It’s the flexibility stupid!

The Nuclear Industry Association says we should ignore the National Infrastructure Commission’s (NIC’s) recommendation that we only order one more nuclear station on top of Hinkley Point C before 2025, because cutting carbon without the help of nuclear is a “risky business”. It says the Government understands the inherent value of a baseload low carbon source of generation.

Australia is having similar debates where the fossil fuel lobby argues that because “coal” is “baseload”, it must therefore be “reliable”- wind and solar are intermittent so not reliable. But what we need is dispatchable, reliable generation we can count on, at times of peak demand not traditional “baseload” which can break down and remove a huge slice from the grid at short notice. One of Australia’s leading electrical engineers, Kate Summers says large diverse renewable resources are far more stable in output than singular sources.

A new report from Chatham House says evidence is growing that highly flexible electricity systems could deliver lower whole-system costs, especially given the dramatic projected falls in solar and wind power costs by 2030. New technologies that enhance system flexibility, like smart electric vehicle (EV) charging, battery storage, digitalization with intelligent control and demand-side management, are unleashing a new phase of transformations in the power sector. Companies providing these solutions may come to dominate the power sector in the coming decades. The accelerating deployment of this array of ‘flexibility enablers’ means the spectre of cost escalation – resulting from the expense of managing intermittent wind and solar power at huge volumes – may never materialize.

Smart, staggered EV charging could enable significant advances in system flexibility. By 2030, smart EV charging in the UK could be equivalent to 18% of the country’s current generating capacity. Rapid cost reductions in battery manufacturing, driven by increased deployment of EVs, are enabling affordable static, grid-level storage, in turn enhancing power system flexibility.

“Energy storage is all the rage”, says Dave Elliott, Emeritus Professor of Technology Policy at the Open University. But while the field is full of innovation at present, and pumped hydro storage continues to dominate,  storage is not the only way to respond to the variability of some renewables. Other options include smart grid demand management (to time-shift demand peaks) and super-grid imports and exports (to balance local supply and demand variations across wide areas). “There is nothing that storage can do that something else can’t do,” according to Professor Mark O’Malley of Canada’s McGill University and University College Dublin.

Digitalization of the electricity sector will lead to significant advances in system efficiency and flexibility. Residential demand will become flexible and networks functionally ‘smarter’. Machine-learning algorithms could be a game-changer, helping to manage the increasing complexity of electricity systems and identify new system-level efficiencies. Energy, like every other sector, is going digital. From smart home products such as Hive that allow home owners to control their energy use from their smartphone, through to companies like REstore employing artificial intelligence to calculate just how much energy capacity a factory can offer as a virtual power plant. Centrica’s CEO Iain Conn says he expects demand side response to become one of the fastest growing elements of the energy market over the next few years. Europe’s largest demand side response aggregator, REstore, was acquired by Centrica in 2017.

Greater insight through digital technology is just the start of the shift of power away from energy companies and towards the customer. Centrica is currently piloting a project in the south west of England that will allow local residents and businesses to buy and sell energy between themselves without the intervention of their energy supplier. The £19 million Local Energy Market in Cornwall is enabling 200 homes and businesses to do this using a digital record known as Blockchain. It is used to create a secure electronic ledger of transactions between participants. Iain Conn says he believes such local networks will become the norm in a new decentralised energy market.

Home owners using Blockchain to become their own micro-energy companies may seem like something for the distant future, but Microsoft’s Michael Wignall says that digital technology is accelerating at such a pace that these kinds of radical changes will be delivered over a short period of time. The Fourth Industrial Revolution we are currently experiencing will make energy systems of the future completely unrecognisable from what they are today.

The transformations which have happened so far, with the rapid introduction of renewable technologies and falling demand due to greater energy efficiency, have undermined the business models of traditional power utilities. Now they face the prospect that renewables will achieve ever higher penetrations within the electricity market, aided by greater system flexibility. This will continue to erode the role of large power stations in ‘system balancing’ – balancing supply and demand – and will put further pressure on existing business models.

For more on flexibility see nuClear News No.110


Published: 6 September 2018