Researchers from the UK Energy Research Centre have warned this week that the country needs to build much greater flexibility into its power system if it is to ensure energy security and avoid spiraling electricity costs in the future.
In a new updated report reviewing the costs and impacts of adding “intermittent” electricity to the UK electricity grid, researchers from the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) concluded that without increased flexibility built into the country’s electricity system, electricity costs will be much higher than necessary. The report was originally published in 2006, when the authors did not imagine intermittent electricity — variable renewable energy technologies like wind and solar — would reach penetration above 20%. Since that time, and hence the need for a revised report, renewable energy targets have increased the predicted level of penetration to well above 20%.
“Ten years ago, penetration levels for renewables were small, and the costs of managing the grid to incorporate wind and solar was pretty trivial compared to the costs of building wind farms and solar panels themselves. Now, however, costs have fallen and renewables are close to being cost-competitive with fossil fuels. With higher penetration levels come higher system costs, and building flexibility into the system becomes much more important.”
As such, the need to revisit the requisite flexibility of an electricity system was required, and revealed that “there is a substantial body of evidence that variable renewable integration costs are hugely dependent on the flexibility of the system to which they are being added.” Specifically, “Estimates of additional costs based on assumptions of flexible systems can be several times lower than estimates of additional costs based on assumptions of inflexible systems.”
Unsurprisingly, linked to this conclusion is the finding that additional costs will be further minimized if electricity systems are specifically “optimised to facilitate the integration of variable renewable generation.”
“The findings reveal that the costs of intermittency lie within a wide potential range, and that it is no longer possible to estimate system costs simplistically, for example by adding up the cost estimates for individual categories of impact together,” said Dr. Phil Heptonstall, lead author of the report.
“The conversation we have every winter, which is only about whether we have enough spare capacity to keep the lights from going out, is the wrong question,” added co-author of the report, Dr. Rob Gross. “What we should be asking instead is not just how many power stations we need, but whether they’re the right kind of power stations to keep the system flexible enough.”
The report was similarly welcomed by UK renewable energy trade organizations, which applauded its highlighting of the economic benefits that would come from increasing the flexibility and adaptability of the power systems for the transition to a low-carbon economy.
“This report is very welcome, because it shows that building a modern, flexible low carbon energy system brings real benefits to consumers,” said Emma Pinchbeck, RenewableUK’s Executive Director. “It says costs are dramatically lower for flexible systems. So it makes perfect economic sense to rely on renewables to generate power. This is a green light to Government to drive on their work to replace outdated, clapped-out infrastructure with smart clean technology to meet our country’s energy needs.”
“UKERC’s report is timely,” said Leonie Greene, Head of External Affairs at the Solar Trade Association. “It amplifies industry calls on Government and the regulator to accelerate opening up UK markets for flexibility technologies, such as storage and Demand Side Response. This will ensure that a clean development pathway for transport, as well as power, remains as cheap as possible for consumers.”