Tag Archives: power generation

Blackout oddity

Copyright Steve Cole @srcnikon

The UK suffered a significant power failure in August 2019, bringing considerable disruption to travel for thousands of commuters and other travellers, leaving some stranded overnight hundreds of miles from home. However, the Director of Operations at national Grid said on television that the systems “worked well” following a “rare event”. Huh?

This event will no doubt be investigated by those who understand how the system should work and by politicians, who don’t understand, but who love to point fingers accusingly so they are seen to be ‘holding people to account’. Grumpy, from a uninformed position, found it rather odd.

Two power stations had problems, the combination of which resulted in huge disruption. One was at Little Barford, powered by two gas turbines generating 740MW in total. The other was the Hornsea wind array, which is under construction, but some turbines were connected to the grid in early 2019. It’s unclear from public sources what power was available, but only 28 out of 174 turbines slated for phase I of the project had been connected by May 2019. Since the maximum theoretical output of phase I is 1.2GW, on the generous side it might be concluded that Hornsea could have been adding around 195MW to the grid. The total from the two plants was thus a maximum of 740+195 = 935MW.

This needs to be put in context, as it implies that a loss of input of less that 1GW of capacity could severely disrupt the country. Peak UK demand varies between 55GW to 6oGW, so that’s just a loss of 1.6% of total generation capacity to cause huge disruption at substantial cost to individuals and business.

On the face of it, that seems like an incredibly narrow safety margin. Consider then, that a single typical coal fired station can generate 2GW, twice the loss of power for this incident.

The question which comes into Grumpy’s mind is whether this perilously small safety margin has been brought about by the rush to close coal fired stations in accordance with the EU Large Combustion Plant Directive, which is a death knell for such plants. Under this another 6GW will be taken out by 2020. Given that one sixth of that just stopped most transport in the Capital, it would seem both rash and premature.

Germany, on the other hand, has plants which still burn substantial quantities of even dirtier Lignite, and does not plan to close them all before 2038. Their government estimates that 40 billion euros will be paid to operators alone in compensation.

Given that the EU largest member is taking a more relaxed and pragmatic approach to complying, Grumpy suspects that the UK’s penchant for gold plating EU directives at an unwarranted cost to the economy has led to a situation where one of the most fundamental of all public utilities can be knocked out by lass than a 2% loss of generation capacity. Stock up on candles.