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Robin Webster

Robin Webster

08.03.2013 | 12:30pm
Science“We’ve managed these things in the past, and managed them quite well” – an interview with Richard Smith of National Grid
SCIENCE | March 8. 2013. 12:30
“We’ve managed these things in the past, and managed them quite well” – an interview with Richard Smith of National Grid

Recent dire warnings of a “near crisis” in the UK electricity system don’t phase the National Grid.  The company’s head of energy strategy, Richard Smith, tells Carbon Brief about how the company faced a similar situation just a few years ago – and why building new gas plant to fill the potential gap in the country’s energy supply could just be a waste of money.

Head of energy regulator Ofgem, Alistair Buchanan, recently warned that the country could shortly experience a squeeze on its reserve capacity – the buffer zone of spare power plant that stands ready should another part of the electricity system suddenly go down. Buchanan’s comments triggered media predictions of ” life threatening blackouts” and rocketing energy bills. But what does the company at the sharp end think?

Managing the squeeze

National Grid is the private company that owns and operates the UK’s electricity transmission network. While it’s Ofgem’s job to ensure energy supply meets demand long term, National Grid does the job on a day-to-day basis.

Smith agrees the UK faces a squeeze on capacity in 2015  as polluting coal power stations are closed under European legislation. According to Smith, the country last experienced similar pressures on its reserve capacity a decade ago, back in 2000 and 2001. But while he says it’s not easy to manage and important not to be complacent, he doesn’t predict blackouts in the near future: “We’ve managed these things in the past and managed them quite well”.

Some parts of the media have suggested the country needs to make plans to build new gas fired power stations in order to meet demand in coming years – but Smith isn’t convinced. The country already has a large number of gas plants generators have mothballed, he points out, and these could be brought back into service.

In fact, adding new gas power stations to the mix could even raise the cost of providing power to consumers, he says. Increasing the amount of electricity available on the grid might mean having to pay windfarms to turn their turbines off, balancing supply and demand.

Known as constraint payments, these sums add to the cost of balancing the grid. So adding more gas power to the grid might, says Smith, mean you have to spend again – “and that’s not in the interest of consumers either”.

Speaking out

So if the squeeze on electricity supply in a few years’ time isn’t such a big problem after all, what prompted Buchanan speak out? Smith argues that the Ofgem head’s comments were designed to create a strong signal to the big energy companies that power could be more expensive – and harder to get hold of – in just a few years time.

The big six energy companies don’t own all of the country’s power stations – they buy electricity from the generators who do and supply it to consumers. In theory, suppliers would then respond to Buchanan’s comments by hastily sorting out where they are going to get their power from in a few years time, sending a signal to the generators that own the power stations they might need to be dusting off some of their mothballed gas plant.

Capacity problem – hopefully – solved although without the dramas predicted in some parts of the media.

Not wound up about wind

Of course, that’s not the only issue exercising the press, which has also focused on the problems associated with integrating large amounts of intermittent wind power into the grid over the next few years. Some have even argued that turning fossil fuel power stations on and off to back up wind power could result in higher emissions than if the government invested solely in gas power.

Dismissing this as one of the “flakier arguments” in the renewables debate, Smith points to a recent analysis National Grid undertook for the Scottish Parliament. It concluded that over an 18 month period, the expected emissions benefit of using wind power – that is the amount of carbon dioxide saved by using wind to produce power – was reduced by just 0.1 per cent as a result of the need to use fossil fuel power stations as backup.

The National Grid’s ability to predict where the wind is going to blow in a week, a day or an hour is crucial to this argument. A couple of years ago, the company launched a new wind forecasting system designed to help it plan for wind intermittency. On a day-to-day basis, says Smith, its accuracy is “phenomenally good” – getting it right 95 per cent of the time when it looks ahead 24 hours. He says:

“[O]ver the last few years we’ve gone from no wind on the system to seven gigawatts of wind on the system. If you’d asked a control room system operator 15 years ago what he could do with seven gigawatts of variable generation, he’d have said, ‘I’m off, can I go and do something simpler’. But now they’re managing it.”

In fact, Smith argues, wind is more predictable in some senses than conventional power sources like coal or gas. A traditional power station like a nuclear plant could “trip and fall off in a matter of milliseconds”, he says. Wind turbines may have to be shut off to protect them in high wind conditions, but these are easier to predict than a nuclear power station suddenly cutting out.

Looking ahead – with optimism

Switching to a low carbon energy system isn’t easy, and Smith says the National Grid is having to plan for the future based on unprecedented changes to the way we do things.

A lot of pretty significant unknowns remain – not least surrounding novel experiments with consumer behaviour and the drive towards more energy efficiency. Can government initiatives like the Green Deal really drive mass take up of house insulation and boiler replacement? It’s never been tried before, so it’s hard to know for sure until we really get into it.

Looking ahead, the landscape gets more challenging – but opportunities increase too. In the 2020s, options like new interconnectors to the continent and new forms of energy storage start to look more viable. After 2030 “the Arthur C Clarke view of the world” – where as-yet unimagined technologies may come into play – may start to look more like reality. Smith says. Solar panels in space are an example of an idea that sounds pretty off the beam now, but might not in twenty years.

As the energy system inches towards major change, the National Grid faces the realities of keeping the lights on on a day-to-day basis. As such, judging which parts of that change present problems requires a dose of pragmatism sometimes lost elsewhere in the debate over energy policy. But keeping such a complex process going also requires enthusiasm. As Smith says: “I’m an optimist in life”.

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