Blog - Power Cut? Don’t Panic! The Future Energy System will be Resilient by Design

Posted: 13 Aug 2019

Dr Toby Ferenczi

Director of Strategy

The transition to a zero-carbon energy system will eventually make our electricity grid stronger than ever, but only after some big changes.

In an unassuming office building down a deliberately unmarked turning on the outskirts of Wokingham, a small team of people hold the country in their hands. National Grid’s National Control Centre, a cavernous room with a giant screen showing the status of the UK’s high voltage power lines (think NASA Mission Control but with less high-fiving), has ultimate responsibility for keeping Britain’s electricity network running 24/7. As a result, success for the people who work there is to not be noticed. On the whole they do a great job of this (the UK has one of the world’s most reliable electricity networks) except for very rare occasions, like last Friday’s blackout.

Increasingly, the Electricity System Operator (or ESO, the part of National Grid that runs the control centre), is playing an important role in the transition to a zero-carbon energy system.

This is because one of the biggest challenges with decarbonisation is how to keep the electricity grid stable as more and more of our energy comes from renewables.

Whilst renewable energy is now extremely cheap, cheaper even than fossil fuel power plants, unfortunately we can’t turn the sun and wind on and off to meet fluctuating demand. This means that we need to find new ways to keep the grid in balance. Fortunately, there are a wide variety of means at our disposal to either store energy or adjust our energy demand to meet fluctuations in supply (called ‘Demand Response’) through our smart devices at home. Domestic batteries are one of the most prominent examples of this and their cost is falling at a blistering pace. Not to mention the huge uptake in electric cars we will see in the next two decades, which in effect, have the potential to form a giant battery for the grid.

The ESO spends around £2bn a year paying companies to help them meet imbalances in supply and demand, called ‘grid balancing services’. Usually these payments go to fast-acting gas turbines that can ramp up and down quickly, but increasingly batteries and demand response devices including electric car charge points and smart heaters in people’s homes are being drawn upon to help manage the grid. Deciding how the grid will be balanced has a huge influence on how our grid will look in the future. The ESO therefore has dual responsibility for keeping the lights on every second, and also for facilitating our target to become a net-zero society by 2050. It’s hard to think of a single organisation that has two such critical, yet potentially conflicting, goals.

Last Friday at 4.54pm, a key gas-fired power station near Saint Neots, Cambridgeshire tripped out, instantly reducing power to the grid equivalent to half a million homes. Dealing with a sudden loss of power like this is exactly what the control room prepares for. Such losses cause a rapid change of grid frequency that can cause other power stations to trip, which, if left unchecked, could quickly create a domino effect leading the entire grid to shut down. Rebooting the network can take several days in a process ominously referred to as ‘Black Start’. Thankfully, on this occasion the ESO’s defense mechanisms kicked in correctly, with some types of storage responding in under a second to help stabilize the system. One defense mechanism was to temporarily cut supply to certain regions which is what caused the disruption.

Imagine a smart, flexible energy system where millions of electric vehicles and appliances are connected and responding intelligently to match the supply of renewables. Even better, imagine an energy system in which customers get paid for providing this smart flexibility, thereby reducing their energy bills.

— Dr Toby Ferenczi

By coincidence, summer storms meant the UK’s wind farms were operating at near full capacity. The more wind energy on the system, the less ‘inertia’ coming from traditional power stations which have large, heavy rotating turbines. Whilst wind energy was not the cause of the issue, this lack of inertia arguably made things harder to deal with than they would otherwise have been.

This prompted scorn from climate sceptics, such as James Delingpole, the arch climate-change sceptic, who was quick to declare a “grid cock-up caused by wind farms,” although as The Times’ Emily Gosden pointed out, “Grid cock-up caused by old fossil fuel power plant” would be more appropriate.

For years, threats of power cuts have been used to justify new spending on fossil fuels and limit the growth of renewables; “give us money for this new power line/nuclear power station etc. otherwise the lights will go out!”.

New, cheaper distributed technology is changing the game, however. Several studies, such as the one published by OVO and Imperial College last year, have shown that by using batteries and smart controls, a grid powered by over 90% renewables with high levels of electric vehicles and electric heating, is not only possible, but would in fact be cheaper to run than today’s energy system. Energy storage and demand response may eventually make the grid more reliable and resilient than today, even with a rapid expansion in renewables.

Getting from where we are today, to the system of the future, will require rapid change. To have any hope of meeting our climate change obligations, the UK Government must preside over a mass roll-out of solar and wind, electric vehicles, and electric heating. Dramatically decarbonising electricity generation, and in parallel electrifying everything from cars to heating, is now accepted as the most practical way to achieve our 2050 climate goals. Imagine a smart, flexible energy system where millions of electric vehicles and appliances are connected and responding intelligently to match the supply of renewables. Even better, imagine an energy system in which customers get paid for providing this smart flexibility, thereby reducing their energy bills.

There is no reason to think that the ESO won’t be able to deliver the energy transition whilst keeping the grid stable, and I’m sure that after the recent power outage, greater protections will be put in place for core infrastructure like rail networks. It is time however, to question the ingrained wisdom that anything that poses a risk to uninterrupted access to power, however small, is unacceptable. Preserving the habitability of our planet will require some big changes to our energy system, let’s make sure we embrace the new technologies that will make our grid stronger in the process.

About the Author

Dr Toby Ferenczi

Director of Strategy

Toby is Kaluza’s Director of Strategy. Prior to his current role, Toby was COO and MD of Kaluza (formerly known as VCharge), an award winning technology company acquired by OVO Group in 2016. Before joining Kaluza, Toby was CEO of Hanergy Solar, UK, one of Europe’s largest residential solar installers. At Hanergy he launched a partnership with IKEA, making it possible to buy PV through their stores in four countries. His previous experience includes founding Engensa, a solar company sold to Hanergy and working for General Electric. Toby has a PhD in solar energy from Imperial College London, and a BA and MSci in Physics from Cambridge University.

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