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Is greater decentralisation the solution to, and not the cause of, grid stability?

Image: Getty.

As John Pettigrew, National Grid’s chief exec, put it earlier this week, managing the UK’s first widespread blackout in a decade was probably not high on the network’s agenda for 4:50pm on a Friday afternoon in August.

But, courtesy of two large tripping power stations, that’s nevertheless how grid operators spent the start of their weekends, and the sector owes them a rather sizeable debt after they restored power to transport networks, homes - and pubs - by 5:15pm.

Reaction to the incident was sadly predictable. In the absence of concrete information, speculation and rumour grew and grew. Tabloids took aim at the high penetration of renewable power that day, while articles raising the prospect of a cyber attack from a nefarious state had no basis other than a desire to garner online clicks.

Fortunately (or rather unfortunately if you’re in the clickbait business) the real truth behind the incident may be slightly more mundane, and ultimately highly technical. Speaking to The Times today (14 August 2019), National Grid ESO’s director of operations Duncan Burt said the system operator was reviewing the incident as a “single event” rather than two discrete trips.

This would also cement Pettigrew’s sentiments from earlier this week that the level of renewable power on the system was not considered to be a contributing factor to the frequency drop and subsequent blackout.

Generators do, unfortunately, fail at times. Things break, trip or require unplanned maintenance work. It’s an unavoidable consequence of running and maintaining such a vital public service. It’s the system operator’s job to ensure that the network runs smoothly in spite of those trips, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find an energy professional who’d conclude National Grid hadn’t done a stand-up job of managing that to date.

Frequency events aren’t uncommon, and responses had, until Friday, been sufficient to keep the lights on and the trains running. A French interconnector trip in June and another event the month after, thought to be caused by unplanned gas outages, were dealt with adequately. Speaking to Current± at the time, Flexitricity boss Alastair Martin described such an event as “not abnormal”, and the response as perfectly adequate.

What made Friday’s event different remains to be seen, and will likely form the crux of National Grid’s investigation. A preliminary report will hit Ofgem’s doormat on Friday, and the Energy Emergencies Executive Committee (E3C), confirmed to be investigating the incident as well, will be publishing a final report within the next 12 weeks. That it will also focus on decisions made by distribution network operators on where to shed demand load - which ultimately led to trains and airports grinding to a halt - is interesting in itself.

The question which will inevitably be asked of National Grid is how it can stop an incident such as this from happening again, regardless of the fact that this - the first trip in a decade - appears to be something of a freak occurrence.

But does National Grid even have to do anything at all? Is one of the defining trends in power - decentralisation - solving the grid’s problem for it?

Image: Nottingham City Council.
Image: Nottingham City Council.

Both Friday’s event and the preceding trip in 2008 have one major thing in common; they were both, seemingly, typified by two sizeable generators failing almost simultaneously, sending such a large quantity of generation off the grid that National Grid couldn’t gather enough reserve capacity quick enough to balance the system.

But what if such sizeable generators were not the backbone of the power grid?

What if the bulk of demand was sated by a fleet of millions of independent, domestic generators, coupled with storage that lightened the load? That way, if one, 10 - and, let’s face it, you can add quite a few zeroes to that before it gets problematic - multi-kilowatt generators fail, it’s not so much of a problem for the system operator to countenance.

Or, as Good Energy’s Juliet Davenport put it earlier this week: “Just think — there are now over one million solar generators in the UK. If one, or one hundred, of these power sources suddenly stopped working it wouldn’t cause much of a problem.”

It’s a strategy that holds considerable grounding in finance. Investing all your eggs in one basket, no matter how lucrative or secure that basket may be, is regarded as risky as if the unthinkable does happen and that basket develops a hole, you’re losing the majority of your eggs. Spreading those eggs across many baskets reduces your exposure to any such isolated incident.

Flipping the generation paradigm on its head isn’t a new concept. There’s been talk for years now that the energy sector needs to get its head around decentralisation as a far broader concept than just facilitating for small-scale generation. Should it become even more pervasive, then the country’s sizeable generation fleet - or baseload, another term with an arguably limited shelf-life - can be there to ensure the lights stay on at times of need.

It also lends itself nicely to the emerging trend of thought, one frequently mentioned on these pages, that there is now no value placed on generation, but on flexibility.

Whatever the conclusion of National Grid, Ofgem and the E3C’s reports on the matter, Friday’s blackout has some hugely important discussion points for the future of the country’s power system (not to mention some pretty timely and, let’s face it, welcomed news fodder for an otherwise uneventful week in August).

It is of course pivotal that the conclusions reached ensure the country’s grid is as secure as possible, but any evidence must also account for the energy system’s direction of travel, or we’re at risk of paying to protect against a problem which may not be apparent in another decade’s time.

Liam Stoker's photo
Editorial

Liam Stoker Editor-in-chief, Current±

Liam is editor-in-chief at Solar Media, the publisher of Current± and other titles including Solar Power Portal. Liam edits the UK-facing titles and has done since 2015, having joined the publisher as a reporter the same year. Previously, Liam has held positions at other London-based B2B publishers such as Pageant Media and Progressive Media.

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