Power cuts point the way to smaller, cleaner generators

Posted in: Energy

Posted on: 13.08.2019

Sometimes big power stations stop working. If you are really unlucky, two stop working at the same time. This appears to be the main reason for the temporary loss of power which affected millions of people across the UK last Friday.

 

We know that large power stations trip fairly frequently. Official data shows this year there have been multiple instances when generators suddenly stopped working. It even happened to one of the UK's very largest generators yesterday, but was barely noticed. It’s not uncommon and National Grid has plans to keep things running when it does. This includes having ‘flexible’ plants ready to step in and provide power when needed most.

Two tripping within a short window of time and causing mass outages, however, is a rare event. The last time it happened, in 2008, a coal and nuclear plant went offline within minutes of each other. This led to hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses going without electricity.

It’s unclear why the support systems failed to prevent the widespread power cuts on Friday. National Grid often relies on polluting power to help us do this; large gas plants run in the background to support other power stations when they fail.

It is a deeply unsustainable and inefficient way of working. But as we switch to a clean energy system, we have an opportunity to do things differently.

The future of energy is localised. Not big power stations supplying millions of customers, but millions of power stations generating, using and sharing power.

The future of energy is localised. Not big power stations supplying millions of customers, but millions of power stations generating, using and sharing power.

Just think — there are now over one million solar generators in the UK. If one, or one hundred, of these power sources suddenly stopped working it wouldn’t cause much of a problem.

The climate emergency is the main reason building more of these small plants, including onshore wind, must be a priority. But reliability would be a big bonus.

The growth in battery storage will allow us to store this clean power and feed it back into the grid when needed. This flexible technology can provide vital support when problems arise, using intelligent technology to manage demand. The latest projections show that within a few years, storage in peoples’ homes within Europe could be as large as an average gas plant.

within a few years, storage in peoples’ homes within Europe could be as large as an average gas plant

Yet in the UK we have seen a new tax hike for solar and storage which is certain to hit investment in this growing sector. At the same time, government is keen to build a fleet of new, inflexible nuclear plants. As work continues on Hinkley Point C in Somerset; a huge generator which will create more strain on the system.

Why go this route when a distributed model has so many clear benefits? New technology has already pointed us in the right direction: local generation, battery storage, and renewable power across the country. The government clearly needs to reset its energy policy to allow this market to thrive. A decentralised grid that delivers decarbonisation and greater energy security. We need to ‘carpe diem’ and get on with.

Ready to switch?