Last week, a rare but significant event occurred in the United Kingdom when a minor glitch at a national grid substation plunged hundreds of thousands of Britons into darkness and caused chaos throughout UK transportation networks.
Although unusual for the UK, such an occurrence could be exactly what it appears to be, or it could signify a larger problem.
Nevertheless, at every juncture in life and business, we have the opportunity to stop, examine, question, and propose new and better ways to (in this case) manage the UK grid and just because the UK electrical grid has evolved into what it is today, it doesn’t mean that it must remain that way indefinitely.
In fact, odd things can happen when anything is allowed to simply ‘evolve’ without an overriding vision to guide it. Besides the UK electrical grid, some examples of this are: the platypus (a funny-looking but diligent burrowing animal), the roadrunner (a comical-looking bird that can’t fly and seems to spend most of its time running beside cars on the freeway), and er, well, communism.
Yes! Things can evolve unpredictably and that’s why some animals and dinosaurs have become extinct over the eons.
Random genetic mutation can only get you so far without an overriding vision to get you past the challenging parts.
Creating an Electricity Grid for the 21st-century: Clean, ‘Islanded’ and Locally-Owned
No one in their right mind would’ve created the UK energy grid the way it presently sits were an intelligent species to land on Earth some 5000-years ago and begin to populate the landmass we now call the UK.
Major cities would’ve been located far inland near mountains and large water sources, not where they are located now.
Port cities would’ve been located far upriver with ease of defence in mind — not with the cannons of the Spanish Armada in mind. (The maximum range of Spanish Armada cannons were less than a mile which is why the UK’s present port cities sit about one mile back from the breakwater barrier)
All Britons would’ve served 2-years in the military after completing their academic schooling so they could instantly assist in the defence of the realm any time it was threatened from the sea or air.
And most of all, the UK wouldn’t have built humongous power plants with thousands of miles of powerlines and pylons crisscrossing the island if they wanted the highest level of security for the UK’s energy infrastructure.
Alas, these things evolved instead of being overseen by an intelligent designer with deep knowledge in regards to helping nation-states add energy security to the network.
From a security standpoint, using the OBF model is practically asking your enemies to bomb your power plants.
The OBF, or ‘One Big Factory’ model is what the former Soviet Union employed for factories — which was extremely efficient from the ‘economies of scale’ perspective — but was horribly flawed from the security perspective, as one bomb could destroy the country’s entire tractor production, or entire automobile production, or entire footwear production, etc., for a decade or longer.
In short, when economists design your economy, you build one gigantic factory to produce tractors (for example) to assist in the ‘economies of scale’ and to simplify the distribution system (all good there!) but it allows the possibility that an enemy could destroy your country’s entire tractor production with one bomb.
Or one bomb per year, should you ever decide to rebuild the facility, because that’s about how long it would take to rebuild after a successful attack.
Alarmingly, this is the model the UK has employed over past decades in relation to Britain’s electricity grid.
Nuclear power plants located close to the ocean, easy-to-access hydroelectric dams, large coal-fired power plants with a wire fence that can barely keep curious dogs out, and large natural gas power plants are easily found and accessed by anyone visiting or living in the UK — and all of them are huge and tempting targets in time of war or terrorism. Dangerously so.
No one person or group is responsible for this concerning state of affairs. The situation has ‘evolved’ instead of being led by security professionals and by the people tasked to defend the UK — the police, the security services, and profoundly, the UK military. To those folks, thank you again for protecting the United Kingdom.
It does no good to affix blame nor to scoff at energy experts. Since 1933 when the UK’s first electrical grid came online (on-time and on-budget!) utility companies have done exactly as instructed by government regulators. And it was all good, in its time. But that was then and this is now.
I’m saying that the present energy grid has evolved logically — but now needs to be ‘hardened’ — that is, to be made more secure and be made to be easier to secure.
A non-OBF model, if you take my meaning.
More, and Smaller, Power Producers Placed Closer to Demand Centres
Instead of OBF-model power plants located hundreds of miles away from demand centres complete with thousands of miles of hideously-expensive powerlines and pylons transferring energy across the UK, what the country needs is many, smaller power producers located nearer to demand centres.
Renewable energy gives us the opportunity to create a brand new energy grid — a decentralized grid — to better serve UK energy consumers.
The case I want to make is that ‘islanding’ electricity grids on a per-county basis is the way to go here, although such grid ‘islands’ are ultimately connected to a national grid for convenience and for failsafe/backup protection thereby allowing electrons to flow uninterrupted to energy consumers during fluctuations in the power supply (from any source).
For just one example of this, in the town of Güssing, Austria, a town that was dying economically, residents got together and decided to become ‘part of the solution instead of part of the problem’ and built a biomass burner that produced electricity — whereupon it suddenly became affordable to pay formerly unemployed residents to collect wood and decades of accumulated waste from the surrounding forest which created dozens of local jobs and initiated a badly needed forest cleanup!
‘Dead-end’ Austrian town blossoms with green energy (New York Times)
So, Let’s Compare Somerset UK, to Güssing Austria
The costs to deliver electricity from disparate power generation facilities located across the UK to Somerset’s 250,000 households 24/7/365 are astronomical. Also, powerline current losses in humid weather over such long distances can result in fugitive energy losses in the tens of per cent. Few or even zero jobs were created for Somerset in meeting the county’s electrical needs. And the thousands of miles of national grid powerlines and pylons required to deliver elecricity to Somerset adds vulnerability to Somerset’s energy paradigm.
Compare that to Güssing, Austria where residents are part-owners in that ‘islanded’ and profitable electrical grid where many residents work directly for the various community-owned power plants, or work indirectly for them by collecting and delivering feedstock to the local biomass facility, or they lease their land to the local grid for solar panel or wind turbine installations, or they gain other benefits (such as dividend cheques) from Güssing’s energy paradigm.
See the difference?
Self-Sufficient (‘Islanded’) Grids for Each UK County
There’s no reason in the world why Somerset couldn’t create its own ‘islanded’ grid sufficient to meet 100 per cent of the maximum demand of Somerset and reap the rewards thereof. Jobs! Jobs! Jobs! And profits for local Somerset shareholders, especially when that (hypothetical at this point) islanded Somerset grid would have the opportunity to sell surplus electricity to the national grid operator 24/7/365 except for the very coldest winter days when electrical demand hits its maximum annual peak in Somerset.
Be an Owner, Not a Renter!
If you live in Somerset, you might even lease some of your farmland to the Somerset energy co-op so they can install wind turbines on your land (which pays farmers about £4000/yr, per wind turbine) or you could rent the rooftop of your home or business for a solar panel installation.
Or you could own the solar panels yourself and sell your surplus electricity directly to the Somerset grid.
Video: Almost-bankrupt Boulder City, Nevada (now, rich Boulder City!) collects $20 million per year leasing city land to solar power companies (CNN)
In California (admittedly a sunnier location than Somerset, England) some residents are selling approx. $3000. worth of surplus solar energy to their local utility company annually. Under California law, energy companies must ‘square-up’ with homeowners by February 1 of each year or they lose their business licence.
When energy is local, the benefits are too.
How to Produce That Much Energy in Somerset
There are a few jargon words when we talk about energy and you can ignore all of them.
Leave terms like ‘baseload power’, ‘load-following’ power, and ‘peaking power plants’ to the experts. You don’t need to know those terms in order to support a local islanded energy grid based on the community-ownership model.
All you need to know is that it’s been done in many jurisdictions around the world, and that it can be done in your county.
Again, using Somerset as an example, let’s assume that 20,000,000 MWh/yr is the hypothetical grand total of MegaWatt hours of electricity used by all electricity consumers in Somerset County over the course of a year.
All that would need doing in order to ‘island’ Somerset’s grid, is to install a commensurate amount of electrical power generation in the county to meet 100 per cent of Somerset’s peak energy demand which occurs during the highest demand months of December and January.
During the rest of the year when Somerset isn’t using the peak energy demand amount, all surplus electricity generated by the locally-owned and operated Somerset grid could be sold to the national grid operator at the wholesale electricity price, thereby creating profit for Somerset community owners approximately 300-days of the year.
There are some generalities to discuss when setting up such a grid:
- Some regulations might need to be amended to allow cooperative ownership, although this model is currently in use in many countries.
- You’ll want to be an ‘islanded’ grid — yet still connected to the national grid to enhance grid stability in Somerset and in the rest of the UK. If the national grid goes down, an automatic switch would instantaneously flip Somerset back to 100% Somerset grid power only and you wouldn’t realize that the rest of the UK had been plunged into darkness until you read it in the newspaper the next day.
- Energy sold to the national grid would receive only the wholesale rate, not the retail rate. Still, that represents serious export revenue (profit) over the course of a year.
- Somerset could reasonably provide 10% of its electricity demand from burning local biomass. But trucking it in from other counties wouldn’t make economic sense.
- Somerset could install some so-called ‘run-of-river’ power producers — some of which fit inside a water main and produce electricity as water flows downhill through the turbine (or downstream, if the pipe is submerged in a river). See video here: Lucid Energy
- Huge opportunities await farmers and owners of other large properties for wind turbine installations, and at approx. £4000./yr to rent the land for each wind turbine, some farmers might find that ‘growing electricity’ pays better than growing crops. Really. Farmers that sell lots of wind won’t need agricultural subsidies. Ever.
- Reasonable opportunities await those with large rooftops that face the Sun and who are willing to install solar arrays allowing those homeowners to sell their surplus electricity to the community-based grid operator at the wholesale electricity price.
- Wave and tidal power plants could be a massive business for the local Somerset grid and although initial investment costs are high, they’re already doing this in Scotland and Wales.
- Small Combined Cycle Gas Turbine power plants (CCGT) could be placed much closer to demand centres like towns or factories. The smaller the unit is, the easier it is to get site approval for a natural gas CCGT power plant. Small units are a simple modular unit that produce 31 MegaWatts (enough to power approx. 30-thousand homes) and they take up surprisingly little space.
- Natural gas is expensive, so CCGT burners switch-on only when demand can’t be met by all the other producers on that grid working together, yet CCGT turbines are the most important part of any grid, islanded or not.
- Only natural gas generation can produce instant, on-demand power to deal with the frequent demand spikes during the day and General Electric (for example) has CCGT models that arrive in a shipping container and are instantly ready to produce electricity once you connect the gas and attach them to the grid. See short video here: GE TM2500 Gas Turbine. Impressive! This is called a ‘peaking power plant’ as it supplies huge blocks of power to the grid only during peak daytime demand, or when another electricity producer is offline for a few hours or days due to maintenance or unforeseen incident.
- Further, total CCGT capacity needs to be 20% of total islanded grid capacity. That’s not to say the CCGT will be running all day. Some CCGT units switch-on for as little as one hour per day to meet the sudden increase in electricity demand around suppertime. Demand spikes can be big and sudden, or small and intermittent, and you need the ability to instantly and automatically ramp-up electricity generation to meet those demand bursts. And only CCGT can do that. OK, burning oil can do that too, but it’s environmentally wrong.
- If Somerset employed a number of small coal-fired burners but limited their output to less than 2.5% of Somerset’s maximum islanded grid capacity, the county would still meet their per capita Paris Accord emission targets. Easily.
- Some amount of storage capacity is a must for all grids, especially in the ‘island’ grid scenario. In Scotland, hydroelectric dams store energy and create electricity by directing water to fall through spinning turbines in the normal way, but some of that water is pumped back up to the reservoir at night when electricity rates are low to be run through the turbine again the next day. This process is called ‘pumped storage‘.
- As Somerset has no major hydroelectric dams, it would need a giant battery such as the TESLA mega battery recently installed in Australia to help regulate energy flows and stabilize the grid. See: Tesla’s Record-Breaking Mega Battery Saves Australia $40 Million in Its First Year
Now that’s an energy future that could work for every county in the UK and provide opportunities to dispatch clean energy to other counties on an as-needed basis, thereby allowing Somerset’s grid ownership group to profit on every kilowatt dispatched, but also retain their ability to export massive blocks of clean renewable energy through the existing national grid operator infrastructure to the Republic of Ireland and the European continent in exchange for cold, hard, cash. (Thank you, national grid operator!)
Which should be the primary goal of the UK national grid operator anyway — managing electron flows between the UK’s (then) self-sufficient county grids, and to manage the (then) profitable energy exports to the continent and the Republic of Ireland.
9-Point Plan to Meet the UK’s COP22 Clean Air Commitments by 2022
- Coal generation to meet 2.5% (or less) of total UK demand.
- Biomass generation to meet 7.5% (or less) of total UK demand.
- Natural Gas generation to meet 20% (or less) of total UK demand.
- Nuclear power generation to meet 10% (or less) of total UK demand.
- Hydropower generation to meet 2.5% of total UK demand up from .5%.
- Pumped Storage generation to meet 2.5% of total UK demand, up from .5%.
- Wind power generation to meet 40% of total UK demand, up from 2019’s 20%.
- Solar power generation to meet 15% of total UK demand, up from 2019’s 5%.
- Mega Battery installations sufficient to stabilize the entire UK electricity grid.
A) Before coal, natural gas & nuclear generation can be decreased, renewable energy additions must be fully online before they can help to meet total UK demand.
B) Lower CO2 emissions via a 30% decrease in non-renewable energy generation compared to 2019.
C) Lower CO2 emissions via a 34% increase in renewable energy generation compared to 2019.
D) Mega-Battery installations sized appropriate to each UK county grid.
E) Surplus UK generation would be exported as electricity or hydrogen.
Benefits of Moving to an 85% Renewable Energy Grid by 2022
All of this necessary change would increase Britain’s GDP, help the UK environment, it would allow the community-based owners of county grids to lower their own energy costs and earn profit by supplementing other county grids and by exporting clean energy. And even non-owner Britons will enjoy lower electricity prices in a more secure primary energy paradigm.
- Want realtime energy information on the UK grid? (GridWatch.co.uk)
- UK power cut: National Grid promises to learn lessons from blackout (BBC)
- How Utility Companies Select from a Myriad of Power Producers in Realtime (LetterToBritain.com)
John, you may want to google a Bloomberg article, “The World’s Biggest Offshore Wind Farm Will Be As Cheap As Coal” by Mathis.
Thanks Tim, for the suggestion.
Sorry to get back to you so late on this.
Best regards, JBS
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