asset resilience from weather events like extreme heat. Knowing precisely

where these assets are, and the risks placed upon them, will allow utilities providers to

carry out better, more targeted maintenance quicker than before, in-turn delivering

better customer service.

In cities, heat mapping can be used to find heat islands. These spots, where land

surface is densely covered with roads, pavement, buildings and other surfaces that

absorb and retain heat, could benefit from building adaptation. For example, retrofitting

green roofs and green spaces that could be used for heat pumps and as low carbon

heat sources.

Heat mapping can also be used to enable community-driven energy generation, where

an entire city or municipality create micro energy grids, powered by solar panels or

nearby wind farms to help reduce demand on the national grid and lower their carbon

footprint.

Asset planning

By 2030, it’s estimated that there will be between eight million and 11 million hybrid and

electric cars in the UK, requiring 300,000 charging points. With just 37,000 existing in

2023, it’s clear that work is required to build this infrastructure.

The Department for Transport, in conjunction with the University of Exeter, undertook a

study to estimate the proportion of properties in a certain area that could accommodate

private electric vehicle charge points powered by the household. Using OS’s geospatial

data, combined with other data sets, they developed an algorithm that could be used to

classify residential dwellings as potential locations for private charge points. The test

area revealed 84% of areas examined were viable.

As the number of electric vehicles on the road increases, data like this will prove to be

vital. Also, for public use chargers, it’s important to see additional data, like how many

houses exist within a postcode and which have off-street parking available. This will

allow chargers to be placed in the most efficient locations.

Once this infrastructure is in place, it’s also important that we have a clear

understanding of how the national grid is operating in terms of consumption. Combining

real-world sensed data with analytical models will allow us to better understand this

consumption, predict change and design the networks of the future.

Avoiding strikes

Around four million kilometres of pipes, sewers and electricity and telecoms cables are

buried underground in the UK, accounting for a significant proportion of the nation’s

utility, building and transport infrastructure. It’s estimated that, every seven seconds, a

hole is dug to access these assets for repairs, upgrades and new installations.

The vast amount of holes dug, coupled with the unreliability of underground asset

location data, means that there are around 60,000 accidental strikes per year, leading to

injury, project delays and disruption to traffic and local economies. The total cost of

these accidental strikes is estimated to be around £2.4 billion every year.

The lack of a single source of location data for underground assets has had a huge

impact on the number of strikes over the years. While location data exists, it’s siloed in

separate private companies and local authorities, with data sharing between them often

slow and resource intensive.

To help combat this, the UK government appointed Atkins to deliver a new data

platform: the National Underground Asset Register (NUAR) — a single, secure data-

sharing service to record the location and characteristics of underground assets. Atkins

are working with Ordnance Survey, 1Spatial, GeoPlace and the Greater London

Authority. In April 2023, the first phase of NUAR launched, which covers the North East

of England, Wales and London. 

Prior to NUAR, location data was siloed across different industries and stored in

different formats. NUAR provides workers with an interactive, standardised digital view

of the underground assets in a given location, reducing the risk of accidental strikes and

resultant delays, costs and traffic disruption.

Also, improving access to datasets such as gas, water, and electricity supply lines in a

secure way provides a significant advantage in surveying and risk assessment, thus

reducing risks and helping to improve safety onsite.

Better service

It’s important for providers to be aware of customers that require additional support,

particularly vulnerable customers who are blind, hard of hearing, or living with long-term

illnesses. OS is helping overcome this by being involved in a pilot called Support For

All, a register organised by Northumbrian Water. The pilot brings together data from

various utilities providers to build a master list of all residents in Great Britain that might

require additional support from their providers.

Once the list is aggregated, it will be disseminated out to all of the utilities providers

involved so that they can understand which of their customers are vulnerable. While

utilities providers will have some insight already, Support for All will help ensure that

every resident is provided with the support that they need, especially as our reliance on

fossil fuels reduces and the way that households receive energy changes.

Achieving net zero emissions by 2050 is key to protecting our planet for the future.

However, OS understands the challenges that the energy transition causes for utilities

companies. To succeed, it needs to be based on authoritative and trusted data that OS

has and cannot be found elsewhere.

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