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National Grid’s switch-off is opportunity for low carbon energy to step up

01 February 2023

There’s a solution to the UK’s lack of power generating capacity – if the government will enact on lessons learned.

National Grid’s switch-off is opportunity for low carbon energy to step up
Last week, some UK residents were paid to not use electricity during peak hours, to help reduce demand on the National Grid. Image credit: Shutterstock

We heard last week that the National Grid had put plans in place to encourage customers to turn off their high usage electrical appliances at peak times, an intervention intended to mitigate the risk of potential enforced power cuts.

Although this could be a minor, useful contribution to management of the power grid, it’s unfortunate that we find ourselves here on a journey that has been years in the making.

It’s undeniable that we are currently experiencing challenging times globally, which are impacting on what is considered normal, such as:

  • The war in Ukraine;
  • The sustained high costs which are being felt globally; and
  • Even Brexit may have a part to play.

But the elephant in the room is a lack of affordable generating capacity, as well as the decisions that have been taken over the last few years that have not ensured sufficient capacity within the UK.

Given the UK government had previously set a deadline of 2025 for the closure of all coal-powered power stations, there’s been a lack of investment and foresight in maintaining current generating infrastructure.

The UK’s ‘dwindling’ power generation capacity

The solution was to import electricity from Europe at peak times.

Unfortunately, these European countries have their own issues, and on occasion may be unavailable to provide the electricity we require.

For several years, the Capacity Market within the UK had been considered, by many, to be a useful mechanism to manage our dwindling generation capacity.

It should have been a fully itemised programme of transition.

However, having worked in the power sector during this period, I always thought it was more like a stunt to be found in a magician’s repertoire, involving smoke and mirrors to give the illusion that we have a safe and secure electricity supply.

I met very few people in the industry, the people who kept the power stations generating, who could understand it, me included.

The low carbon opportunity

We therefore find ourselves looking for a long-term, secure supply of affordable, reliable electricity.

The good news is that goal is being achieved (with Contracts for Difference, for example). But unfortunately not at the pace required to meet our current needs.

The transition to low-carbon energy has been poorly planned and executed, without sufficient guidance and planning from government.

The silver lining to our situation is that this undoubtedly provides a good opportunity to expedite more quickly our transition to low carbon energy sources.

We are presented with an unmissable opportunity to facilitate the transition to a low-carbon society at a faster pace than we had originally planned or even hoped for.

However, the other elephant in the room: are we ready to take advantage of this opportunity? Time will tell, but that is a commodity we do not have much of.

Are any lessons being learned?

A common phrase that gets used frequently across government and organisations is "lessons learned".

The issue here is not that the lesson has been learned, although many recent experiences of repeat situations suggest not.

But have these learned lessons been enacted? Have we benefited from these? Or are we yet to benefit from them?

In summary, I am confident that the current situation will stimulate further our response to these challenging circumstances, with engineering playing a pivotal role.

I’m also confident that any government who lets the lights go out will experience ‘lessons learned’ the likes of which they have rarely seen.

  • Ian Parke, co-chair, Low Carbon Energy Advisory Board at Institution of Civil Engineers