Steve Holliday reflects on the 10th anniversary of the UK’s last generation-related power cut, and a decade in which the grid has coped admirably with an ever cleaner electricity mix.
Almost every week it seems that Britain’s energy transition breaks new records. Already this year we have had the longest period (three days) without using any coal generation since coal generation began, while we have also seen that on one perfect early summer’s day solar was the biggest source of electricity in the nation. On both the demise of coal and the advent of renewables we had better get used to the records coming thick and fast.
This weekend, however, we should be celebrating a different milestone in Britain’s energy progress – one that is, I would argue, much more profound. Sunday 27th May marks the 10th anniversary of this country’s last power cut caused by a problem with electricity generation. We do of course have local power cuts, but they are virtually all caused by breakages in the local electricity distribution networks, when, for example, a workman cuts through a cable or wind brings down a power line. Despite occasional outbreaks of doom-mongering headlines, outages caused by a shortage of electricity generation simply haven’t happened – one of the reasons why Britain can boast one of the most secure energy systems in the world.
The events of 27th May 2008 demonstrate just how bad things have to be before a generation problem compromises our electricity supply. The problem began when Scotland’s biggest generator, the coal-fired power station at Longannet, went offline unexpectedly. Five minutes later, in a completely unrelated incident, Sizewell B nuclear power station in Essex followed suit. The odds of such a twin outage are vanishingly low; even so, we almost coped. Managers reduced the voltage on the grid, which normally would have kept things stable until another power station could fire up. But on this occasion, incorrectly set controls on smaller generators meant that the voltage drop tripped them out too. The only solution then was to cut power to an estimated 580,000 homes, for an average duration of 20 minutes.
Our historical records are not perfect, but I believe this was the only power outage that anyone in the UK has suffered caused by a lack of electricity, as opposed to the lack of an intact cable, in well over two decades. The lights stayed on during the Didcot B fire in 2014, when two nuclear power stations were also shut down for unexpectedly long periods; stayed on too during the 2016-17 winter when a large chunk of the French nuclear fleet was shut down for urgent safety checks. This winter as the Beast from the East cast its icy blast across the country and the gas supply faltered, again, we had no issues.
Britain’s energy security record is worth celebrating for two reasons. One is simply that energy is the lifeblood of a modern developed nation. From the pensioner in a council flat to the boffins in the high-tech data centre, a constant, reliable supply of electricity is essential. And Britain’s electricity system provides it.
The second reason is that our energy system is in the middle of what some observe as a messy-looking transition. We need first to shut our coal-fired power stations (which will be done within seven years) and then clean up gas generation, while continuing to increase the use of wind and solar power with their rapidly falling costs and contribution to decarbonising the system. Ten years ago, grid engineers warned that deriving more than 20% of our electricity from variably-generating wind turbines and solar panels would put too much stress on the system. That is one prediction that emphatically missed the mark: in the first quarter of this year, wind and solar generated nearly 20 per cent of our electricity – and the system coped just fine.
Which is good news, because we will certainly see that 20% proportion increase. Onshore wind and large-scale solar power are now the cheapest forms of new electricity generation we can build – and so long as we also invest in technologies like battery storage alongside them, the lights will continue to stay on, in fact arguably more securely than 10 years ago when two giant power stations could abruptly remove five per cent of our generation by failing simultaneously.
Although National Grid should take a lot of the credit, this is not a paean of praise for my former employer. Other countries – Germany is one – obtain an even higher proportion of their electricity from wind and solar energy than we do, and their energy security record is just as good as ours. The point is that modern electricity systems are highly reliable – and the word ‘system’ is the important one. Generators, transmission and distribution operators, regulators and a government department steering change proactively and facilitating innovation – this is the system that thus far has proved the scaremongers wrong. The lights are staying on securely as we cut damaging carbon emissions – and that is worth raising a glass to this Bank Holiday weekend.
This blog first appeared as an article on BusinessGreen on 25 May.