In January 2019, National Grid ESO launched its Distributed ReStart project, looking into whether the grid could restart itself following a blackout without traditional, large-scale, fossil fuel generators.
The ESO has teamed up with SP Energy Networks (SPEN) and TNEI for the project, which was awarded £10.3 million of Network Innovation Competition funding. Looking into natural gas turbines, biomass generators, embedded hydro-power stations, wind turbines and solar panels, the project is now up and running and designing trials in order to test using these distributed resources to restart a grid.
At an event to mark the anniversary of the project, Current± caught up with National Grid ESO’s director of operation Duncan Burt about the project's process, blackout learnings and training for the rare event.
Now that you’re a year in, how is the Distributed Restart project going?
It's going really well. It's a big, complicated project with a very, very simple principle. So the first year has been a lot of information gathering and pulling together potential partners and people that we can work with over the project.
Distributed resources is almost flipping a really important service on its head. At the moment we buy black start services from large traditional power stations, and just like everything else that we're doing at the moment, we're basically getting ready for a world in which they won't be running very much anymore. We can use interconnectors and large wind farms for black start, but that probably isn't enough, particularly if people are more reliant on electricity in the future, so we want to make sure we've got lots of options.
There’s a huge untapped capacity from generators and other potential providers who could help us restart the grid, right there in the distribution network. But there's loads of things that we don't really understand around how that would work.
If you imagine you have a major power cut, then generators have got to be able to work with no telephone system. It's got to be able to work with an operator having to get there with all the traffic lights out, with their family at home not having any power.
Lots to do, and it hasn't been done before. So we think there will be learnings for every single stage, both on the technical side and in terms of the commercials and how you make this attractive.
Has anyone else attempted something similar to this?
We don't think so. Not in this way and at this scale. If you go back to the sort of 1910s, the 1920s, people used to restart grids like this, and if you go to various countries around the world where you have local blackouts, sometimes you see those restarts occurring.
But internationally, most grids are very well integrated at a continental level. The UK is quite unusual in that it's much more likely that we would have a total shutdown and have to restart ourselves. Whereas if you look at the Italian blackout 20 years ago, you look at the blackouts in New York and the East Coast of the US, they already started using the neighbouring transmission system.
We know that certainly at the moment we're on our own, we've got to be able to do it. But we understand a lot of the principles; the distribution networks really understand a lot about what they need to do to make their network perform in this kind of extreme scenario. We were delighted to work with SPEN, as they have got some fabulous engineers, fabulous people who are working through the details.
In terms of the blackout last year, were there any lessons that you were able to learn?
Clearly it was a really difficult event for us. It was something that as an operator you never ever want to happen, but a freak set of circumstances.
If anyone needed reminding how important reliability is, and hard it is to predict what happens once you go into a situation, that did it. No one expected the trains to shut down in that way for that type of event, for example.
That tells us two things. One is that resilience is incredibly important and becomes more important over time as more things electrify. Secondly, that once you're into a black start situation you need to assume that things won't work and that certain things will fail, that it could happen at the most inconvenient time. And that that really helps us plan.
When we think about black start, and we think about this process, we think about it in the way that you plan for a military campaign. You want to cover all of your bases.
But you're looking at a one in 25 years situation, or even more rare than that. So it's not something that the businesses, the people and the engineers and technicians involved are going to be doing every day. So we need to have processes to rehearse, practice and validate, and we'll make sure that those are in place. But, you know, everything we put together has to contain those risks and give us confidence that it will work.
What is the training like for an event that’s as rare as a blackout?
We spend an awful lot of time training for events such as the 9th of August last year. A big part of the job, particularly in the control rooms of Scottish Power and National Grid is training for the hardest hour of the year, you earn your money when things are really going wrong. A lot of the processes you build up are designed both to avoid getting into that situation, and then successfully and quickly recovering from that situation.
The training and preparation is bread and butter to us. It's part of it and people enjoy it. It's fun, sitting in the training simulators practicing restarting the country. It's a really interesting thing, pretending to talk to the cabinet office; we have someone who will pretend to be the prime minister or pretend to be an energy minister in the room and it's really interesting.