Davey calls for independent system operator to improve UK grid

A former UK energy secretary believes the Conservative government has severely neglected the country’s power grid development at the expense of renewables.

His comments come in the same week as the National Grid released its 2016 Future Energy Scenarios report.

Sir Ed Davey headed the energy portfolio in the last coalition government and he told Power Engineering International, “Since the May 2015 election, the Conservatives’ energy policy has been a disaster – especially for renewables and investment in the grid to facilitate renewables.”

The Liberal Democrat, now chair of renewables firm Mongoose Energy, added that the government may need to look beyond National Grid in terms of coming up with pragmatic solutions to the UK’s energy issues.

“The Conservative Government has to recognise the reality that our future electricity system will involve much more distributed power and plan policy for the grid accordingly,” he said. “That may require securing a system operator independent of National Grid and studying the implications of the probability of cheap practical storage technologies.”

While not directly addressing the question as to how they have been performing in making the grid fit for renewables, National Grid say their approach to the evolving energy situation is contained in their Network Options Assessment report. This report involves NG determining the country’s future investment on the network by using four scenarios, understanding the transmission capacity required under each scenario, with the Transmission Operators then providing the investment options. They then assess the least worst regrets investment recommendation based on the balance of CAPEX and constraint costs.

Marcus Stewart, National Grid’s head of energy insights told this website, “A good example is our own push to promote demand side response through our Power Responsive campaign. We can see that having such flexibility on the transmission network will enhance our security of supply and help us balance the energy needs of the nation in a more efficient, cost and carbon effective way. Our Gone Green scenario, for example, is dependent on the uptake of DSR at scale.”

“We can see that the increased use of gas for transportation and the electrification of heating would help society achieve renewable targets and key to this is the uptake of innovative technology by society at large, this, however, is only possible in a prosperous world and so there are many factors that make the energy of future uncertain. The only certainty is change,” Stewart added.

Another body, formed last year, and charged with transforming the way the UK plans and delivers major infrastructure in the UK, is the National Infrastructure Commission.

Energy is of course part of that brief and the sector will eagerly await the NIC’S recommended course of action when it publishes its National Infrastructure Assessment in 2018. That document involves analysis of the UK’s long term strategic infrastructure requirements over the next 20-30 years and making firm recommendations to government across the UK’s entire economic infrastructure to ensure that the UK is on track to meet those requirements.

An NIC spokesperson said the body was still performing its analysis but commented, “Tackling the UK’s long-term energy challenges and securing a sustainable and affordable energy mix in the decades to come will require a stable, well-evidenced strategy.à‚  That is what the first National Infrastructure Assessment, on which we are currently consulting, will provide.à‚  In addition, our ‘Smart Power’ report this March sets out how, through the use of interconnectors, storage and flexible usage UK consumers could save up to à‚£8bn a year and reduce the need for new power stations that only run for a few hours a year to meet peak demand.”

For their part Renewable UK exhibited some positivity when assessing the government’s performance in this vital area.

A spokesperson said, “The UK’s electricity grid is currently going through a significant upgrade programme and renewables have helped bring forward this much-needed investment. The à‚£1bn Western Link, due in 2017, is one such major project that will provide enough clean, secure energy for two million people”.

Because of the extent of transformation in the marketplace the feeling is that the grid’s development is the usual work in progress with a clarity of vision not yet nailed on.

The organisation’s 2016 Future Energy Scenarios report fails to clarify exactly how much the National Grid’s scenarios have shifted since last year.

They now see up to 39 GW of solar installed by 2035, up from around 12 GW today and up 7 GW from last year’s maximum expectation for 2035 of 32 GW. Two years ago, National Grid expected as little as 8 GW and no more than 17 GW of solar in 2030. Now, its minimum is 15 GW.

This year’s scenarios also include, for the first time, a significant future role for battery electric storage. Last year’s outlook merely noted that storage was important and said new capacity could be unlocked with technological improvements, regulatory change and subsidies.

Carbon Brief website reports that ‘this improvement is set to continue. The Future Energy Scenarios report says the cost of lithium ion batteries could halve by around 2019, and halve again by the early 2020s.’

‘If battery cost reductions continue and if attempts to remove regulatory barriers are successful, then the UK’s base of electricity storage capacity could increase from 3GW today to 11GW in 2030 and 18GW in 2040, the report suggests.’

‘This new storage capacity will combine with an increase in flexible electricity generation capacity, the scenarios suggest, to balance out the variable output from wind and solar power.’

Electricity interconnectors to other countries will also contribute and again, the prospects have improved since last year. Capacity is now seen reaching up to 23GW in 2030, up from 4GW today.

National Grid’s outlook has shifted in other important ways in this year’s scenarios. Notably, its range for gas demand in 2030 has been cut by up to 12 per cent. By 2040, the need for gas is seen falling by between 8 and 33 per cent, compared to today’s levels.

Not all of the changes set out in this year’s report are positive, however. National Grid has long included at least one scenario meeting the UK’s 2020 EU renewable energy target. Now the 15 per cent renewable energy target is not expected to be met before 2022, as the BBC reports.

Similarly, emissions fall in line with the proposed fifth UK carbon budget in only one of the four National Grid scenarios; the others fail to hit the proposed 57 per cent cut by 2030, against 1990 levels.

It remains to be seen which scenario will become reality but the failure to hit emissions and renewables targets would tally with Mr Davey’s assessment of the government’s performance in equipping the grid for a new energy future.

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