Bank holiday blues shine a light on old-fashioned nuclear

Posted in: Energy

Posted on: 07.05.2020

There have been a number of reports recently about how Britain’s energy consumption is at a record low. Coronavirus has led many businesses, including heavy industry, to shut up shop. Many of us are using more energy in our homes, but there’s still a big reduction overall.

Someone who cares a lot about energy is National Grid. The company has the responsibility of making sure the amount of electricity going onto the grid from power stations perfectly matches the amount of electricity being taken off the grid by homes and businesses. This is necessary to keep the grid working safely, and to avoid power-cuts.

As we head towards the bank holiday the staff in the National Grid control room are starting to get hot under the collar. In normal times, bank holidays typically see lower levels of demand. And the current crisis is making that demand sink even lower.

The worry is that with very low levels of demand there might be too much electricity coming onto the grid, and people are looking for solutions. National Grid has a number of ways of dealing with times of low demand, such as paying big power stations to turn off at short notice. However, it’s worried that even when they’ve paid all these big generators to turn off, there might still be too much power on the grid. This is unprecedented and the company has asked for new powers to cut off small renewable generators at very short notice.

If we want a modern, agile energy grid we should be pursuing renewables, not nuclear power.

Now of course, it goes without saying that National Grid should have all the tools it needs to keep the lights on, but this particular tool has the potential to cost the renewables industry dearly, as it’s these small renewable generators like farmers and community groups who will be left out of pocket, and many will still have existing bills to pay.

This is obviously a big problem, and the key question is “why?”. The answer shines a light on the jarring effect when our energy future collides with our energy past. One of the many great things about renewables is that they can be turned off at very short notice, which provides the energy system with flexibililty, a vital tool in the toolbox. This is put in high contrast with nuclear power which can’t be easily turned off, and needs a lot of notice to be done in an orderly fashion.

The Times reported this week that National Grid is in talks with EDF, owners of Britain’s nuclear fleet to turn down their biggest power station, Sizewell B. The plan is to pay EDF compensation of £50m for doing so. The frustrating thing is that this £50m payment might not be needed at all – all these decisions are based on what National Grid is forecasting to happen on Friday, but being forced to make these payments in advance because nuclear power is so inflexible. Renewables on the other hand are very quick to turn off, and National Grid could have taken the option to turn down and compensate some of these generators only if necessary. Of course, no one wants to be switched off: good companies lose money and it stops us benefiting from clean power.

The lesson to learn from this is simple. Investing in big, inflexible forms of generation is outdated. If we want a modern, agile energy grid we should be pursuing renewables, not nuclear power.

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