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Power out: keeping the lights on

By Dave Elliott

There is still large reserve capacity, but with some large old power plants closing, like the Didcot ‘A’ coal plant, the UK has found it a bit more challenging to meet demand when there are unexpected plant outages and cold weather. So will we make it through this winter?The recent cooling tower fire at the 1.36 GW Didcot ‘B’ gas-fired plant reduced its output capacity by about half for a while, but on its own it was not a major problem. However the nuclear fleet has also been in trouble, with some unplanned shut-downs, losing all output from one 450 MW reactor at Hunterston B, and from the two 450 MW reactors at Heysham 1 and from another two at Hartlepool, as well as from one 400 MW reactor at Dungeness B (the other has been off-line for refueling). That’s 2.65 GW of nuclear losses in all. Restarts were put in hand (Hunterston is back online now) and all of them should be running by the time winter bites. For the current (daily) state of play see: www.edfenergy.com/energy/power-station/daily-statuses  But the boiler core cracks discovered at Heysham and Hartlepool mean that, for safety’s sake, their output will be reduced 75-80%, knocking out around 240 MW of capacity. www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/energy/11169625/Nuclear-reactor-heat-turned-down-to-stop-boilers-cracking.html

Whoever said nukes were reliable? Certainly the plant availability achieved by UK nuclear plants has not been good recently – it was only 65% averaged across 2008-12, according to the latest Digest of UK Energy Statistics, with overall plant load factors for 2008 at 49.4%; 2009 seeing 65.6%; 2010 59.3%; 2011 66.4%; and 2012 70.8%. www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/279546/DUKES_2013_Chapter_5.pdf

The reason for that poor result was that, as well as planned shut-downs (e.g. for refueling), the Sizewell PWR had several long unplanned periods off-line and some Advanced Gas-cooled Reactors (AGRs) were also shut down for some time, including Dungeness, due to flooding worries – new flood protection had to be built: www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/exclusive-dungeness-nuclear-power-station-quietly-taken-offline-for-five-months-over-fears-of-fukushimastyle-flood-disaster-9200494.html And as we have seen, the problems have continued. It’s claimed that new nuclear technology will perform better but, if it goes ahead, the new £24 bn Hinkley EPR won’t be on line until 2023 at the earliest, so that’s of no immediate help.

However, with wind power supplying 24% of UK electricity at one point in October (though not always!), PV, hydro and biomass projects adding inputs, and extra measures being taken to add emergency capacity (some mothballed fossil plants were put on standby) and to offset demand (some deferment of big loads was negotiated), the UK seems likely to make it through the winter, with the plant margin remaining above 4%: http://utilityweek.co.uk/news/uk-has-a-65-per-cent-supply-margin-says-baroness-verma/1063502#.VEYpLShQRFg  and http://www2.nationalgrid.com/UK/Industry-information/Future-of-Energy/FES/Winter-Outlook/

So what next? How can we avoid problems in future as further old plants close? Demand-side measures and energy saving can and should help but, on the supply side, there are many new plants in the pipeline. In addition to the various new offshore wind farms (maybe 2 GW this year if all goes well, on top of the current 10 GW) and solar PV (perhaps another 2 GW this year, on top of the current 5 GW), there are also plans for more gas-fired plants including two 299 MW fast-response open cycle gas plants in Hirwaun, south Wales, and a third in Bedfordshire, possibly by 2018. Also in the medium term, there are wave and tidal power – including the 240 MW Swansea lagoon (by 2018 if all goes well) and there could be perhaps 150-200 MW of tidal stream/wave projects by 2018. Wind and PV are likely to continue to expand rapidly, with maybe over 30 GW of wind by 2020, and 10 GW or more of PV, and a lot more of both after 2020, with wave and tidal also by then moving into the GW range.

So there should be no problems with capacity and, although there will be grid balancing issues, biomass/biogas-fired plants and the new capacity market can increasingly help with that, also providing demand management services and maybe some extra storage capacity. The proposed new interconnectors with the rest of the EU can also help. Following an initial assessment of bids, Ofgem says five new links could be built. Together with the 1 GW ElecLink to France and 1 GW Belgian Nemo project that Ofgem has already assessed, these projects could provide up to 7.5 GW of electricity capacity access for the UK. The proposed new projects would link the UK’s electricity network to France, Ireland, Norway and Denmark, adding to the existing 3.5 GW of French, Irish and Dutch links. Ofgem will now move to the next stage of assessment, looking at the impact of such links, how they interact, and whether they deliver value for money. If successful, work on some could start in 2016 with power connections in 2019/20. So by 2020 there could be 11 GW in all: www.ofgem.gov.uk/publications-and-updates/ofgem-shortlists-five-new-electricity-interconnectors

Some also look to importing power from much further off, from concentrated solar power (CSP) plants in Tunisia. This follows DECC’s idea of offering CfD support for projects outside the UK. Irish wind projects were one possibility, but TuNur, a partnership between UK renewables investor Low Carbon, developer Nur Energy, and Tunisian investors, says it has already spent €10 m developing a 2 GW CSP site in the south of the country, for a possible 2018 start up. It initially had links with the Desertec initiative, but later withdrew. www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-29551063

It seems a bit of a stretch. DECC said “to reduce costs for British consumers, any future non-UK project would need to compete on cost-effectiveness with projects in the UK before being allocated a CfD”. Solarcentury said “The very last thing we need is the additional medium-term uncertainty that would be created in the early years of the next Parliament from any decision to push on with opening up the CfD scheme and Levy Control Framework budget to foreign projects.

CSP is still expensive and long-distance HVDC under-sea links are also very expensive, so even though North Africa has a lot more sun than the UK, the economics may not stack up. So some say we should sort out our own energy here. After all, given our excellent wind, wave and tidal regimes, we have plenty of sources and even if it’s less available, using solar direct on your roof avoids long-distance transmission costs and energy losses. The desert solar idea may have a role to play. Although some companies have left the Desertec Industrial Initiative, it’s still running with its focus being on helping with projects within the Middle East and North Africa rather than on exporting power to the EU – that may come later. http://www.dii-eumena.com/ But for the moment, we need to get our own house in order.

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