UK’s National Grid operator gets ready for 100% renewables by 2025

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UK’s national grid operator says it is preparing to deal with 100 per cent renewable electricity generation – by 2025.

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FF4HF2 Black Law Wind Farm, near Forth, Lanarkshire, Scotland UK.
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National Grid, the operator of the UK electricity system and the equivalent to the Australian Energy Market Operator, says it is preparing to change its systems so it can operate the electricity grid with 100 per cent renewable energy by 2025.

Australia is often thought as a leader in the transition to renewables, but the progress in other countries is usually overlooked. In the UK, the Tory government’s official policy is to phase out coal completely by 2025 and the grid operator says it needs to develop a system in which it doesn’t need coal or gas back-up.

“Great Britain needs to decarbonise its energy system to help address the ever-increasing threat of climate change,” National Grid says in a policy statement released late last week.

“A key element of this is to move to lower, and even zero, carbon emissions for the electricity system. Over the past decade the electricity system has been reducing its carbon intensity and GB has been leading the way among the major world economies in this regard.

“However, there is a need now to make a step change in how we plan and operate the electricity system to enable ever higher levels of renewable and sustainable energy in our national energy mix.”

National Grid says there soon will be times in the year when the market could meet the total demand for electricity through renewable generation only and these periods will increase as more and more renewables are connected and more load actively participates in the market.

“This is very different to the traditional model of power system operation and, to enable all of this low-carbon generation operate unconstrained, requires us to address and solve some critical engineering challenges,” it says.

“Our ambition is that, by 2025, we will have transformed the operation of the electricity system such that we can operate it safely and securely at zero carbon whenever there is sufficient renewable generation on-line and available to meet the total national load.

“Zero carbon operation of the electricity system by 2025 means a fundamental change to how our system was designed to operate – integrating newer technologies right across the system – from large-scale off-shore wind to domestic scale solar panels to increased demand side participation, using new smart digital systems to manage and control the system in real-time.”

The document identifies the areas where traditional generation has delivered services such as inertia, frequency control and voltage, which will now have to come from wind and solar, plus various storage technologies and other “demand side” options.

This will require a re-design of the markets to better represent the new technologies and the passing of the old ones. It has now set a work plan that sets various deadlines in coming years, and tenders for providers of new technologies.

“To manage the GB electricity network with zero carbon energy sources will require a step change in how the system is modelled to identify the current and future needs and will require a whole new suite of products and services to be procured through new markets,” the report says.

“We know, through approaches that we have had to date, that there are customers with the right technologies that can provide these services. Therefore, once we have identified and described the technical requirements of the network it should be possible to create the right products and market place to procure.”

The speed with which the UK National Grid is embracing this task is in stark contrast to regulatory authorities in Australia, which are still ringing their hands about the current penetration of wind and solar (less than 20 per cent across the country), and fretting about its impact on grid security.

The Energy Security Board, as ITK analyst and RenewEconomy contributor David Leitch has written, is looking at a re-write of the rules of the market to reflect modern technologies and the clean energy transition, but this is not due to be complete for another six years.

The difference appears to be in the UK’s recognition that the transition is inevitable, and it is best served by accepting that and then working backwards to see what needs to be done to make that transition smooth, and without unnecessary costs to consumers.

Australia, despite the work of AEMO’s Integrated System Plan – which reflects various policies of the major parties – is still a long way from doing that.

Annual electricity generation in terawatt hours (TWh) per year by fuel (solid lines), along with a “business-as-usual” scenario (dashed lines) where grid mix is held constant at 1990 levels and electricity use per capita remains fixed at 2005 levels rather than declining in recent years. Usage data from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) energy trends series ET 5.1; chart by Carbon Brief using Highcharts.

The UK – unlike Australia – has also managed to achieve significant emissions reductions six years in a row, largely as the result of decreased coal use and its replacement by renewables. They have fallen 38 per cent since 1990.

It has recently opened the world’s biggest offshore wind farm, there are plans for a 1GW project combining solar and wind storage, and last year went 1,000 hours without any coal use. Wind energy, which has accounted for more than one third of the emission reductions in the electricity sector, recently provided 37 per cent of the UK’s energy demand.

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