Why the lights went out on 9 August

Submitted by AWL on 14 August, 2019 - 8:58 Author: Luke Hardy

On 9 August a series of blackouts affected more than one million homes, the rail and tube networks, hospitals, and traffic lights.

The long term issues that affect energy security are being made much worse by the fragmented, privatised and profit-hungry mess of the UK energy sector.

The buffer between supply on the network and demand has been squeezed. This squeeze is mainly down to how the energy market works.

The National Grid pays for energy in a virtual auction. They shell out more per unit to the generator companies when they need to meet peak demand. So generators can make money while waiting until their power is needed and they can get the National Grid to pay over the odds.

Gas-fired power stations run “open cycle” or windfarms sit idle, waiting until their operating companies get the price per unit they want. Then they start generating.

The generating companies are under no obligation to provide supply and in extremes like this can exhort the price they want. The National Grid has an obligation to keep the lights on, but its only method for that is money.

The National Grid also has very little say over the mix of generation been built. Over the last decade coal-fired power stations have started to close. In theory new generating capacity has come in to take their place, mostly.

But the coal fired power stations tended to run 24/7 rather then sitting idle until the right price shows, so the new capacity has not led to an increase of the supply buffer back up to the recommended level of 10-12% more energy on the grid then demand. The grid has been operating on a safety buffer of 3-6%.

The lack of vertical integration in the industry makes it much harder for the National Grid to ensure the Grid is kept at a stable 50hz frequency.

That needs generation units capable of being centrally controlled to change the frequency of the electricity output.

The coal-fired power stations used to provide this. New generation nuclear promises to provide non-fossil-fuel power stations on the scale need to stabilise the frequency of supply on the grid, but no progress is being made on that due to lack of investment.

On 9 August, the gas-fired power station at Little Barford, Bedfordshire, and the large offshore wind farms at Hornsea, East Yorkshire, both unexpectedly went offline within two minutes of each other, causing a 5% drop in the system’s electricity output.

It looks like there were enough alternative sources of generation available to make up the shortfall, but the network could not keep the grid stable at 50hz, and that caused bits of the network to disconnect automatically.

The Guardian reports an industry source saying that “the frequency had previously fallen to dangerously low levels three times in the last 12 weeks”.

There is also a lack of investment in the grid and distribution networks that carry power from substations to people’s homes. The problem is not a lack of money. National Grid posted £1.8 billion profits in May, and increased payouts to shareholders.

But much of the grid is old, and the situation with the distributors is even worse. They used to be part of the centrally integrated regional electricity boards, but the successor organisations (the Big Six energy companies) sold off the distribution sections to often smaller fragmented companies. Lack of investment and understaffing is endemic there.

Because of the lack of investment very little progress is being made towards a responsive smart grid that would reduce demand, as is meant to be introduced towards the end of the next decade.

Labour’s policy calls for the nationalisation of the National Grid and the distribution companies. They are also talking about a publicly-owned supplier company to compete in the energy retail market with the Big Six.

That is a massive improvement on the previous policy, but it will not resolve the underlying problem. It preserves the market in energy rather then abolishes it.

We should call for all of the energy generation, grid, distribution and supply companies to be brought under public ownership and the market dismantled, to be replaced by vertical integration and transparent, accountable central planning that can respond to the need to decarbonise and ensure security of supply.

The 9 August blackouts also show the need for base-load generating capacity to underpin the security and stability of supply.

We should call for public investment in a new generation of cutting-edge nuclear power stations, alongside continued expansions of wind and other renewables.

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