Review of technical barriers to upscaling SLES

Review of technical barriers to upscaling SLES

By Callum Rae, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh

As part of our ongoing research into the technical barriers to the upscaling of Smart Local Energy Systems (SLES), we recently published the findings of our literature review in ‘Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews’.

As the transition towards a more sustainable, distributed energy model has continued to gather pace, the number of SLES projects has increased. Ranging in age, size, location and complexity, these projects have faced a series of technical, social and economic challenges, with varying degrees of success. Our research aims to capture the lessons learned by these projects, particularly when it comes to the technical barriers faced.

The paper presents the results of our systematic, state-of-the-art literature review, with the aim of identifying the main technical barriers experienced by SLES in the UK, as reported by academic and grey literature. This included the detailed review of 132 items of literature, selected using targeted keyword searches. The article was published online in July, and we’re delighted to be able to provide a brief overview of the findings below.

Arguably the most significant finding of the review is the extent to which technological barriers can not – and should not! – be thought of as distinct from non-technical barriers. The nature and scale of SLES means that every technical aspect of their design and operation is likely to have an economic, environmental or social component. It is therefore important to view technical barriers within their respective social, economic and regulatory contexts.

The site-specific nature of SLES is identified as limiting the applicability of specific technical barriers. This means that the number of high-level overviews of technical challenges and barriers which exist in the literature is limited, with a high number of articles focussing on more specialist, detailed aspects of SLES design and performance.

The main barrier areas identified by our review are as follows:

  • Technological maturity and development;
  • Intermittency (associated with some renewable sources) and how to account for it in design and operation;
  • The emergence and integration of energy storage;
  • Grid connection;
  • Multi-vector integration;
  • The role and integration of smart technology;
  • The inclusion of transport within SLES;
  • SLES modelling and simulation.

These barrier areas fall within one or more of three fundamental underlying technical challenges: diversity, uncertainty and integration.

The findings of the review also indicate that a more detailed understanding of site and context-specific barriers – and the relationships between them – is required in order to facilitate the mitigation or removal of technical barriers to the upscaling of SLES.

The literature review process is the first step towards understanding the variation, frequency and severity of the barriers to upscaling experienced by SLES. The findings have been used to form the basis of our stakeholder engagement phase, which consists of several detailed case studies of existing UK-based SLES. These case studies will further increase our understanding of the technical barriers to upscaling and how they manifest themselves in UK-based SLES by providing a more practical, ‘boots on the ground’ insight. We look forward to keeping you updated as our work progresses.

A link to the published article can be found at:

Image Ref: Rae, Callum, Sandy Kerr, and M. Mercedes Maroto-Valer. "Upscaling smart local energy systems: A review of technical barriers." Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 131 (2020): 110020.