2022 was the second greenest year on record in the UK for electricity generation, behind only 2020 which experienced reduced carbon consumption due to COVID lockdowns. More electricity came from renewable and nuclear power sources than fossil fuels, with wind power providing 25% of the generation making it the second largest generator. Offshore and onshore wind, solar energy, natural gas, nuclear, carbon capture, hydrogen and interconnection have transformed the structure of the UK’s methods of generation and will play a pivotal role in helping energy providers reach the target of all electricity generation to come from zero-carbon sources by 2035 alongside reaching the ultimate goal of Net-Zero by 2050. The pace of these transformations has been dramatic, 1991 saw renewables only account for 2% of generation, rising to 14.6% by 2013 and increasing further to 40% in 2022. The National Grid, who manage the electricity network, will have to deploy a tactful balancing act that manages supply and demand, invests in grid infrastructure and meets climate change targets.
Challenges to the System
The process of increased renewable generation is not, however, without its challenges. Numerous issues complicate the transition for the UK, these include:
- Unpredictability of the Weather– Central forms of renewable generation, such as wind and solar, are dependent on the weather being favourable, a downturn in the weather could lead to intermittence issues but peak weather conditions without the demand would lead to a surplus supply and wastage. The predictability and stability of renewable generation is therefore challenging and will require investment in technology to manage this.
- High Upfront Costs– The initial investment in starting up renewable generation projects can be high, especially for individuals and businesses looking to invest in renewables themselves, such as solar panels.
- Inadequate Infrastructure– The transition to renewables requires significant changes to the UK’s energy infrastructure. The cost of widespread EV charging stations and resilient transmission lines will again be costly.
- Regulatory Obstacles– Local opposition and regulations can constrain projects causing delays, increase financial costs or cause a total abandonment of projects.
- Relevant Training & Skills– Developing renewable projects requires specialist skillsets which require time to be implemented due to the amount of training and cost involved.
Managing the System
Historically fossil fuels have been able to increase and decrease demand rapidly therefore offering greater stability compared to renewables. Nevertheless, there are multiple ways of better managing the grid and easing the process:
- Decarbonising Peaking Plants– During times of peak demand or scarce production from renewables, the network utilises peaking plants which are traditionally run off gas and oil. Decarbonising these plants would allow the network to fall back on greener reserves when direct renewable generation is lower.
- Storage Systems– Through storing excess energy generated in periods of high production the network has a supply to fall back onto in periods of lower generation and help reduce potential intermittence issues. Batteries, pumped hydro-storage and thermal storage can all improve grid resilience and facilitate greater use of renewables.
- Smart Grid Technology– Advanced metering and demand management systems allow real-time monitoring to create a greater understanding of the rhythm of supply and demand, aiding stability and efficiency.
- Supporting Investment in Personal Renewable Generation- Helping the UK public & businesses investment in EV charging points, heat pumps, decentralised solar and battery storage will help manage intermittency and offers the chance for the network to buy surplus electricity which can be redistributed.
- Incentivising Flexibility- For consumers using electric vehicles or heat pumps, incentivising them to consume outside of peak times would offset demand during peak periods.
- Investment in Infrastructure- Transmission networks need to be created that accommodate renewable generation, alongside general updates and expansions given that renewable projects are often in remote areas.
- Streamline Regulatory Barriers- Streamlining the process for grid expansion could potentially allow for faster modernisation of the grid.
National Grid Measures
When balancing the network, The National Grid and the Electricity System Operator (ESO) have to ensure that the system is balanced through having a frequency of 50Hz, without which intermittency would occur and costly infrastructure damage. Overloading the frequency could also become an issue, sending too much supply to the grid would again cause damage, whilst renewable generators would be owed constraint payments as compensation for the network being unable to use the energy they generate. The National Grid and ESO have measures in place to ensure that the correct level of frequency is maintained as the UK transitions to greater renewable generation.
- Balancing Mechanism- The central tool of the ESO’s ability to balance supply and demand, it allows the grid to buy and procure the right amount of electricity on a minute-by-minute basis. Obtaining the correct amount of electricity is crucial to stop intermittence issues developing if the conditions do not favour renewable forms of generation.
- Optional Downward Flexibility Management (ODFM)- During 2020 and the COVID lockdown, The National Grid introduced the ODFM as a means to balance the network when too much electricity was being generated. The mechanism allowed the National Grid to turn down supply from decentralised generators, creating a more agile and flexible network. Although the mechanism was wound down as demand began to return, greater renewable generation could see periods of supply over demand return, paving the way for the ODFM mechanism to be deployed again.
- Interconnectors- Seen as a valuable tool by the National Grid in ensuring a stable road to Net-Zero, interconnectors are high voltage transmission cables that operate between countries, allowing the UK to import cheaper and cleaner supplies. They can also be used to connect large amounts of offshore wind farms to the grid in coming years, with interconnectors expected to supply 8 million homes by 2024. Interconnectors will help reduce intermittence issues and help make big inroads on the climate crisis with interconnectors believed to reduce UK carbon emissions by 100 million tonnes between 2020 and 2030. Overall interconnectors will help make UK energy supply greener, cheaper and more secure.
How LGE can help
If you are looking to implement greater use of renewable generation for your sites, LGE offers consultancy and services on a range of renewable technologies including solar, electric vehicles and battery storage. For more information on how we can help speak to your account manager or contact us at email@example.com