Tuesday’s powercuts were very serious, and no-one is coughing the job.
Many acute blogging antennae (e.g. here and here, as well as CU below) were immediately attuned to this, but facts placed in the public domain have been few and unrevealing. It’s possible that the next National Grid monthly report may give us the low-down, but don’t bet on it because the industry is keeping very quiet.
Here’s some preliminary info.
Firstly, there is not a huge amount to be read into the two ‘trips’ that started the dominoes falling, albeit that BE will be very embarrassed about Sizewell which has failed at a rather critical commercial juncture for them. But hey, stuff happens.
However: system demand was low, the two initial incidents were comfortably within the capacity margin, and took place at opposite ends of the country. So why did seven other units ‘become unavailable’, wholesale prices reach their highest ever level within-day, and the Grid need to shed 5% of load, by interrupting large industrial users (who volunteered to switch off in return for a discount, no big deal) and simply cutting power to 500,000 small users ?
This is serious. It gets worse.
I’m no engineer: but basically the system has to be balanced in real-time in order to maintain not only supply of power itself, but the frequency of the electricity. If the frequency is at risk of falling too far, demand must be reduced – as happened on Tuesday. But it’s not a linear relationship: the first decrement of frequency requires (in this case) 5% of load to be shed: but the next decrement would have required a further reduction of considerably more than twice this. And, my sources tell me, we were on the very brink of this: indeed, a worst-case scenario was being considered that might have halved the supply to the system.
How might this have come about ? Have a look at this National Grid web-page to see just how difficult is the daily task of balancing the system. But they are very good at it – internationally reckoned as being among the best. And one of the tools at their disposal is to buy complex ‘Balancing Services’ from power generators. Some of these services involve the generators getting paid just for being there in a state of readiness.
But as with any insurance scheme, it’s rather important the policy pays out in time of need. Clearly, at least to some extent, this didn’t happen.
In the bad old days of the 1990’s ‘Pool’ system – when generators were forced to sell almost all their output to the Pool – there were ‘capacity payments’ available, and also ‘constrained-off’ payments, for power generators who claimed to be available if needed, but for various reasons were not called upon to generate. There was large-scale gaming of this system, so it was scrapped, to stop payments being made to companies who, had they been called, could not have come up with the goods. Could this be happening again with some of the Balancing Services ?
The industry is being extremely reticent, to put it mildly. Dark hints are being dropped that revealing the facts would be highly market-sensitive – which can only mean that things are worse than is generally realised. Initial enquiries by journalists were met with outright lies.
In the absence of proper information, speculation of this sort can only gather. We all knew the government had well-and-truly taken its eye off this vital ball. Ofgem (which is admittedly quite busy with several enquiries just now) needs to get off its butt and make it clear: it will get to the root of this – without fear or favour.
We all need electricity . . .