Why the UK needs an energy security rethink

London at night
Sebastian Blake
Sebastian Blake, Commercial Analyst, Open Energi

Blackout Britain is a headline which has become increasingly common over recent years. Many argue that decades of under investment in generation infrastructure has left the margin between demand and supply in the UK desperately short, raising the possibility of network outages at times of high power demand. Given the blame that would be landed at the Government’s feet were the lights to go out, energy security has been given top priority over the other facets of the energy trilemma; decarbonisation and affordability.

The Government’s solution to this was to devise the Capacity Market as a mechanism to encourage investment in new power plants, with yearly auctions for participants who can provide capacity over the winter peak. Crucially, auctions are held four years in advance of the capacity ‘go live’ date, to guarantee revenue and give investors the confidence they need to build new power stations.

There are, however, major flaws in the thinking behind such an approach. There is much evidence to suggest that the UK is in fact well supplied with power station capacity, that building more stations is unnecessary and that running the system more efficiently on tighter margins is a good thing. And by ensuring there is sufficient power plant capacity to meet the instance of highest demand in the year other potentially greater threats to security of supply are being ignored.

The graph below shows the frequency of the UK grid, which is the primary indicator of the system stability. The network is in balance when the frequency is hovering around the 50Hz mark, however any significant variation either side is a sign of a serious imbalance between generation and demand and could result in a potential shutdown of the network. This isn’t a distant threat: whole towns had to be shut off as an emergency measure in 2008 when grid frequency dropped to 48.8Hz.

Grid frequency graph

In this case, we can see what happed to the frequency when a large supply source – an interconnector between the UK and France – failed, leading to more power being drawn by consumers than was being supplied to the grid. To counteract the resulting frequency drop and avoid a system shut down, a series of automatic measures kicked into action, including turning up thermal power plants (coal and gas) and sending water reserves cascading through turbines of hydroelectric plants.

More recently on the 9th May 2016 there were 37 significant failures across 27 different coal and gas plants as well as the France interconnector; with each one disrupting frequency and testing the grid’s resilience. At one point in the day National Grid issued a warning that insufficient spare capacity would be available in an hour’s time. This is too short notice for a thermal plant to start up (which takes around four hours) so not something the Capacity Market would have helped with.

National’s Grid’s Head of Commercial Operation Cathy McClay has said managing the grid frequency is becoming an increasing headache for our island system. However, the technologies traditionally used to respond in these situations look increasingly unfit for the role. The best new candidate is demand side flexibility – in the form of batteries and demand side response – which offers numerous benefits.

 Energy storage and demand side response offer five core advantages over traditional solutions

  1. Speed of response: Demand side response and batteries can deliver their full power in under 1 second from receiving a request from the network. By comparison thermal plants and hydroelectric generators need around 10 seconds. As the interconnector example shows, this difference is crucial for avoiding a potential network shutdown and will be needed more and more due to continued reductions in system inertia.

 

  1. Decentralisation: Demand side response and batteries are distributed technologies meaning a required level of response can be made up from aggregating together many smaller sites. We have seen how relying on large centralised technologies (like the undersea link to France) poses increased risk to system stability as they represent significant single points of failure. Thermal power stations fail on a daily basis so individual plants cannot be relied upon for response; whereas with distributed technologies this risk is shared across many assets; if one fails the whole service is not compromised.

 

  1. No need for spinning reserve: Traditional providers are only able to achieve the 10 seconds or so when starting from an already running position, hence the generators must be operating at some partial output to provide the quick response. This impacts fuel efficiency by around 10-20%, greatly increasing costs and CO2

 

  1. Flexibility: The network can only absorb as much power as there is demand, so at times of low demand, National Grid must turn down clean and zero marginal cost power from renewable sources like wind to accommodate the thermal generators which must be kept running for frequency response. Demand side response and batteries overcome this problem.

 

  1. Low carbon: By maximising the use of demand side response and energy storage technologies, the UK will be able to achieve further growth in renewable generation; while reducing its reliance on interconnectors and its exposure to volatile gas prices.

 

The high capacity fossil fuel plants which have historically been used to respond to the demands of the grid are increasingly unfit for purpose in a modern electricity network, yet the Capacity Market fails to encourage the development or implementation of smarter, cleaner and decentralised solutions which would provide a more efficient means of addressing both our energy security and other elements of the trilemma.

Neglecting these alternative solutions via the Capacity Market will undermine exactly the thing Government is trying to advance: security of supply. National Grid should be applauded for its efforts to implement change through its Power Responsive campaign – designed to encourage demand side participation in the balancing markets – but many policy makers remain locked into the old paradigm of an archaic industry; no doubt weighed down by the stranglehold of well-established energy incumbency (better known as the Big Six).

For these parties, using distributed assets to balance the system still represents a significant departure from the orthodoxy of constructing and operating a few large centralised assets like Hinkley Point C, which will deliver 7% of all UK electricity when completed.

To achieve a real paradigm shift towards a secure, affordable and low carbon economy, we don’t even need to find new solutions. Distributed and demand side technologies are ready to deliver; we now need to change the supply-focused mind set of our policy makers and operators.

By Sebastian Blake, Commercial Analyst, Open Energi

New EEF report: DSR should “be one of the first options” for electricity security

Metal company scores win-win of cash and cost savings

Under Theresa May’s Government BEIS has been tasked with delivering a comprehensive industrial strategy, ensuring that the UK has secure energy supplies that are reliable, affordable and clean, and tackling climate change.

The UK’s manufacturing sector has an important role to play but a report published this week by the manufacturers’ organisation, EEF, found that its members’ confidence in the Government’s handle on security of supply is tepid at best. Only one third of its members agreed with the statement that “the Government has a long-term strategy to ensure security of supply” and just 3.6% felt energy infrastructure had improved in the last two years.

The report “Upgrading Power: Delivering a flexible electricity system” makes a series of recommendations for Government to help manufacturers play a part in boosting UK energy security and improve how our electricity system operates. Demand Side Response (DSR) is identified as one of the first options that should be looked to in achieving electricity security.

As the authors note “Continuing to be over-reliant on supply side options and leaving DSR options untapped is rather like having the heating on at home, deciding it’s too warm and then opening a window rather than turning the heating down. Both actions will achieve the intended outcome but the former wastes energy and money.”

In a recent EEF survey only 9% of respondents took part in some form of DSR activity – compared with 29% in a recent cross-sector survey conducted by Ofgem – citing varied reasons from insufficient financial incentive to those that had utilised all of the available flexibility on their sites. However, by the far the most common reason given was the complexity of the system and resulting lack of understanding within manufacturing companies.

The report found that even manufacturing companies well versed in the DSR markets find the system bewildering and unwelcoming to new entrants. One company commented that “it is genuinely stressful to be in a regulatory environment alongside the big six”, further noting that energy companies have entire departments to deal with these markets, whilst even a large manufacturing company may have only one individual covering energy.

Those manufacturers who are engaged in DSR activities adopt a common approach and hierarchy to maximise potential savings and revenue streams. Where possible, companies will seek out opportunities to reduce exposure to higher power (wholesale) prices first, followed by minimising their network costs (Triads and Distribution red band charges) and finally participate in specific DSR products.

To help unlock the estimated 9.8GW of DSR flexibility available in the UK EEF recommends first increasing the number of businesses acting on straightforward price signals through time-of-use tariffs. Beyond this it calls on the Government, National Grid and Ofgem to look at what can be done to reduce the complexity of specific DSR services and regulatory barriers to entry.

Finally, it highlights the forthcoming ADE code of conduct for aggregators as an important step which will improve manufacturers confidence in these companies. Open Energi strongly supports this move. Aggregators occupy a position of trust and have a responsibility to educate businesses and be open and transparent about the benefits that exist.

Donna Hunt, Head of Sustainability at Aggregate Industries summed this up in a recent interview with edie, saying “businesses want to see what the value-case is. They need the confidence and trust in it. It’s not new technology but it’s perhaps not at scale yet. That’s a big reason why Aggregate Industries is proud to be out there talking about how it works. We should be doing more of it because we need a more responsive energy system that works for everyone.

“We need to prove that value-case, share knowledge and open doors. We just need there to be a level playing field between the aggregators to remove the confusion so people are clear about how they can engage.”

Unlocking the full potential of DSR is going to take time but National Grid is looking to source 30-50% of balancing services from DSR by 2020, creating a potential revenue stream for businesses of around £1 billion. As the world strives to find ways of delivering energy which is clean, affordable, and secure, the more that can be done to facilitate DSR participation – from business of all sectors – the better.

EEF Report: Demand Side Response Recommendations

  • The Government should investigate how to maximise the DSR benefits for manufacturers of smart meters, half-hourly settlement and time-of use tariffs.
  • National Grid, as part of its charging review and in consultation with industrial energy consumers, should seek to reform the Triad charging system to deliver greater predictability for industrial energy consumers.
  • The Government should explore the incorporation of DSR aims and related electricity cost reduction strategies into energy efficiency schemes such as ESOS.
  • National Grid, in collaboration with energy consumers and the Government, should seek to reform the ancillary market to reduce complexity and create greater transparency.
  • Ofgem should amend the Balancing Settlement Code rules to allow participation of DSR in the balancing market.
  • The Government should reform the Capacity Market to allow easier access for DSR assets in future auctions.

Download the full EEF report “Upgrading Power: Delivering a flexible electricity system”