Alison Hammond discusses potential blackouts
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National Grid Electricity System Operator (ESO) has explained why the UK’s wind farms have been smashing power generation records as it updated Express.co.uk on its emergency “worst-case scenario” plan for organised blackouts over the next two months. Recent weather conditions have resulted in a staggering amount of power generation coming from the UK’s on and offshore wind farms, helping to keep the lights on in recent weeks amid fears that Europe could slash its energy exports to Britain.
National Grid ESO told Express.co.uk that while Britain is not in the clear just yet, its “base case still shows sufficient operational surplus in each week for the rest of winter”. On Tuesday, National Grid ESO confirmed that onshore and offshore wind farms collectively delivered 21.6GW of power to the grid, hitting a new record.
Wind generation has also been higher than gas’ power generation for the last three weeks. Yesterday, for instance, wind power generation was at 19.44 gigawatts (GW), accounting for 55.9 percent of the UK’s total power generation. Over the past week, it has accounted for 54 percent.
Meanwhile gas, the price of which has soared over the last year due to Russia’s war in Ukraine, only accounted for 11.9 percent, at 3.94GW.
Michael McLaughlin from National Grid ESO explained: “There has been the right environmental conditions to support wind generation. This is fairly common for this time of year, for instance, last February, Wind produced almost double the electricity produced by gas.
“Operational margins for the rest of winter are still broadly in line with our Winter Outlook Report that we published in early October. Our base case still shows sufficient operational surplus in each week for the rest of winter, even when we consider the expected natural variation of demand, wind and outages.We still expect that there may be some days when we need to use our operational tools.”
Dr Simon Cran-McGreehin, head of analysis at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit explained: “Wind generation in those weeks was high for two reasons: firstly, obviously the weather was windy, but secondly because the UK has continued to build wind turbines to make more use of the UK’s huge wind resources.
“We have more wind turbines than we did last winter, so we get more wind power for any given type of weather – overall, 2022 saw record wind generation (26.8 percent of total power generation). Every wind turbine that we build boosts our energy independence.”
However, the energy expert warned that we are “not out of the woods” just yet in terms of blackouts given that wind is intermittent, meaning power generation could plummet once strong winds drop. Coupled with low gas supplies, this could force National Grid ESO to roll out blackouts to balance the grid.
Speaking on the UK’s energy security, Dr Cran-McGreehin explained: “The issue this winter is that gas has become the ‘weak link’ in our energy system, given its high prices and fears about supplies, such that we’ve been worried that it might not be able to fulfill its role including for balancing the natural variations in wind power.
“The weeks of high wind power output, coupled with mild winter weather in Europe means that we’ve all needed less gas than expected – so we’ve had greater energy independence and have been less vulnerable to gas supply problems.
“We’re not out of the woods yet, and there could still be a cold spell in which it’s harder to meet demand – but the milder weather to date means that there are higher levels of gas storage on the Continent so we’d likely be able to import what we needed.”
And eventually, the record amounts of power coming from the UK’s wind farms could even help to drive down energy bills, which have soared to historic levels following Russia’s war in Ukraine. This is because, while wind is smashing records, 24 million homes (85 percent of the total) rely on gas boilers for heat, while 42 percent of our electricity normally comes from gas.
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The way the power market works means that electricity prices are tied to gas costs. But to slash dependence on gas, experts have argued that a strong renewable fleet can scupper Britain’s dependence on volatile fossil fuel markets, which alongside market reform, can drive down energy bills.
Dr Cran-McGreehin said: “Wind reduces costs because when we need less gas power then we don’t need to use the least efficient gas power plants that set the highest prices. These cost savings will feed through into cheaper prices for consumers, but not immediately.
“The energy price cap (maximum annual tariff for the average household) has a ‘lag’ so that households haven’t been exposed to the huge costs all at once, but the flipside is that our retail prices won’t fall as quickly as wholesale prices.
“And of course, we’re all being protected from some of the high costs by the Government’s price freeze – so the first reductions in power costs would serve to reduce the costs of that taxpayer-funded support.
“There are plans to restructure the energy market so that customers benefit more easily from the low costs of wind and other renewables, with less interference from volatile gas prices.Taking all these factors together, with market reform and more wind turbines, the UK can cut costs and boost energy independence – at the same time as moving towards net zero to reduce the impacts of climate change.”
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