There’s no getting away from the fact that our energy infrastructure in the UK is inadequate. The National Grid is dated, inefficient and widely considered unfit for purpose.
Demand – especially in peak times – regularly overtakes supply availability. What’s more, with a ban now announced on coal power generation and an already-heavy reliance on power supplied from overseas countries, we’re clearly unprepared for what the future will bring.
But the consequences of this could be devasting. Companies are already offered financial incentives to stop working when power is in short supply, and blackouts are a real threat, potentially grinding operations to a halt and irreparably damaging reputation with suppliers and customers alike. The unpredictability of energy prices can also lead to spiralling facilities management costs, hitting a company’s bottom line hard.
Considerable work is already underway to find an effective solution for the future, but a number of techniques are emerging to support industry in the short-term. From peaking plants and on-site energy generation solutions, to blended energy programmes, off-grid generation is quickly becoming the stop-gap.
Indeed, it’s predicted that decentralised energy will grow 130 per cent 2030, representing 14 per cent the UK’s total generation capacity. And with this growth comes benefits, with the same study finding that on-site energy generation could help UK businesses save around £33 billion by 2030. Combined heat and power (CHP) and energy from waste are predicted to deliver the greatest savings of £20bn.
Effectively a mini power station, CHP engines are almost twice as efficient than traditional grid connectivity… and much more secure. By generating both heat and power (in one single process) at the point of consumption, users benefit from lower energy costs compared to sourcing electricity and gas independently from the grid.
Over the past 12 months, we’ve experienced a dramatic increase in the number of engines installed nationwide. As well as peaking plant setups (off-grid CHP engines that automatically pump electricity into the grid in times of peak demand), fitting CHP engines in industrial scenarios (to replace mains supply) is becoming popular.
An example can be seen in one of our recent peaking plant installations which saw three, 2.7 MW CHP gas engines installed at a site in rural Derbyshire. Operational since April, the plant is running at optimum efficiency and generating more than 8.1 MWe energy to support the National Grid in times of peak demand.
The benefits of off-grid
Financially, the numbers add up. In fact, by turning gas into electricity rather than sourcing power direct from the National Grid, companies can experience significant savings because simultaneously generating both heat and electricity from a single fuel source, is a highly cost-effective alternative to traditional mains supply.
The secret to CHP’s success is this heat element of the process. By using waste heat, CHP plants can reach efficiency ratings of over 80 per cent, compared to UK gas power stations, which range between 49 and 52 per cent and coal-fired plants at around 38 per cent. As the gas network is under less demand, this approach also improves energy security. When it comes to peaking plants, the ability to inject power into the grid in periods of high demand is hugely valuable. Alongside preventing blackouts, this again improves energy security and ensures our national energy demand can be met.
Undoubtedly, one of the main benefits of decentralisation is the pricing stability it offers against grid reliance. By self-generating energy and knowing the costs involved, businesses can safeguard themselves against the challenges of unpredictable wholesale power prices or sharp increases in network costs. This subsequently protects the bottom line, and therefore profits, and mitigates the risks associated with potential interruptions to energy supply. The fact that equipment can be planned, procured and installed to take factors such business type, site size and energy requirements into close consideration, means that businesses can tailor their energy provision to precisely meet their needs – not just now, but also for the future.
The future of our energy infrastructure is far from clear; however, innovation is providing new and improved ways to generate power without relying on mains electricity and the shortcomings of the National Grid. While a long-term solution is essential, for now, short-term stop-gaps are already revolutionising our energy landscape.
Embracing alternative energies, such as CHP, can offer businesses a real lifeline in these uncertain times. By producing their own off-grid energy, companies can not only ensure that their operations run smoothly, to budget and without interruption, but also that they’re doing all they can to boost their sustainability credentials in the process.
Duncan McPherson is CEO at gas engine specification and maintenance services provider CooperOstlundt
Helping to find energty solutions to the commercial and industrial sector is a key focus of European Utility Week in Vienna next month. Read more: How #EUW is guiding industry through Europe’s energy transition