Britain has an extraordinarily reliable power system. The lights flicker so rarely that it is easy to forget that the power system is actually a finely tuned and, in some ways, fragile machine, which breaks if electricity demand and supply are not in balance. Perturbations, such as the up-tick in demand after the FA Cup final, or the sudden outage of a coal plant, must be steadied within seconds. Renewables are winning the race to provide the cheapest kilowatt hour of power, making flexibility increasingly important as more variable forms of power join the grid. And it’s not just renewables: a board member of the California system operator recently noted that nuclear is becoming a challenge for the grid because it is so inflexible. There is no single solution to the flexibility challenge, but there are better and worse options. Traditional options are mostly too polluting for the long run, but the new generation of zero carbon flexibility technologies, like battery storage, aren’t yet cheap enough or capable enough to solve the problem on their own. Instead of solving the problem, policy is reinforcing it. The capacity mechanism, in particular, is very inefficient. It was set up to award contracts to the cheapest source of capacity, but it doesn’t ask power stations to be able to ramp up and down quickly or to be available at very short notice. Most fundamentally, it does nothing to encourage the low carbon flexibility necessary to decarbonise both the UK and the world. Instead, the cult of big solutions has taken over. The government has raised the amount of capacity it will buy in an attempt to procure new large gas plants (CCGTs). But because it hasn’t changed the auction rules, many more cheap and dirty diesels are likely to be purchased before the auction buys a single CCGT. A recent estimate suggests December’s auction could spend £800 million on diesels alone.
Green Alliance 18th Oct 2016 read more »