When will the lights go out?

In the UK and some other countries the maximum demand on our supply network is perilously close to the supply capacity. In the UK we have a total supply capacity of 80 Gigawatts, and only around 67GW is available at any one time according to OFGEM director-general Alistair Buchanan. The maximum demand last winter was 60.5GW and the peak summer demand isn’t much less. It would only take a prolonged cold spell or a power station failure to drop the supply capacity below our maximum demand.

What this means in practice to an individual customer is that there is an increased risk of outages or voltage dips. It has been predicted that this could be a one in twelve chance of losing power in a year for any customer by 2015 and an increasing risk until either the supply capacity is increased or demand is cut. In the UK we are closing our coal fired power stations, decommissioning our old nuclear stations and not building new capacity fast enough to replace them. Read more about this in The Spectator.

Last week OFGEM published electricity supply and demand forecasts, showing that spare capacity has fallen as more gas-fired plants have been mothballed. It reiterated warnings that even if blackouts are avoided, power prices will rise steeply.  With the UK generation capacity margin likely to drop to 2% by 2015 the competition for supplies is likely to push prices up by 20%. Read more in The Telegraph.

Graph taken from Bill Wright's presentation given at BSRIA Workshop

Graph taken from Bill Wright’s presentation given at BSRIA Workshop

The profile of generation capacity over the next ten years is affected by political decisions such as closure of coal-fired power stations, extending the life of old nuclear stations, availability of imported gas, introduction of fracking for shale gas and planning permission for renewable energy.

Businesses need to prepare for the increased risk to protect their business continuity. At a recent BSRIA workshop, business leaders talked about how they could respond to the risks and the knock-on effects of power outages.

There are two main approaches:

  • reducing demand, including demand side management
  • adapting to a less reliable power supply with standby power.

But the effects of power outage on security of supplies, transport and even public order and crime need to be considered.  The process of planning for outages and continuity of power is part of a more general process of Business Continuity Management, for which there is a British Standard Code of Practice, BS25999.  This Standard covers all the threats to business continuity, but with the risk of power loss to a business and its supply chain and the effects of power loss on staff, customers and the public there may be a need to re-assess the risks and amend the business continuity plan.

OFGEM are hosting a Working Group to develop solutions to network capacity problems using the Low Carbon Networks Fund.  Their recent seminar presented the results of commercial and domestic demonstration projects.  The domestic demand peaks at nearly double the daytime demand between 4pm and 8pm on weekdays.  The early part of this peak coincides with the last hour of the working day so commercial demand is also high.  Various approaches to demand management are being trialled in different areas of the UK including incentives and variable pricing.

There are incentives for customers agreeing to cut their demand when local supply nears capacity.  These are set up locally with different priorities, such as the Thames Valley Vision which utilises Automated Demand Response and Business Consumer Consortia along with energy storage to reduce peak demands and avoid the need for supply network reinforcement.

In summary, the UK electricity supply network is expected to become less reliable and this will affect consumers as soon as 2015.  If consumers don’t do something they are likely to be hit by power cuts more often.  Solutions include planning for power failures, checking the reliability of standby systems, negotiating demand reduction facilities or permanently reducing demand.

BSRIA is keen to work with building operators, manufacturers, network operators, consultants and anyone involved in power continuity management.

About colinpearson1
Multi-skilled engineer in electrical power quality, power continuity, building energy efficiency, thermal performance and sustainability, aiming to ensure high quality by testing. Chartered Engineer with CIBSE, Fellow of British Inst. Non-Destructive Testing. Building Thermogrphy trainer. Founding member of Transition Town Reading, UK. Also Chairman of UK Thermography Association and PCN Level III Thermographer

3 Responses to When will the lights go out?

  1. AndrewAndrew says:

    There are some other side effects of this issue.
    Whilst government is putting into place mitigation policies to reduce the liklihood of grid failure the timescale to do so is very short indeed. The introduction of a demard reduction market where companies are paid to be on standby to shed load in times of grid stress will be an effective measure where very large consumers (or generators) are concerned it is less easy to see how a quick roll-out to smaller enterprises will be achieved. Confidence levels in governemtn iuntervention policies is not high at the moment with successive “failure to launch” of flagship policies such as RHI, Green Deal and the introduction of the energy parts of the building regulations. It is not that these initiatives are bad, it it just takes a long time for them to come to fruition, time we do not have with grid stress issues.

    This meanms that that businesses that want to ensure their continued operation during periods of intermittant supply are going to have to act for themselves to protect vital internal operations such as their backoffice IT systems. I am not talking here of the blue chip companies which probab;ly already have well developed strategies covering standby supplies but the tens of thousands of SME’s (including BSRIA) who now rely utterly on IT for all our operations. We can keep going with report writing, invoicing, etc so long as we keep these essential services live. Without them we send the staff home and ponder the catastrophe that will be our end-of -year results.

  2. Andrew hits the nails on their heads with several points here, not least of which is the lack of confidence amongst various industry sectors concerned with energy in the built environment. He’s right: it’s not that these policies are bad (though some of them could have been thought through better), it’s just that because they’ve suffered delay, dilution and doubt, the tendency among industry players, especially SMEs is to think: “Remember Hips? Remember the premature slashing of the Fit? Now there’s so much talk from experts that the Green Deal will fail. I don’t think I’ll spend any money or time on getting my teams properly trained up if the work might never materialise” and who can blame them?
    The other issue I’d like to highlight, from the installer side of the solar PV industry, is that we are being sold battery-based energy storage kit which will “maximise the property owner’s financial returns from the FiT.” Well, frankly I have my doubts because none of these kits tell you what losses are involved in the charging of batteries. How much electricity do you have to put into them to get a 100% charged battery? We all know they resist being charged (that’s why they get hot) but to what extent? and if the losses are huge, then do the batteries make economic sense? No point in charging a battery with “economy7” electricity at high the normal price if you have to use twice as much to charge the battery in the first place. These kits are probably destined also for the business community who wish to avoid the power outages predicted by Ofgem. Does anyone have a grip on the losses incurred during charging?
    Martyn Cowsill

  3. Andrew says:

    The issue of small (or large) scale storage is a complex one and yes, there is a lot of information about the efficiency of all sorts of storage. THe issue for PV is not so much the use of generated eledctricity but the capacity of local grid to accept it into the network.
    Here in Bracknell Scottish & Southern and partnered with a number of local businesses, Honeywell as a controls specialist and sponsored by Ofgem. They are monitoring demands on the smaller transformers often located at the ends of streets to understand load profiles as we increasingly add additional loads such as heat pumps and new generators such as PV. The problem is that the street main may simply not have the safe capacity to transfer energy either at peak load or peak supply. This means that some PV may have to be “dumped” simply to avoid over stressing the cabling. It is hugely expensive to up street main capacity simply to deal with a short term problem.
    Thus storage does offer a solution – and it does not matter too much if it is only say 80% efficient. That is still 80% better than dumping it!
    What is certainly true is that we don’t have much operational experience of these systems, little design guidance for installers and poor understanding of life cycle assessment. Tell you MP that we need a natioanal construction research programme that will allow the likjes of BSRIA to work with people like yourself to get to gripos with this sort of issue .

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