Friday, 30 May 2008

The Power Cuts: It's Bad

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 . . .



Ed said...

Where were the French when we needed them (more than usual)?

Nick Drew said...

actually, I understand they were at full capacity exporting to us

Ed said...

Perhaps their usual ability to sell to us masks the problems a lot of the time?

Raedwald said...

A brilliant bit of investigative blogging, Mr D!

The tech link was very useful - much there I had no idea about, including 'Black Start' - many power stations can't start themselves up again after a shutdown without power from the grid, but some are fitted with big diesel generators to provide start-up power. This makes things even more worrying - following a complete national blackout it seems we're dependent on a handful of diesel generators to get the entire nation back on line again. A few lbs of sugar in the fuel tanks and that's UK plc buggered.

hatfield girl said...

Can electricity cause a pricking of the thumbs? We must rely on your expertise ND to explain what is happening. To the untutored there are interacting commercial, technical, and undeclared political agenda issues here.

Why should the government want the future of nuclear electricity generation in the UK tied up by July this year, as the Times link suggests? The sale of sites for building nuclear power stations must be immensely valuable and certainly in no need of hurry. The tied-in propositions of nuclear waste-disposal sites or possibilities makes this even more so. You have underlined France's need to spread its costs for nuclear power generation cleaning up, throughout the EU. We know the UK no longer has the engineering base to build nuclear plants - design possibly, but not build and put on-line. Why are the bidders French, German and Spanish? And why would the UK contemplate alienating our energy generation to others? (apart from the obvious - that we can't do it ourselves; but are we then still members of the first world?).
We can do clean coal. We can do investment in the unexploited gas fields. Nuclear doesn't suit us at all.
Certainly the system is shown now to be grossly under-invested, but why? In whose interest and under whose direction?

This smells, as Brummies say.

Anonymous said...

Has any of this got anything to do with Gordon Brown's brother and his senior position in the nuclear field? (There go the conspiracy theorists again!).

Nice work, Sir. Most interesting.

Nick Drew said...

Thanks, chaps.

HG, Raedwald: given your own acknowledged relative lack of familiarity with the sector, I am interested as to how you smelled the rat so quickly. Full marks.

The MSM, by contrast, have so far failed to cotton on - and let's face it, they're not at all averse to anti-govt stories right now, it's open season.

My overview of the neglect we are now seeing come to the fore, is that under Brown's chancellorship the DTI were forced into an uncomprehending laissez-faire attitude. This, coupled with strategic indecision (Blair's postponement of even mention of nukes until after the '05 election), a dysfunctional and self-deluding environmental policy, and a bit of asset-sweating-by-default on the part of the generators, has left us up a gum-tree.

The French (fronted, yes Nomad, by t'other Brown) will of course have a leettle plan of their own to help us out ...

Bill Quango MP said...

So, New Coal. Is it on anybody's agenda anywhere?

Or is the PR of having 'Black' enegy [ fatal ] and good old fashioned Union links [ extra fatal] going to keep this away for awhile.

Nick Drew said...

On my agenda, Bill !

Unsworth said...

Peak Energy has been the subject of much debate in America for many years. The southern states are in big trouble - Peak Energy being a summer phenomenon largely driven by air-con. The fact is that in Europe we are there already, but few are discussing it. Demand for electicity is escalating, capacity is not - it's as simple as that.

All this garbage about 'better insulation' and so on is just another scam.

Anonymous said...

Stop talking about nuclear, get real. The government should build more wind farms.

Nuclear is dirty for millions of years, coal caused acid rain in scandinavia, it's about time the UK started pulling its weight envionmentally speaking.

Nick Drew said...

unsworth - am with you on much of yr 1st para, but yr 2nd is oversimplified ! Lots of potential for genuinely economic efficiency / conservation gains

anon - check the link @6:21. New efficient coal replacing old coal yields substantial and economic reductions in CO2

wind is fine - if economic !

UK just needs to get real, instead of self-deluding

Anonymous said...

Anon 19.13: I seem to recall reading somewhere that since "we" stopped exporting acid rain to them, the plants in Scandinavia no longer grow properly (because of lack of various nutrients, or so theuy claim). However, I do not knw how much truth or othewise there might be in all this.

Slightly O/T but does anybody know what t'other Brown's politics are?

Anonymous said...

oops, sorry - that shd be 10.13. Sticky fingers again.

Nick Drew said...

nomad - no personal knowledge of the man, but EDF's is a fairly well-known culture:

- gigantic, French-civil-service, statist approach (in one vast EDF campus in the south of Paris there is a 'department of mathematics' in its own building !)

- 'strategic' decisions take priority over profits

- constant interference from the corporate centre, no freedom for affiliates** to do their own thing

So, as Loyd Grossman would say, who-oo would live in a house like thi-is ?
- - - -
** except for a rather anomalous subsidiary called EDF Trading, based in London & staffed with ex-Enron traders, which is a complete law unto itself. I swear Paris has no idea what they get up to ...

Unsworth said...


I'll guarantee that the costs arising from manufacturing, distribution and installation of additional insulation will far outweigh any savings. Do you have real figures on this, bearing in mind the condition of the existing buildings stock?

We're not talking about decommissioning old coal-fired stations, we're discussing building new ones - thereby increasing CO2 and other emissions anyway. It'll be decades before the old stations are closed.

Mark Wadsworth said...

Top research, Sir Nick. At least you know what you don't know! You are hereby re-confirmed as Energy Minister in the MW cabinet.

Nick Drew said...

unsworth - yes & no

- you may be right about insulation in some cases but I wasn't just talking abt insulation under the heading of efficiency & conservation, nor only of the residential sector: there are many steps still to be taken that are genuinely economic, across all sectors

- among other requirements for building new power plants is indeed outright replacement for the old, inefficient coal & lignite (& oil) plants that are being closed, right across Europe, under the EU Large Combustion Plant Directive (LCPD).

Deadline for these closures is 2015, so there is a whole fleet of new-builds to be developed between now & then.

Unsworth said...


Given that coal-fired stations are at best 35% efficient (and that's even the latest generation) there's a net loss of energy of substantial proportion. Gas fired, oil fired and nuclear stations are more efficient in that their run-up time is fairly brief, so when they are off-line they are using little energy (obviously so in the case of nuclear) but we still haven't got over the requirement for steam turbines.

As to conservation (i.e. reduction of use) you're right to raise that factor, but look at the proportion of domestic vs commercial vs industrial usage. What's interesting is that commercial and industrial use is not increasing at the same rate as domestic. In other words houses are using proportionately more energy year on year (for many reasons including consumer wealth). New housing stock/build is a very small proportion of the overall, and if one examines the costs of energy saving means (e.g. insulation, better building controls etc) in older buildings those costs far outweigh any immediate savings. In fact break-even is many years down the line.

Take a long hard look at the built environment in Europe and North America. How old is it? How energy efficient is it? How much would it cost to bring it up to higher (modern?) standards?

I'm not saying these things shouldn't be done, but I am merely pointing out that the hype about energy saving measures producing rapid financial benefits is wrong.

And to clarify "there are many steps still to be taken that are genuinely economic, across all sectors" it would help if you'd identify a few and we can then debate those on their merits.

Nick Drew said...


(a) the retiring plant is (as you imply) <35%; indeed, it is much less

... and can be replaced by >40% ! (see the link already given @6:21 above). This offers the same type of step-improvement that CCGTs made in the 1990's (from <40% to >50% in that case)

(b) not really here for debating lists of efficiency measures on a Sunday, to be frank! (but have a look at the transport sector for starters)

Man in a Shed said...

Whilst I think the type of power outage described is a black out - I can't help but feel they will become known as "Brown outs" ( although this refers to a reduction or partial loss of power ).

Anonymous said...

"coal caused acid rain in scandinavia"

So we were told. A huge desulphurication plant was added to the Drax power-station to drastically cut our output of "acid rain" at huge expense. It made not one jot of difference and Norway finally admitted that problems with their forests were nothing to do with "acid rain" after all.

rwendland said...

Interesting that wholesale elec prices still haven't got back to pre-outage levels. Looks like the outage would be of profit to some.

To see charts of before and after prices feed dates from 2008-05-26 onward into:

Cannot say I fully understand it, but peak prices seem to have risen from £80-100 £/MWh range the day before (2008-05-26) to £90-220 yesterday (2008-06-02).

Today (2008-06-03) looks like a sky-high day with recent peak prices in the £240-280 £/MWh range! i.e. a cost of about 30p/KWh for the retail companies, selling on to us at quite some loss, if my understanding is right.

Latest prices at:

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