Britain avoids power black-outs – but no thanks to UK govt, says Lords report

elecricity pylons gridThe government has managed to “keep the lights on” – but buying in extra ‘safety net’ capacity at short notice has brought costs for the taxpayer and the environment.

And the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee has declared that the government should not be congratulated on keeping the lights on.

Its report, entitled ‘The Resilience of the Electricity System’, says it is not acceptable for an advanced economy – hugely dependent on electricity – to sail so close to the wind. It found that the UK has been forced to generate extra capacity in the system, using expensive measures with heavy reliance on fossil fuel generation. Other key findings of the report include:

  • New and emerging threats to resilience must be identified as early as possible. Our electricity system is increasingly reliant on ICT and potential cyber-security breaches will require constant vigilance.
  • A flexible and agile system of demand for electricity can make a huge contribution. Giving consumers more control over how and when they use electricity has huge potential to reduce costs and improve resilience. To maximise this potential the Government must do more to optimise market conditions and progress the roll out of smart meters.
  • More needs to be done to establish the effectiveness of interconnection to other countries. The report calls on the Government to review how beneficial the contribution of interconnected countries could be at times of excessive need.
  • Flexible generation will be increasingly important to balance the electricity system. The report finds that all new generation should be built in such a way as to maximise its flexibility.

Lord Selborne, Chairman, said: “Such is our increasing reliance on electricity that any blackouts have the potential to bring our communications and vital services to a grinding halt. 

“The encouraging finding from our investigation is that overall, the resilience of the electricity system is robust, and witnesses told us we have the most reliable transmission network in Europe.

“But our report found that the government sailed too close to the wind, allowing the capacity margin, its safety net, to be squeezed too tightly before taking last minute measures. Moreover these measures, which came at a cost to the taxpayer, were in conflict with the government’s wider aims to decarbonise electricity generation.

“We’re entering new and unchartered territory. As we strive for more decarbonised electricity provision, it will become harder and harder to keep electricity affordable and to guarantee security of supply.

“These are the three irreconcilable pressures of the ‘energy trilemma’, and we feel that there is more the government needs to do to inform the public about potential higher prices.”

Dr. Nina Skorupska, Chief Executive, Renewable Energy Association
Dr. Nina Skorupska, Chief Executive, Renewable Energy Association

Dr Nina Skorupska, Chief Executive, Renewable Energy Association, commented: “Clear and stable policies that create a level playing field for all of the costs associated with energy delivery are critical if the UK is going to meet its carbon reduction pledges in a cost-effective manner.

“We strongly support the report’s call for the next government to improve communication of the costs and benefits of low carbon generation to the public. As an industry, we firmly believe that consumer understanding and buy-in are fundamental to the future success of renewable energy in the UK.

“We are also encouraged by the Committee’s call for a review into electricity storage support, and whilst we don’t necessarily believe this has to be under the Contracts for Difference regime or capacity market the next parliament should see the rapid growth of energy storage if the political and regulatory environment is right.”

Dr Simon Harrison from the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) commented: “The ultimate aim has to be to achieve resilience over the long term and without allowing consumer costs to spiral unnecessarily.

“Since the last period when electricity resilience was an issue – the three-day week in the 1970s –  the underlying issues and the opportunities for resolving them have become significantly more diverse.

“These include large amounts of self-dispatching renewable generation, the potential electrification of transport and space heating, and the rise of the smart consumer and smart home.  These increase complexity and require a level of engineering coordination and integration that the current industry structure and market regime does not provide.”

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