Gina Hanrahan: Blackout Britain is a myth despite headlines

There is a near perfect record when it comes to making sure there's enough electricity to keep our lights on. Picture: Getty
There is a near perfect record when it comes to making sure there's enough electricity to keep our lights on. Picture: Getty
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Don’t fear a power crisis, writes Gina Hanrahan

Unless you’ve been living under a stone for the last few weeks, you’ll have probably seen the annual spate of media headlines warning that the lights are set to go out this winter.

But it’s clear that the ‘Blackout Britain’ headlines we’ve become so familiar with are out of step with reality. Despite the fact that mainstream newspapers have carried over 500 such stories in the last decade, a recent report by the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit found that there is a near perfect record when it comes to making sure there’s enough electricity generated to keep our lights on. In reality, the power cuts we do experience from time to time are almost universally down to faults on the distribution networks.

Of course, there is no room for complacency, particularly as the margin this winter and next between supply and demand has tightened, as aging, uneconomic and polluting fossil fuel plants, including Longannet in Fife, close down ahead of the launch of the UK capacity market in 2018.

These closures are part of a trend cemented by the recent commitment by the UK Government to phase out coal completely within a decade. Although the margin is tighter than recent years, it’s still over 5% once National Grid’s tools for managing security of supply are counted. While this is lower than recent winters, it’s still well above margins a decade ago and our lights did not go out.

A recent enquiry on security of supply by the Scottish Parliament’s cross-party Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee heard numerous academic and industry experts express confidence that the margin and the new tools available to National Grid are perfectly adequate to keep the lights on. The Committee’s report also found that there was little cause for alarm on security of supply. In fact, it was the use of this toolkit, functioning exactly as it ought to (ie reducing demand to help balance the system after three aging coal plants had unexpected shutdowns at a time of predicted low wind) which caused the media storm a few weeks ago.

Reducing demand temporarily to help balance the grid has often been presented negatively as ‘paying British industry to turn off’. But in fact it’s the sensible thing to do. Instead of building lots of expensive new power plants that sit idly by for the vast majority of the time, driving up consumer bills in the process, demand management provides alternative income streams for businesses like cold storage, greenhouses, or datacentres, who opt to temporarily switch off air conditioning systems and other electricity guzzlers as needed at peak times during winter evenings. It’s also the cost-effective thing to do. In the USA, which already has a buoyant demand market, it costs significantly less to reduce a unit of electricity – at around £30/MWh - than the wholesale cost of a unit of power generated in the UK.

We are currently in the middle of a transition away from an old-fashioned, centralised, polluting grid, where security of supply was delivered by building expensive new ‘baseload’ power stations, to a modern, flexible, cleaner grid, where renewables will be providing most of our power and security will be maintained by demand management, storage, interconnection and other flexible measures.

Flexibility will help to keep down the costs of replacing and greening our creaking energy infrastructure, according to the independent UK Committee on Climate Change.

Recently speaking about an industry “turned on its head” the CEO of National Grid said “The idea of baseload power is already outdated. From a consumer’s point of view, baseload is what I am producing myself. The solar on my rooftop, my heat pump – that’s the baseload…. The future will be much more driven by availability of supply: by demand side response and management which will enable the market to balance price of supply and of demand.”

However, we are still judging renewables as if this transition is complete, whereas we don’t yet have a coherent, integrated energy strategy in place from either the UK or Scottish Governments, with insufficient focus on demand and flexibility and too much focus on conventional baseload power generation alongside renewables. Clear policy changes and political leadership are required to bring about this transition.

That’s why it was welcome to see the Scottish Parliament’s Energy Committee recently call for the Scottish Government to urgently develop a new demand reduction and management strategy to help businesses and consumers slash their power usage and reassure us that media stories about security of supply are overstated. WWF Scotland would like demand reduction at the heart of all the political parties’ energy policies in their 2016 election manifestos. This is just one of a number of policy changes that will be needed to help deliver the secure, renewable power system of the future that independent research shows is feasible and desirable for Scotland.

Gina Hanrahan is climate and energy policy officer with WWF Scotland