Should the energy policy tide (or wind?) change now?

John Leggett, planning associate at WYG.

Now that the National Grid capacity warning system has been ‘triggered’ twice in one week, John Leggett asks whether government needs to continue its faltering steps in energy policy or whether we should be react quicker by implementing matters ourselves.

The National Grid energy capacity warning is a notice that is sent to energy generators to “be ready” to be called upon to provide back-up power to the grid system. This in turn enables energy regulator Ofgem to activate another measure, the supplemental balancing reserve, whereby National Grid pays dormant power plants to become operational again for short periods to meet demand. 

This doesn’t mean we face the certainty of the lights going out or the prospect of a ‘brown/black out’. The system is an automatic ‘heads up’ to generators that a level set to maintain an operating margin has been breached (it is still 500MW above anticipated demand levels).  

So it’s a warning only, but nonetheless the recent double triggering does give pause for thought about our reliability of supply. We have long suffered a lack of consistent or even existent energy policy creating uncertainty for investment and whilst this is subject to much debate elsewhere ad nauseam, these triggers re-stoke the questioning of our long term energy security. In short, we haven’t run out of supply by any means right now, but the gradual level of demand change is now clearly starting to gain on supply, which is hamstrung by old infrastructure.  

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These warnings would matter less if we knew and had confidence in a secure pipeline coming forward of new home-grown energy supply to support our grid, even if it still needed to travel through the planning and approval process and onto actual build. So if it takes a long time to gain planning and realistic investment for major energy infrastructure, the use of flexible standby generation and battery storage units for example, could be an alternative solution.  

At short notice, such battery or quick-start generators (fuelled by gas, bio-diesel, or commercial scale batteries), run by independent operators, can provide back-up supplies when demand starts to exceed supply.

These are opportunities for land owners and business to support the National Grid’s need for standby generation in the short to medium term to ‘plug the gap’ whilst we wait for new larger scale conventional power stations to be developed. Such units can run independently, connected direct to grid or in the case of battery storage be co-located alongside renewable energy projects. Batteries also offer the opportunity to provide back-up power and demand management services ‘behind the meter’ for businesses who are large consumers of electricity and energy. 

Whilst Theresa May has announced the government’s support of a significant part of the future UK energy infrastructure in the form of the new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point C and we await the government’s position on the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon, there is still no coherent and long-term energy strategy for the UK. 

These remain long term contributors to our future energy supply and energy security and standby generation in its various forms, together with the energy demand management potential from commercial scale batteries, have a clear role to play in the short to medium term. BEIS and Ofgem are now seeking the views of the energy industry on how our energy system could be more smart and flexible, however this consultation runs until 2017 and has no known certainty of action.

So, instead of waiting for the ‘trigger’ warnings to increase and the margins between demand and supply to remain uncomfortably small and in the absence of supportive and strategic government policy in the near future, is it time to consider some investment-confidence boosting, extra provision in our energy arsenal especially where standby and battery storage technology can assist right now? 

John Leggett is a planning associate at WYG.