SSE builds new underground energy site to swerve blackouts

Alison Hammond discusses potential blackouts

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Energy firm SSE has ‘started work’ developing an underground cavern to store hydrogen, which could help the UK keep reserves of renewable energy and prevent blackouts in the future. This site, which will be built in east Yorkshire, could help the country stockpile electricity generates from renewable sources like wind and solar, and use them during the freezing, windless conditions, similar to the ones that the UK faced last week. Energy storage sites like this one will be crucial to help balance the National Grid as the country transitions towards renewable sources like wind, which are intermittent, and could stop generating electricity depending on the weather. 

The Arctic cold snap last week dealt a blow to the UK’s energy security, as the freezing temperatures meant that households turned up their heating, using more energy. 

Meanwhile, low wind speeds that week meant that very little electricity was generated from renewables, and the UK had to use more expensive gas supplies.

These low wind speeds had a huge impact on wholesale electricity prices, with energy and commodities expert Javier Blas tweeting: “UK wholesale day-ahead electricity prices surge to a **record high** as cold, dry and calm weather cripples wind production and sends demand soaring.

“UK wholesale day-ahead electricity prices have cleared a bit lower on another platform (N2EX), but still the price for Monday is the 2nd highest ever for baseload power on that platform (£570 for Mon, while the record was £571 set in Aug).

“The situation should start to improve from Monday evening as weather models forecast more wind, which should ease the tightness in the UK (and also in continental Europe). But demand will remain high due to below seasonal normal temperatures.”

According to the Guardian, this project will produce hydrogen using renewable energy in a 35-megawatt electrolyser which will be stored in a cavern the size of St Paul’s Cathedral located a mile deep at an existing SSE site in Aldbrough on the Yorkshire coast.

This hydrogen, which has been hailed as a natural gas replacement for industrial uses, will be used to fire a turbine which can export power to the grid when demand is high.

SSE hopes that this “pathfinder” project, which could cost over £100million, will help demonstrate the technology’s viability before larger projects, which would require larger pipelines and infrastructure, are built. 

The firm is reportedly looking to receive funding from the Government for this project, through a fund that is set up to support low-carbon hydrogen projects.

Catherine Raw, managing director of SSE’s thermal division, told the Guardian: “Even if hydrogen is expensive relative to other fuels, you’re able to deliver the power exactly when you need it during peak demand and when power prices are justified.

“So this would be, even as a research and development project, helping to ease that system pressure during periods of peak demand like we’ve just seen.”

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This report amid news last week that Ofgem is pushing to impose price cap on how much power stations can charge the National Grid for the backup electricity it needs during peak times.

The energy regulator is looking to tighten rules to prevent these power stations from raking in “excessive” profits, as the National Grid spent more than £27million paying power stations to increase supplies at short notice to keep the lights on during the freezing temperatures last week. 

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt has exempted these power stations from the electricity generators levy, with the Government citing their role in providing security of energy supplies.

SSE, which has several gas-fired power plants in the country, declined to comment on the reports. However Ms Raw continued: “The rising gas price has meant that we’ve had to take risks that we would not normally take, and therefore how do you get rewarded for taking those risks?

“Our responsibility as a generator of power is to keep the system balanced and SSE takes that very seriously.”

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