The National Infrastructure Commission has recently completed a study into the UK’s energy sector. The Smart Power report, published in March 2016 sets out a series of recommendations to replace aging UK infrastructure with “smart technologies” aimed at balancing supply and demand across the network. One third of UK power stations will need to be replaced by 2030, and substantial investment in renewable power is required in order to meet our climate targets. Consequently current policy decisions have the potential to shape the UK energy sector for decades to come. Now is the perfect time to invest in a dispersed, renewable power generation network.
The government’s response to the smart power report has been largely positive and they intend to allocate at least £50 million to “innovations in energy storage, demand-side response and other smart technologies over the next five years”.
The Smart Power report advocates developments in three key areas;interconnection, storage and demand management. These would allow a transition from a centralised power generation system, to a more dispersed network and allow smaller scale, renewable generators to make a larger contribution to the UK’s energy sector.
The Smart Power report advocates the development of more links between the UK grid and those of its European neighbours. Connecting electricity grids allows nations to distribute power over a wider area, and so more effectively meet demand. This is important if we hope to move to a distributed energy generation model based on renewable sources.
Wind and solar power suffer from intermittency. Even if implemented on a national scale it is impossible to guarantee that they can meet peak demand. Connecting to a Europe wide grid reduces this issue somewhat. Excess energy from windy areas can be traded to areas where less power is generated. Sunny southern regions can supply the entire continent with reliable solar power.
At present the UK has links to Ireland, France and the Netherlands, with a total of 4 GW of capacity. This could be expanded with more links to mainland Europe, Scandinavia and Iceland. The government agrees with these recommendations and states that an increase of this capacity by 9 GW would “be beneficial to consumers.” A variety of European interconnector projects have planning permission and discussions with Norway and Iceland are continuing.
Developments in storage will be vital to the wide scale implementation of renewable technologies. Even with a Europe wide power grid it is impossible to ensure that peak generating capacity from renewables will always match up with peak demand. Consequently storage of electricity is a hot topic. The report states that investment in storage technologies is already very popular and the government response agrees that “storage has the potential to deliver a more secure and cost efficient energy system”. They intend to promote competition between the developers of storage technologies and encourage network operations to trial new technologies.
In order to utilise our generating capacity effectively we need to ensure that all of the energy we generate gets used. The report highlights that many wind farms are paid to not produce power during periods when demand is low. Storing this excess power, or transmitting it to a region where demand is higher will help to reduce wastage. Another option is to try to shift our demand to match peak generating capacity.
The report suggests that communication about the benefits of demand flexibility should be improved. It should be made as easy as possible for businesses to become involved in schemes to shift their peak power usage.
Other recommendations include more strategic replacement of aging infrastructure and an increased focus on local networks. The government response states that “DECC and Ofgem will publish a call for evidence on a smart systems route map shortly and will set out proposals for reform by spring 2017.”
The Smart Power report concludes that investing in these technologies “could save consumers up to £8 billion a year by 2030, help the UK meet its 2050 carbon targets, and secure the UK’s energy supply for generations.”