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Durham Energy Institute

Which way should the wind blow for our national grid? A Durham Energy Institute and DONG Energy UK public debate.

On 18 March DEI co-hosted a public debate in Manchester with DONG EnergyUK focused on the issue of integrating more wind into the electricity system. The debate was chaired by Barbara Vest Director of Generation at Energy UK whose members generate more than 90 per cent of the UK’s total electricity output. The panel comprised of;

  • Vandad Hamidi, SMARTer System Performance Manager at National Grid which owns and manages the electricity transmission system in England and Wales;
  • Dr Alastair Martin, Founder and Chief Strategy Officer, Flexitricity which provides a low carbon source of reserve electricity to the National Grid;
  • Bo Hesselbæk, Head of Electrical System Analysis, DONG Energy, one of the leading offshore wind developers in the UK; and
  • Proffessor Tooraj Jamasb - Chair in Energy Economics at Durham University Business School.

The evening was a great success with full and active participation of the audience comprising academics, policy makers and industry from the NorthWest region.

The debate focused on the issue of how the UK can achieve and exceed Government targets to deliver 15% of our energy demand from renewable sources by 2020. Wind is identified as the major source for renewable electricity in 2050 by the UK Renewable Energy Strategy. However given the dispersed nature of onshore and offshore wind generation, as well as the fluctuations in wind power generation, it will be necessary to implement a number of changes to achieve this future.

The debate allowed key players in the energy sector to discuss the challenges we really face, the range of available solutions and the implications for energy policy. The panel agreed that a future which is more reliant on renewable wind energy is possible while also ensuring reliability of the system. However it is important to recognise that this will require changes in the UK energy market, energy infrastructure and increased energy links with Europe to ensure the security of UK energy supply.

Learning from the experience in Denmark

Much of the discussion focused on the lessons that can be learned from Denmark which last year achieved 40% penetration of wind whilst also achieving the highest security of supply in Europe.

Bo Hesselbæk drew on his experience as Danish national systems operator 10 years ago when in 1999 Denmark passed 10% of installed wind (the UK is now at 5%). Denmark dealt with increasing wind on the system by ensuring 1) more flexibility and 2) more control of the system. Infrastructure was upgraded to ensure more efficient transmission of power between where it is produced and where it is used, and to increase connections to neighbouring countries (such as Germany and Copenhagen) to increase flexibility by ensuring energy could be easily bought from outside when production within Denmark was low. They also ensured a more precise prediction of the power being produced by ensuring detailed data collection on production schedules from power producers.

This highlights that more wind energy does not mean more instability and danger of blackouts as long as you change the way the system is operated. However it was highlighted that although the UK can learn a lot from the Danish example, Denmark is a much smaller energy system and its location on mainland Europe means lower costs of developing inter-connectors. This means it will be much easier to achieve its target of 100% clean energy as it can rely on energy produced in other countries and it can also share its inertia.

Demand-side responses

Demand-side responses were also a key focus of discussion. Alistair Martin and Vandad Hamidi highlighted that there are already a number of mechanisms at our disposal to deal with fluctuations in renewable energy generation which are being effectively used. Alistair argued for demand response as the key solution - finding industrial and commercial partners that can shift their loads when required. It is also possible to create a power-hub of various power sources to mimic a power plant to provide flexibility in generation. Although this is driven by cost, it is a far cheaper mechanism than switching wind farms off when production is too high.

Trials are also underway focused on shifting consumer demand from peak to off-peak via changes in tariff structures and the information accessed by consumers. It was argued the roll-out of smart meters will make this much easier to implement. However there is a need for consumers, both domestic and large commercial, to become more aware of the options they have at their disposal for shifting their energy use. Professor Tooraj Jamasb argued that it is important to recognise that energy users act as both citizens (trying to meet their low-carbon obligations) and consumers (looking for a good deal in the market place). We need to recognise this duel-role to develop the right type of information and options provided to users.

Changes to the UK energy market

Alistair also argued for a separation of supply and generation in the UK energy market. This would ensure that suppliers routinely access flexibility in their own customer base and would encourage more innovation. In the current system the requirement to keep the generators in business is dictating what the suppliers do.

There was some discussion around whether there should be a free energy market or whether it was necessary to have subsidies and encouragements as part of the system. Professor Jamasb argued that we need to make a strategic decision early-on as to whether we want to achieve our low-carbon aims or want a market-oriented sector, rather than continuing with patching-up the system with more regulation.

However there was also the recognised need to encourage innovation and the development of renewables technologies through subsidies and clear long-term policy structures. It was argued that renewables will not move forward on a purely entrepreneurial market basis, but requires a strategic push.

Investment is essential

Finally, all the panel recognised the need for significant investment in the system to improve infrastructure, as well as the response mechanisms at our disposal. Bo argued that it is necessary to invest now to be able to achieve cheaper, low-carbon energy later as they have done in Denmark. Tooraj also highlighted that 90% of interruptions and loss of service happen at distribution level so fundamental investment is needed in distribution infrastructure to ensure distribution is up to scratch.

The twitter contribution

Follow the panelists on twitter on using @DEI_Durham, @DongenergyUK, @EnergyUKcomms, @nationalgriduk, @Flexitricity.

Somw of the tweets from the evening:

  • The last thing the energy sector needs right now is uncertainty. Uncertainty leads to higher costs
  • it is entirely possible for people to become engaged w/ demand for energy'
  • Why integrate more wind when basic physics says it's bonkers?
  • need to strategically encourage renewables as will not grow alone just through market
  • Last thing system needs is more uncertainty need new policies clarified quickly after election
  • need to decide early on do we want to achieve climate change objectives OR do we want full power market with no subsidies?
  • Denmark has the highest security of supply in Europe even with a lot of wind.
  • Denmark hit 40% wind penetration last year - how did they do it? Lots of interconnection, DSR and electricity trading.
  • How much wind power could potentially make up the UK energy mix?
  • Thanks to all the panel tonight. Some great debate, could have gone on much longer