“Energy security is not all about building big legacy projects”: notes from a Select Committee enquiry

Emily Cox, Sussex Energy Group

As seems more and more the case in recent years, energy security is top of everyone’s agenda, probably at least in part due to recent reporting of increased risk of the lights going out this winter. Kent County Council decided to hold a Select Committee enquiry into energy security, to which myself and Professor Gordon MacKerron were invited to give evidence on behalf of the Sussex Energy Group.

The officials at Kent County Council were especially interested in two topics: ensuring that electricity supply can meet demand, and nuclear power. Electricity is an interesting case at the moment, with widespread fears about UK electricity security being sparked by recent unexpected power plant outages, impending closures of old nuclear and coal stations, and challenges caused by integrating intermittent renewables. On November 4th, the electricity system was once again in the news as the National Grid implemented so-called ‘emergency’ measures to keep the lights on. Nuclear power has also been receiving lots of attention recently, as a result of the ongoing discussions around the proposed new plant at Hinkley C which is, for the umpteenth time so far, now awaiting a supposedly imminent final investment decision.

At first glance, it was challenging to know what to tell the Kent Select Committee, because energy security for Kent is largely synonymous with energy security for the UK as a whole. Large-scale electricity generation is connected directly to the centralised transmission network, meaning that a new power station in Kent will have far more impact on national energy than on security in the local area. However, on closer inspection, some of the most interesting dynamics in energy security are taking place at the local level. According to UK Power Networks, Kent has seen one of the greatest increases in distributed generation (i.e. generation which is small-scale enough to connect directly to the low-voltage local distribution network). Distributed generation can be seen as both positive and negative for energy security, depending on what the important issues are perceived to be. On the one hand, distributed generation is beneficial because it adds supply capacity, and can also improve public engagement and understanding (which can in turn support acceptability for additional measures such as demand reduction), and can reduce fuel poverty for vulnerable households. On the other hand, distributed generation is problematic because it connects directly to the distribution network which means that the supply is invisible to the National Grid (thus causing complications for grid balancing), and it creates a two-way power flow which is a new engineering challenge for the local network operator. Distributed renewables such as rooftop solar could also potentially increase market uncertainty by dragging down wholesale prices (as has been experienced in Germany). This example is a good illustration of the importance of looking at energy security from multiple different perspectives.

The Select Committee, along with everyone else, wanted to know whether the lights are going to go out this winter. There is a lot of conflicting information about this, and of course none of us can predict exactly what electricity demand or supply will be this winter. However, a declining spare capacity margin doesn’t necessarily translate into an insecure capacity margin (it’s not possible to say exactly what level the capacity margin should be); in fact, it probably makes sense from an efficiency perspective to slightly reduce the very high margins which the UK has experienced over the last couple of decades. UK demand has been decreasing steadily, and I’ve not come across any really convincing predictions that this year it will suddenly rebound. Moreover, there is probably ‘hidden’ margin out there from distributed generation and flexible demand. The measures taken by the National Grid on 4th November actually illustrated that the UK electricity system is resilient at present. The interconnectors worked effectively (we imported around 200MW from Ireland), and the interruptible demand contracts which have been agreed by large consumers acted as a reliable means of reducing demand when necessary. The price of the extra electricity was extremely high; however, when averaged out over the year, even a wholesale cost of several thousand £/MWh for several hours makes very little difference to the overall cost of electricity. Contrary to popular belief, November is actually a challenging month for the electricity system, because despite the warm weather many stations which have been closed for maintenance over the summer are switched on again in early November, which can result in unexpected breakages.

So on to the topic of nuclear power, on which the Select Committee had many questions. Foremost in their minds was the question of a new nuclear power station at the existing Dungeness site. However, Prof. MacKerron noted that in 2009 the Government announced that Dungeness was not being considered as a site for a new nuclear plant because of coastal erosion and flooding concerns.  While there has been some publicity about the possible suitability of Dungeness for a small modular reactor, this seems a long shot, as the concerns about the site would apply to any kind of reactor. The discussion around the Dungeness site actually gets very effectively to the root of the issue as far as I’m concerned – which is that energy security is not necessarily all about big legacy projects such as nuclear power stations. Nuclear power provides capacity; but then again, not all capacity is created equal, and building a new reactor on a site at risk of coastal erosion and flooding would quite possibly be a detriment to energy security. The vast majority of actual electricity shortfalls are caused not by a lack of generating capacity, but by problems on the transmission and distribution networks, most often caused by the weather. It might not be exciting, it might not be sexy, but some of the most important actions for improving energy security involve ensuring that networks are less vulnerable, for instance by cutting trees back and protecting against flooding. This is a timely take-home message: the recent floods which caused such chaos in Cumbria were, according to some quick modelling by the University of Oxford, 40% more likely due to climate change. Energy security clearly matters, but is a complex and multifaceted issue, and the major risks are often not those which first spring to mind.

Emily Cox 2015Emily Cox is a Research Assistant and PhD student with the Sussex Energy Group at the University of Sussex. She is a researcher on the ‘DiscGo’ project on discontinuity in socio-technical systems, with a focus on power and incumbency in the UK nuclear industry. For her PhD she is researching electricity security in the context of a low-carbon transition, developing a methodology which can be used to assess low-carbon transition pathways for their resilience, affordability and sustainability. Emily is also currently a research intern at Oxford University, examining the role of the public in meeting the UK carbon budgets. Emily has 3 years’ experience as an Associate Tutor at the University of Sussex, tutoring an MSc in Energy Policy and an undergraduate module in energy transitions. She recently worked for the Royal Academy of Engineering, undertaking research into the social and economic impacts of electricity shortfalls. She has also spent time working for E.ON Technologies at the Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station, researching energy security, district heating, distributed storage, and the UK Capacity Market. She previously worked as an area coordinator for Greenpeace. She holds an MSc in Climate Change and Policy, a BSc in International Relations, and half of a rather ill-advised BA in music. 

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