Tuesday, 13 August 2019

No it wasn't the wind turbines that caused the blackout but batteries are likely to benefit from reaction

In the aftermath of last Friday's blackout the usual suspects are blaming wind turbines', but that's not what the electricity market nerds are saying. They are pointing to the fact that big power outages have happened before the age of large-scale renewable energy penetration and that stories of crisis at the National Grid are well overblown.

I certainly remember the blackout of 2008 which was caused by the near simultaneous disconnection of Sizewell B (nuclear) and Longannet (coal), but then of course we did not see anything in the media about how it was all the fault of nuclear or coal-fired power plant. This time a large gas fired power plant tripped, followed a little later by a big offshore windfarm. Now there is talk of how the grid has become more unstable because of increasing renewable energy penetration (now around 35% of electricity on an anuual basis) and how, depending on people's interest a) we ought to stop this nonsense and get back to having real large power plant or b) we need more batteries and/or other stuff.

In fact such an approach is decried by top electricity system management experts such as Nigel Cornwall. He tweeted in response to stories that the National Grid was beset with a splurge of 'near misses' and last-gasp efforts:
 “Near misses” and “last minute contracts” is the way the system - and all electricity systems - is designed to operate. (National Grid) has done a huge amount to modernise it’s balancing services, and I am struggling to understand whose agenda this is. 
Two large power stations failed at the evening peak, when the system was already calling for more output/demand turndown. This was almost an occurrence of Titanic probabilities. You can of course contract for a huge amount of extra reserve but at immense cost to consumers'

Of course two big blackouts in eleven or so years is two big blackouts too many, so, reasonably, the public will expect action to improve the situation. People are looking at how to do this. Jeremy Nicolson, another electricity market nerd commented: 
'We'll have to wait and see what emerges from Nat Grid's report to Ofgem and other enquiries. But I suspect the cost of ensuring adequate frequency control so a double generator trip doesn't result in outages of the sort that occurred last Friday would not be especially high'. -

In recent times batteries have emerged as a much quicker and increasingly cheaper means of ensuring fast response to drops in system frequency (that can be caused by unexpected power plant breakdowns). But despite the fact that batteries are seen as a friend to renewable energy, some battery interests seem to be jumping on an alleged increase in system vulnerability to demand a big increase in battery provision. Now we could do with more batteires simply to replace the need for large gas fired power plant, but it is sad if battery interests are also peddling myths of greater system vulnerability due to renewable energy.

If we want to stop the occasional grand blackouts from happening, or at least make them less likely, then increasing battery provision is one among several options. One analyst, Thamas Edwards,  who works for the consultant company that Nigel Cornwall runs commented that besides batteries 'there could be other things such as changing the frequency settings on relays, which could be cheaper'.

The 2008 blackout:

recent coverage

Monday, 12 August 2019

Government in cynical ploy to boost northern election hopes with fanciful smr power plant

In what must count as one of the most cynical election ploys on record the UK Government has attempted to link a faltering and unlikely 'small modular reactor' (SMR) nuclear programme with target seats which the Conservatives hope to win in the North in the forthcoming General Election. The (so-called) SMR programme seems highly unlikely on financial grounds alone as it would require a massive Government commitment, and and on top of that engineering questions undermine the credibility of the programme.

The Government has issued a press briefing mentioning 'Sheffield City, Cumbria, Lancashire and Cheshire' as sites for the SMRs. Like many of Boris Johnson's schemes, this particular promotion has little grounding in reality and the promotion of these sites seems to have more to do with a cynical election ploy than serious planning of a nuclear power programme.

The UK's SMR programme, such as it is, is neither modular or small or, for that matter, much in existence. The Government are backing plans by Rolls Royce, and have promised an initial £18million, but in reality even to build one prototype plant would require Governmen to commit to spending over a billion pounds. This is because even if the cost of the reactor were to turn out close to what Rolls Ryce claim (£500 million) it would require an additional several hundred £million for the rector design to go through the required 'General Design Assessment' (GDA) required of all new reactors (by the Office for Nuclear Regulation). As if this was not enough, I understand that Rolls Royce have demanded, as the price of going through a GDA, a Government commitment to effectively underwrite several reactors requiring a Government commitment to raise several £billions before there is any chance of any power ever being generated.

This financial background alone suggests that this SMR plan is a fantasy that is even less credible than Boris's plans for a Thames Estuary airport or even a bridge between Scotland and Ireland.

However, basic engineering questions also suggest that that the SMR plans will go nowhere very slowly. The idea of building what is, in historical terms, a medium sized nuclear power plant (440 MW), defies the logic of nuclear power development since WW2. This has involved building steadily bigger reactors in order to, apart from anything else 'calculate down' (in the words of Mycle Schneider) the costs of nuclear safety measures. Smaller(er) reactors may (or may not) reduce expensive delays in construction time, but they are counterbalanced by the lack of economies of scale. Indeed the size of the proposed Rolls Royce SMR is roughly the size of the UK's first grid connected 'Magnox' reactors. The number and scope of safety measures required for new reactors has increased dramatically since the 1950s (extra containment, redundancy in primary and secondary safety injection systems, back up diesel generator sets etc), so intuitively a smaller reactor does not seem the way to go.

Ordinary engineering rules suggest that costs will not be lower per kW. eg you still need to make the same number of many of the parts (eg reactor pressure vessel) even thought the parts may be smaller; hence savings in cost do not reduce propritionately to size. Rolls Royce plans, whose own projections of cheap generating costs must be treated with a wagon-load of salt, are highly unlikely to go very far, apart from that is in terms of uselessly soaking up a few tend of millions of pound of Government funds.

We can expect a lot more of this bull and fantasy in September when Boris's notion of 'green energy' is launched. Like many of his other pronouncements they are oriented to to seduce people by their apparent simplicity, but in reality are fatally undermined by their impraticality. Such is the dark allure of populist politics.

Rolls Royce plans: