As some of you know, I work from home in Scotland but travel extensively, especially to Asia. But I managed to venture out recently to two very interesting meetings much closer to home. Both these meetings had renewable energy and the security of energy high on the agenda and so were relevant and timely for my current draft report on how renewable energy can increase the costs and stresses of running coal-fired power plants (draft still available for comment for 1 more week).
Scotland Policy Conference – Next steps for renewable energy in Scotland, Surgeon’s Hall, Edinburgh, Thursday 26th May 2016
This meeting comprised a very full morning of presentations relating to energy supply and security within Scotland. Speakers covered everything from grid issues on Orkney through to the challenges of energy storage to help counteract intermittency issues for a national grid which is becoming increasingly based on renewable energy sources. Scotland may be a small nation but it is generally regarded as a nation of intelligent, forward-thinking, problem solvers. But Scotland has set itself an extremely challenging target of 50% renewable energy by 2020. The definition of the target includes quite a bit of leeway on how this is achieved – for example, the target is for 50% of total energy use in the country and therefore allows for heat and efficiency contributions rather than just total electrical output capacity and will include domestic, industry and transport factors. Currently Scotland has around 7.7 GW of renewable capacity, 5.4 GW of which is onshore wind. Scotland also has around 2.4 GW of nuclear and 1.5 GW of hydro.
There was a repeated call for the strengthening and clarification of subsidies for renewables in the marketplace, especially in the form of a strong carbon price. But there was also more considered thought on investment in, and co-location of, renewables projects with energy storage projects, as well as work towards market stabilisation. The move towards increased renewables, especially remote offshore wind, is putting a strain on the dated grid network in Scotland as is necessitating a swift and expensive expansion of the network. Andrew Lever of the Carbon Trust suggested that Scotland had the potential to make up to $2.4 billion in savings by 2030 through energy storage solutions and, by using market driven approaches from the offset, this could increase to over $7 billion. However, clear demonstrations are needed in the immediate future for this to be taken up in a timely manner.
Although Scotland is leading in renewable energy compared to other nations, it has not come without cost. Energy bills are reported to have increased by 55% in the last decade. Around 40% of Scots are reported to be in energy poverty. With Cockenzie and Longannet coal-fired power stations now closed, Scotland has no more coal-fired power. This has brought the baseload capacity down significantly meaning that Scotland has gone from consistently supplying energy to England and Wales to occasionally requiring energy back from the grid. Since the Longannet coal-fired power plant in Fife closed, Scotland now works within a 4.2 GW margin, moving from 1.13 GW of import to 3.07 GW export. Our capacity margin is now very tight and, as the country marches on to the 50% renewables by 2030 target, it will only become tighter.
CEP Advisory Group meeting, Strathclyde University, Glasgow, Friday 27th May 2016
At first glance, the current membership of the CEP (Centre for Energy Policy) (such as EDF, Scottish Power, OFGEM, SEPA, Scottish Renewables and Shell) looks like a bit of a who’s who in the electricity industry in Scotland and it was proposed that the Centre should seek additional membership to represent heat and transport sectors. Over and above this, two new visiting professors are being sought for the CEP, as the centre is planning on a significant expansion. Scotland is trying to establish itself as an international leader in all aspects of energy efficiency and the CEP hopes to assume a role as a source of guidance and unbiased opinion on issues such as this. More information on the work of the CEP can be found at: www.strath.ac.uk/ippi/aboutus/centreforenergypolicy
Scott Mathieson, Scottish Power Energy Networks, presented an extremely interesting talk on the challenges for maintaining security of supply (a Scottish perspective). As mentioned above, Scotland used to produce an excess of power and would sell this to England and Wales through the National Grid. Between 2013 and 2021 the company intends to spend £2.7 billion on upgrading the Scottish grid with 65% of this (£1.8 billion) for connecting wind generation capacity and the remainder on will be spent on modernising the now aging network.
The situation in Scotland is such that coal combustion for power generation has ceased and the nuclear plants are to close between 2023-2030. The reliability of these nuclear units over their end of life period has been called into question. Up to 1.2 GW of gas is now outside the market (much of this mothballed at Peterhead). And so as much as 85% of peak demand in Scotland, 4.7 GW of capacity, is going or gone. The margin of capacity is now extremely tight. Between £150K to £5million would be the potential cost to the consumers should the system fail due to periods of significant over or under production or interconnector issues. Notifications of “insufficient system margin” were given on 4 November 2015 and 9 May 2016. These represent occasions when the margin of supply over demand was small enough to cause panic for the grid operators. Potential brown/black-out situations such as this are likely to become more common in the future. However, ironically, there are many regions within Scotland, such as Dumfries and Galloway, which currently have excess local production but, due to limits with the current transmission system, cannot be fed into the national grid.
There are also new voltage control issues due to changes in generation and load characteristics of renewable energy production – this impacts security and resilience. This means a necessary, and expensive, investment (£13 million) to replace or upgrade voltage equipment, with an additional £11m to be invested in new voltage control systems in 2017. Whilst these costs do not relate to electricity generation they do emphasise additional costs that can arise when baseload power, such as coal, is removed from the generation capacity of a national network to facilitate a diverse renewable portfolio. And the costs must be covered by the operators and, ultimately, the consumers.
Scottish Power has plans to cope with events which may place significant demands on the grid, such as severe weather events. During the recent snow storms in Scotland (known as the “snow blitz”), there were 140 “transmission events”. Normally only a few arise in the average year. This was during a period when Longannet coal-fired power was available, suggesting that these challenges will increase significantly during the next hard winter period. New plans are being updated for “black-start” events when demand is high and output is low (due to unavailability of renewables and problems with delivery of energy from other sources). Fiddler’s Ferry has a new contract for black-start (as I understand it, this is starting up from a completely non-operational state). Scottish Power has modelled worst case scenarios for such black-start events and suggests that the recovery time for much of Scotland (awaiting energy replacement energy from England and Wales as well as repair within Scotland) would be 5 days for most of the country and up to 14 days in some regions. This issue is somewhat transient as the situation should become less risky once the grid upgrades and extensions are completed. Whilst this black-start situation is very unlikely, the fact that it is a possibility means that it needs to be discussed at the policy level to ensure that there are plans in place for both avoidance and, should the worst occur, coping strategies.
For me, the realisation that a rich western economy such as Scotland is struggling with energy poverty and relatively sketchy energy security was quite eye opening. It would seem that significant investment is being made in increasing our renewable capacity but that, without concomitant growth in energy storage and upgrades in grid resilience, we face a few years of potentially significant electricity supply issues. As one delegate pointed out – 50% renewable is admirable but 50% of not enough is still not enough.