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Power grid gears up to fast pace of change

Storage innovators are developing new systems to address the risk of renewable energy downtimes in a decarbonised electricity grid. Calum Innes reports.

If there’s one thing we learned in the 9 august blackout, it’s that we cannot take the UK’s power transmission and distribution network for granted. 

The way power is generated and distributed in the UK has been transformed in the past three decades, reflecting major changes in society and economics. But access to energy at the right time and price, and in the right volumes, is as important as ever. 

Traditionally, energy from large, oil- and coal-fired generation plants kept the lights on in homes and workplaces across Britain. Demand was largely predictable, even down to the spike during ad breaks on Coronation Street when millions put the kettle on. 

This centralised, top-down approach is giving way to a more diverse, dynamic market. Demand remains predictable, but lifestyle changes mean many of us work from home, no longer commuting at set times, and the digital boom has revolutionised employment and entertainment and led to a proliferation of screens, which we view when we wish. 

Another big change, still in the early stages, is the move away from oil and coal to gas and lower carbon fuel sources. This is mainly to comply with emission targets but also to lessen reliance on imports from potentially unstable sources abroad. Britain will close its last coal-fired power plant by 2025 to meet its climate goals and comply with UK carbon taxes and obligations under the European Emissions trading System. May saw our first coal-power free week in more than a century. Coal power provided 5% of electricity last year compared to 30% a decade earlier.

 Ignore for a moment that China is the world’s largest producer and consumer of coal, emitting more carbon dioxide than any other country, and that Asia now accounts for 75% of global demand for coal. The UK Government is committed to cutting greenhouse gas emissions to almost zero by 2050 under its latest plan to tackle climate change, announced in June. Meanwhile, renewable energy is increasingly popular with UK Consumers. 

This brings complexity and challenge, for unlike an always-on coal or nuclear plant, much renewable energy is weather-dependent – turbines need wind to generate electricity, solar needs sun. Tidal, while more reliable, is less developed than either. 

The transformation puts a big burden on the system for moving electricity from where it’s generated to where it’s consumed.

Britain’s transmission network carries high voltage electricity from where it’s produced to where it is needed throughout the country. The wires, pylons and larger substations making up the network are owned and maintained by regional companies – Scottish Power transmission, Scottish Hydro Electric transmission, and for England and Wales, national Grid Electricity transmission. 

The system as a whole is operated by national Grid Electricity transmission – responsible for ensuring the stable and secure operation of the whole transmission system. 

Electricity from the transmission grid is carried to industrial, commercial and domestic users by 14 licensed distribution network operators (DnO), each responsible for a regional distribution services area. 

For geographical reasons, customers can’t choose either their transmission network, or their  DnO. But they can choose their electricity supplier. this could be one of the ‘big six’, a retail chain such as Sainsbury’s, or a newcomer such as Good Energy, Ovo, Ecotricity or private equity-backed Octopus Energy, which is buying up struggling rivals. 

Some firms are trialling systems allowing customers to store electricity for use by neighbours. Soon, motorists will be able to use their electric vehicles as mobile batteries and sell electricity back into the grid. The supply system is evolving through market forces, guided by regulation. 

Teething problems have plagued household ‘smart meters’, but their eventual adoption looks likely, as customers switch to new appliances and track their use through hand-held apps. Meanwhile, both Government and the industry regulator Ofgem are exploring how technology-rich ‘smart grids’ can better monitor and control generation and demand in near real time, providing more reliable, cost-effective distribution and supply. 

Energy supply is dynamic and changes are occurring in most parts of the market. New entrants offer domestic and business consumers ‘behind-the-meter’ (i.e. customer-operated) solutions such as solar photovoltaic and data-driven energy efficiency systems. Some of these firms are being targeted for acquisition or external investment by energy companies keen to cut their exposure to oil and gas. 

So-called aggregators are introducing efficiencies to help large users such as retail chains, hospitals and sports clubs to lower their consumption, then ‘selling’ the cost savings back to the grid, which benefits by paying generators less. 

As we decarbonise, the biggest threat to supply comes from weather-dependent technologies such as wind and solar. To ensure we get through longer spells uninterrupted, we will have to address the intermittency problem – days and weeks of low wind or sun, not minutes or hours. As an example of renewable energy growth, the installed capacity of wind generation is forecast to increase by just over two-thirds from 487GW in 2016 to 817GW 2021, according to the Global Wind Energy Council. 

To maintain our living standards, industry requires renewable electricity on demand and the grid needs to deliver security of supply as we move to greener energy sources. New storage technologies will make this happen. 

The Government is investing £246 million in the ‘Faraday battery challenge’ to encourage full electrification and zero emission vehicles and benefit other sectors, such as aerospace, rail and energy distribution. Meanwhile, a growing number of UK entrepreneurs, investors, advisers and university researchers are finding new ways to serve a global battery energy storage market expected to be worth £18bn by 2023.