The Resilience of the UK’s Electricity System

Coincident with yesterday’s “Fuelling the Debate” report by the House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Select Committee, the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee published a report of their own, entitled “The Resilience of the Electricity System“. The Committee say in their overview of the report that:

The Government should not be congratulated on keeping the lights on. It is not acceptable for an advanced economy, hugely dependent on electricity, to sail so close to the wind. It found that we have been forced to generate extra capacity in the system, using expensive measures with heavy reliance on fossil fuel generation. The report urges the Government to improve its long-term planning to avoid squeezing the capacity margin like this.

The Chair of the Committee, Lord Selborne, commented that:

We chose to look at this issue because, such is our increasing reliance on electricity, any blackouts have the potential to bring our communications and vital services to a grinding halt.

The encouraging finding from our investigation is that overall, the resilience of the electricity system is robust, and witnesses told us we have the most reliable transmission network in Europe. But our report found that the Government sailed too close to the wind, allowing the capacity margin, its safety net, to be squeezed too tightly before taking last minute measures. Moreover these measures, which came at a cost to the taxpayer, were in conflict with the Government’s wider aims to decarbonise electricity generation.

We’re entering new and unchartered territory. As we strive for more decarbonised electricity provision, it will become harder and harder to keep electricity affordable and to guarantee security of supply. These are the three irreconcilable pressures of the ‘energy trilemma’, and we feel that there is more the Government needs to do to inform the public about potential higher prices.

We found that new technologies mean that our electricity system is undergoing immense and radical change. The report stresses that the Government must stay ahead of the game, with dedicated investment into research and development across a wide range of technologies, and constant alertness to cyber‑threats. Only then can the Government ensure that it can weather any storm, and continue to keep the lights on in the long‑term.

Delving deep into the report itself, chapter 5 concerns itself with “Changing demand”, and paragraph 143 even mentions vehicle to grid technology, albeit not using that name:

Electric vehicles and electric heat pumps are two technologies that are expected to increase demand for electricity.

If electric vehicles are widely taken up then they will increase electricity demand, though this could be concentrated during off peak hours. On the other hand, a smart grid could allow battery-powered electric vehicles to supply power to the grid, e.g. during peak times when prices are high, and then to recharge during off peak hours. They could also further contribute to electricity security by providing a backup supply during power outages. Electric vehicles are not the only low carbon option for road transport – hydrogen and biofuels (2nd or 3rd generation) also offer potential.

Paragraph 144  goes on to point out that:

Electrification of large parts of the energy used for heating or transport “would change its time-of-use profile, placing ever increasing pressures on the electricity system.” Charging electric vehicles will bring complexity and it will be important that vehicle
charging management systems and standards are carefully designed. Vehicle charging is a manageable problem, since the overnight load can be fitted into the available system capacity. However simplistic charging management solutions will create unfortunate effects, such as cliffs of coordinated switch-on and switch-off. There are other issues that need to be addressed in designing an effective charging system. Unmanaged systems will contribute significantly to peak load, since people naturally
plug in at the point of arrival home and then charge through the evening peak. It is therefore critical that carefully designed vehicle charging management systems and standards at the national level are developed and incorporated into any large scale demonstrations and early roll-outs. These systems need to address both the capacity of the national system and also the local distribution system.

Plenty of sensible suggestions then, which at the end of the day leaves us coming to much the same conclusion as the House of Lords Select Committee:

We recommend that the Government supports research, development, demonstration and early deployment across a diverse range of technologies. This should include electricity supply, demand side response, storage and smarter networks [and V2G!].
Particular attention should be paid to technologies that could strengthen electricity system resilience and how these technologies fit together in systems.

Given budgetary constraints, there will be a need to prioritise some technologies over others. We recommend that the rationale for these choices is clear, transparent and made publicly available.

Implementing that final sentence would certainly be a big improvement over the current state of affairs!

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