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Daire Kelly's picture
Consultant The Orthello Partnership

Consulting, Solution Architecture and R&D professional with The Orthello Partnership. UK based.

  • Member since 2022
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  • Jun 20, 2022
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An introductory essay to an open ended series examining how the national grid coped under stress during and after the pandemic. This essay contains 3 animated data visualisations intended to provide a view into the operational dynamics of the national grid during 2019, 2020 and 2021.

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jun 20, 2022

And now we're trading the pandemic stress for a record-setting heat this summer stress. Hopefully we continue to pass the test

Julian Jackson's picture
Julian Jackson on Jun 23, 2022

The National Grid is one of the most important pieces of UK infrastructure. The pandemic must have caused many difficulties.  Do you think the UK government was supportive enough, and what would you do differently if another pandemic (or indeed a new variant of COVID) arose?

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Daire Kelly on Jun 23, 2022

Hi Julian,

Thank you for your question. As to whether the government was supportive enough...well I'm not sure I have anything terribly intelligent to say on that. The article deals with grid stability and as I note, the lights stayed on with no major outages. It's clear the infrastructure was under unprecedented stress though from the radically shifted demand patterns. What the governments role is here is largely with structuring the regulatory and investment environment. The one thing that really caught my eye while putting this introductory piece together, was the price of constraints going nuts in 2021. A constraint you may may recall is an instruction to a generator to turn down output while asking another in a different location to turn up by the same amount. A swap in other words. Constraints are used by the balancing mechanism when committed generation in once transmission zone exceeds the capacity of the hardware to transmit all the electricity that will be generated in that zone. You can see in the 2019 BAU visualisation what the volume of constraints used in a normalish year is. It's not that different in 2021. The price in 2021 was different by orders of magnitude though. This tells me that the system operator was really struggling hard to find generator pairs to swap enough load to avoid doing harm to the transmission network. £4m per MWh at one point. I was doing a little work on the follow up earlier in the week looking at 2 sets of dynamics. The first was to isolate wind and solar as a proportion of total generation outturn along with constraint volume as a proportion of generation outturn. There is a very close to linear relationship between wind + solar and constraints. I also looked at total cost of constraints across the 3 years. You can see in 2019, constraints flex up and down with wind and solar (The difficulty with scheduling dispatch of wind and solar means the balancing mechanism has to accomodate them by default and move other generation types around or turn them down when they are generating). The costs of constraints are small. 100s to 1000s if used at all. In 2021 though, the volumes are not massively different but suddenly the costs balloon to 100,000s to millions. 27 million in one weeks aggregated daily period. The grid had an awful lot of difficulty choreographing generation in 2021, although it succeeded in doing so without failure. None of this is enough to determine causation down to the nth degree but my feeling is that there is a particular set of government policies will need changing to safe guard the grid in the long term. In general over the last decade or two, the regulatory environment has favoured clever solutions that make better use of existing capacity over large scale infrastructure investment on the grounds that big investments end up on our bills. Unfortunately, I suspect change is needed to build out new tranmission capacity to ensure we can transmit all we can generate to where it is used. Certainly if we are to continue scaling renewables, additional transmission network capacity is essential along with more distributed storage to increase the resillience of the grid.

I suppose another area that I'd like to alter for the next pandemic response is to consider very carefully the long run consequences of cancelling or making more difficult, routine maintenance activities. Gas fields in the north sea ended up deferring activities in 2020 to 2021 with more capacity offline simultaneously than usual in '21 and while I don't know for sure that maintenance disruption is at the root of it, we've had an unusual number of problems with interconnectors both gas and electric (One of the IFA interconnectors had a fire!) that to this marginally educated observer, seems to have come too close to the end of the pandemic to be a coincidence.

Perhaps the grid and energy industry could benefit from a finance-industry-esque set of stress tests to determine if our design assumptions about the grid are insufficiently pessimistic. Scenarios like simultaneously losing half the electricity interconnectors and an underwater gas pipeline while the wind isn't blowing would be interesting to game out. Yearly industry stress tests feeding results and recommendations into long term policy and strategy would be useful.

I hope that answers your question. I should really learn when to stop typing! :)

D.

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