Alison Hammond discusses potential blackouts
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Plummeting temperatures have forced National Grid’s electricity system operator (ESO) to request the warming up of three coal-fired power stations to help keep energy supplies secure. Meanwhile, a blackout-swerving scheme that pays households to limit consumption during peak hours is also being launched tonight. As the cold snap plunged Britain into subzero temperatures on Sunday, National Grid ESO ordered Drax to begin “warming” two of its coal units at its North Yorkshire site and french-owned EDF to do the same for one unit at its West Burton plant in Nottinghamshire to keep energy supplies in abundance on Monday.
The power stations were set to go back into retirement this year, but the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy asked them to remain on standby until after the winter amid fears Europe could slash energy exports to the UK as it deals with its own supply constraints.
Now, steam can be seen pouring out of the power stations as Britain scrambles to keep the lights on. Meanwhile, the network operator has also said it is activating its Demand Flexibility Service (DFS), which pays customers who signed up to limit energy use between 5pm and 6pm to reduce stress on the grid.
It offers customers with smart meters who belong to certain energy companies involved in the scheme the chance to earn cash by switching off power-hungry appliances like washing machines and tumble dryers during these peak hours. Appliances such as televisions and lightbulbs are reportedly still allowed.
Signees are expected to save around £10 tonight. But over the five month duration of the service, a typical household that signed up to the scheme could save approximately £100.
Fintan Slye, Executive Director of the ESO, said at the time: “We are delighted that Ofgem have approved the use of our Demand Flexibility Service this winter. It will help mitigate the potential risks that the ESO has outlined in its Winter Outlook and will allow consumers to see a financial return for reducing their electricity use at peak times.
“As a responsible operator of the electricity system we have developed this innovative Demand Flexibility Service to compliment the robust set of tools we already use to balance the electricity system every day.”
While these measures may appear alarming, they had been planned for in the operator’s Winter Outlook and are considered “operational tools” that will help keep the power running.
National Grid ESO said in a statement on Sunday: “Our forecasts show electricity supply margins are expected to be tighter than normal on Monday evening.
“We have instructed coal-fired power units to be available to increase electricity supplies should it be needed tomorrow evening.
“This does not mean electricity supplies are at risk and people should not be worried. These are precautionary measures to maintain the buffer of spare capacity we need.”
However, under an “unlikely worst-case scenario”, it could get worse. Also included in the Winter Outlook, this emergency plan would involve three-hour rolling blackouts distributed across various locations at different times to avoid a total shutdown of the grid.
Last month, National Grid ESO ordered two coal units at Drax to be put on standby, but cancelled the request just hours after. It came after the operator said that Drax’s Yorkshire plant would only be used as a last resort.
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Renewables like wind are generating record amounts of electricity, meaning Britain relied less on gas imports for power. While Dr Simon Cran-McGreehin, head of analysis at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, told Express.co.uk that gas is still needed to “balance the natural variations in wind power”, it could be a good indication of what is to come further down the line.
He told Express.co.uk back in November: “We’ve got two-thirds more wind power than five years ago, so we’ll have fewer days when we’re overly reliant on gas power plants, and we’ve got five times the amount of battery storage to help store that power for times when gas power plants can’t deliver.
“There will be more days each year when we’ll be running almost entirely on renewables – National Grid expects the first such days to happen in 2025 and is updating its systems to manage the grid in that mode.
“On such days, we wouldn’t need any gas power at all, so our power supplies wouldn’t be affected by gas shortages. (We’d still be using gas for heating, but that can be reduced by moving to heat pumps.)
“There will be more times when we have more renewable output than we need at that moment, which we can store and release later, including to help to manage on days when gas power is limited.”
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