The books: balancing or cooking?

It’s compare and contrast time again. Last week, the Government published the final version (‘version for approval’) of the various National Energy Policy Statements, designed to guide planning and policy in energy for the foreseeable future, unless otherwise modified by the secretary of State. In my book that means for a very long time potentially, and the documents indeed speak of ‘the road to 2050.’ This is the way ahead in energy planning then.

So….first compare………

In the ‘Overarching National Policy Statement for Energy’ the Government sets out its plans for new energy capacity up to 2025. It is pretty definite about what we will need. Around 85 gw installed capacity now: we’ll lose around 30gw of presently installed power generation up to 2025 from closures of time expired plant and compliance with EU emissions directives. We’ll need some 59gw of new installed capacity, of which 33gw will be from renewable sources, mostly offshore wind. Most of the rest of the (26gw) additional capacity will be needed to ‘balance’ the system as a result of the presence of so much variable plant on the grid. Some of that offshore and quite a lot of the non-renewable replacements – some 8gw – are already under construction, and the Government reckons that therefore 18 GW of new power remains to be planned and commissioned. They suggest that most of this power should come from new nuclear. I’ve posted on the implications of this before (here) and particularly on the assumption that a nuclear power station will pop out of the ground on a metronomic basis every nine months between 2018 and 2025. But whether you think that will actually happen, we’ll need that capacity, right? And if it’s not nuclear, then what will it be? Probably gas, you might reply, at which point the general opinion that ‘well don’t you understand that even though it is less carbon intensive than coal, it’s still pretty bad….’ clinches the ‘it has to be nuclear’ argument.

And then contrast………

Just before the NPS final documents came out, National Grid published its update report on Powering the Electricity Transmission Networks in 2020’. Like the National Policy statements, National Grid assumes, with some good reason, that demand in the system will be about static during the next period: that is the combination of energy efficiency and the emergence of ‘unshown’ demand through distributed energy production will more or less balance off any additional primary demand emerging in the system.

They then test the ‘balanceability’ of the grid under this scenario, and the closing down of plant, the emergence of large amounts of renewables, especially offshore wind during the period to 2025. (balancing estimates are for 2020, but since demand stays static up to 2025, the workings remain valid.)

Well, yes, say National Grid, the system can be balanced with a high degree of reliability over the period with relatively modest changes or additions to the system as it stands now (These workings do not do away with the imperative of grid infrastructure renewal, but we know that already.)  We’ll need some modest additions to interconnection capacity – National Grid suggest a rough doubling of capacity from 3 to 6 GW over the period. We’ll need to be much smarter at reading information for balancing and grids will have to become smarter. It would be nice to have some more storage, but that is probably for the longer term future. I admit I’ve simplified somewhat, but you can have a look at the detail of the assumptions here, if you want to.

That is quite a comforting assessment, because balancing the grid and delivering electricity so that the lights don’t go out or we don’t have to ration or phase supply is what it will all be about over future years, isn’t it? And of course, balancing supply so that this is all achieved on a low carbon basis is equally important, which is where the gas/nuclear row kicks off.

When you look at the capacity figures National Grid base their analysis on, though, it gets a bit startling.  They are assuming pretty much the same presence of renewables (mostly wind with some tidal and biomass) as the National Policy Statements. What they are not assuming, though, is 113 gw overall capacity. It is just over 100 gw with only a marginal increase in gas and nuclear over what there is now.  13% less capacity than the NPS assumes and the system still well balanced may not sound a lot, but in practice, it ‘dissolves’ most of the 18gw that the NPS tells us we will need to find.  That is quite fortunate, I guess, because everybody knows that 16gw of new nuclear is not going to be built by 2025: five or six, assuming some sort of programme does go ahead, sounds much more likely, and I suppose it is good to know that we can supply our system’s needs and balance it all reliably without having to make a new dash for gas, or rely on improbable figures for nuclear new build. It would just be good, though if we actually planned for this, rather than hoped for something else.

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