Author: Alice Roberts

When would you need a battery the size of a mountain?

Turbine hall, Cruachan Power Station

What’s the biggest battery you can think of? A car battery? A grid-scale lithium-ion array? What about a battery the size of a mountain?

That’s what you’ll find on the banks of Loch Awe in Argyll, Scotland. Cruachan Power Station is a pumped hydro storage facility comprised of nearly 20 km of tunnels and chambers cutting through the mountain of Ben Cruachan.

Built in the 1960s, the site, known as ‘The Hollow Mountain’ entails a subterranean power station, a reservoir, a dam, and the loch itself. These components all work together to store a huge amount of energy, or enough to power more than 880,000 homes, at a moment’s notice.

This probably doesn’t fit your image of what a battery looks like. But the principle is the same. The purpose of any battery, from the AAs in your remote control to the one in your phone that you charge every night, is to store power for future use.

In an AA battery, that storage takes the form of chemicals within the battery which release electricity under the right conditions. In pumped hydro, the purpose is the same, but instead of being stored in chemicals, that energy is stored in the gravitational potential energy of 10 million cubic meters of water, sitting poised to spin Cruachan’s turbines and generate 440 megawatts (MW) of electricity.

Such a huge amount of water is the equivalent of around seven gigawatt-hours (GWh) of energy. If the reservoir is full, the Hollow Mountain can power a city for more than 15 hours.

How pumped hydro works

Cruachan Power Station is one of only four such storage facilities in the UK. Inside the mountain, 396 metres beneath the surface, is a chamber about the size of a football pitch, and the height of a seven-storey building. Here sit four electricity-generating turbines, each weighing around 650 tonnes.

A series of tunnels and channels connect these turbines to two enormous bodies of a water: Loch Awe at the base and the Ben Cruachan reservoir further up the mountain.

The turbines can function both as pumps and as generators. When there is an excess of power on the grid, and electricity is cheap, the turbines consume electricity and work to pump water up from the loch below to the reservoir 300 metres above.

Then, when electricity demand rises, the turbines reverse direction. Now the water flows down from the reservoir and through the turbines, which switch to generating electricity and supply it to the grid.

This is an extremely quick process. Unlike coal or nuclear stations, which can take hours to get up to full capacity, Cruachan can go from standstill to generating within two minutes – perfect for reacting to variance in grid demand at short notice.

Often National Grid ESO (electricity system operator) keeps one or more of Cruachan’s four units spinning in air. Compressed air is used to evacuate water from around a turbine to allow it to spin. When necessary, it can go from zero megawatts to 100 MW or more in less than 30 seconds.

In any given day, the system operator may call on Cruachan Power Station multiple times as the requirements to manage the grid constantly change.

Cruachan is a net generator of power across the year thanks to the large amount of water flowing into its reservoir from a system of aqueducts. However, pumped hydro is primarily about storing energy – not actively producing it in the way wind, solar, gas, biomass or conventional hydropower facilities might.

In fact, the UK’s four pumped hydro power stations are a combined net consumer of electricity. But this is the case with regular batteries as well, when construction is factored in.

Nevertheless, pumped hydro storage is still efficient – around 70% to 80% of the electricity used in pumping is recovered in generation. Sometimes, the convenience of getting access to power when it’s needed is more valuable than how much power is conserved.

The need for storage

But why store so much energy in such an improbable location to begin with?

There are two key reasons: The first is that the grid doesn’t operate under the same conditions all the time. Great Britain will use more or less electricity owing to its needs. For example, overnight there is a lower demand than at 5pm on a weekday evening. This means sometimes the grid is demanding more electricity than is being supplied, and sometimes vice versa.

Secondly, there’s the increasing level of intermittent energy sources, like wind and solar, supplying low carbon electricity. These sources are highly dependent on the weather and can’t be easily turned up or down in response to grid conditions.

Batteries can address these two issues. In times of higher electricity supply than demand, storage systems can absorb and store electricity from the grid, which helps balance frequency and prevent surges; and in times of high demand, then can quickly deliver electricity where it’s needed.

Pumped hydro is an important part of this equation – in fact, while other types of grid-scale batteries are receiving significant investment, they are still in their infancy. Pumped storage, by contrast, already accounts for 95% of all installed storage capacity in the world, around 130 GW.

What does the future hold for pumped hydro?

One of the challenges in installing more pumped hydro storage is finding suitable geography – places which are both mountainous, with nearby suitably large bodies of water.

However, there have been experiments into river and tidal-based pumped hydro storage projects. Senator Wash Dam on the Colorado River uses pumping to store water upstream from the Imperial Hydropower Dam so it can be released when needed, while the Rance Tidal Power Station in France pumps sea water behind the barrage to allow it to start up faster.

Storage solutions will become more important as electricity systems increasingly move towards renewable and low carbon sources. Pumped storage helps to meet peak-time demand and provide grid stability by making use of the landscape and gravity to deliver electricity when it’s needed.

Guided tours of Cruachan: The Hollow Mountain are available via VisitCruachan.co.uk

Meet the apprentices powering our future

“Different people do things different ways,” says Sam Stocks, an apprentice engineer at Drax Power Station. It’s a sentiment echoed by corporate administration apprentice Chloe Carpenter at Opus Energy. Asked to describe her role, she says, “[It’s] a very different kind of job.”

Chloe and Sam are just two of a number of apprentices at Drax Group who are working across the UK. And while they’re proud to do things differently, they do have something in common – they’re all hands-on, practical people who would rather get stuck in on a project than sit still and hear about it in the classroom.

“I chose an apprenticeship over higher education because I’m more of a doing person,” says Molly Fensome, a corporate administration apprentice. Sam agrees. “I like to be hands-on,” he says. “I don’t like being sat in a classroom.”

They are doing things their way – engineering their own futures while growing personally and professionally. And ensuring the future of our energy supply in the process.

Finding a strong sense of identity

For Sam, working at Drax wasn’t just a sensible career move, it was also following in his family’s footsteps. “My grandad worked in the power station industry all his life. [My family] know exactly what I’m like and they knew what type of place this was to work.”

Drax’s transformation from a coal-powered plant to a modern, sustainable electricity company means Sam’s work is building a power framework for future generations, while also paying homage to his grandad’s career.

Jake Dawson, an electrical engineer apprentice, followed a similar path into the power industry. Being born and bred in the area, Drax Power Station has always been a part of his geography. “Because I’m such a local lad it was perfect for me,” he says.

In his role, Jake can play a key part in the region where he grew up. A recent Oxford Economics report shows that Drax contributes £431 million to Yorkshire and the Humber economy and supports over 3,200 jobs.

A role in a team

Drax is a large organisation, but for Chloe finding role models within her team she can look up to and take guidance from has been easy. “Mentoring sessions are relaxed and you build a special bond with that person,” she says. “You can talk to them about work, outside of work – anything. They’ll always be there for you.”

Corporate administration apprentice Matt Donnelly has had a similar experience, adding that he’s seen his confidence grow, and feels he has made lifelong friends in his role.

Ultimately, it’s not just that they are given the right support, but that apprentices are integrated as a part of the company from day one. “My favourite part of my apprenticeship so far is being part of the team,” says Chloe. “Because you feel like you’re not just an apprentice, but you’re also one of them.”

Being part of something bigger

Sam remembers his first day at Drax Power Station: “It was overwhelming, you don’t actually realise how big it is and realise how many people work here. It’s just normal now, if I go anywhere else, I’m thinking, ‘That’s not as big as at work.’”

It’s not just its size that makes the UK’s biggest single site renewable power station stand out, but the potential for career development there. It’s this that Jake had on his mind when he first made the decision to become an apprentice. He was working in an unskilled job with little opportunity, but he knew he had it in him to find something bigger.

His outlook today as a Drax apprentice is very different. “My aim after the four years is to carry on growing as a person, increasing all my skills that I have, and maybe eventually becoming a supervisor or an engineer, who knows?”

This mindset of striving for better is evident across apprentices. It’s what drove them to join the programme in the first place. “Instead of going somewhere like uni and then possibly coming out without a job, you’ve got a job, and you’re actually learning as you’re doing it,” says Sam. “The skill set that I’ve learnt now – I’ll probably go anywhere in the world with it.”

Find out more about apprenticeships at Drax

Can Great Britain keep breaking renewable records?

How low carbon can Britain’s electricity go? As low as zero carbon still seems a long way off but  every year records continue to be broken for all types of renewable electricity. 2018 was no different.

Over the full 12-month period, 53% of all Britain’s electricity was produced from low carbon sources, which includes both renewable and nuclear generation, up from 50% in 2017.  The increase in low carbon shoved fossil fuel generation down to just 47% of the country’s overall mix.

The findings come from Electric Insights, a quarterly report commissioned by Drax and written by researchers from Imperial College London.

The report found electricity’s average carbon intensity fell 8% to 217 grams of carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour of electricity generated (g/kWh), and while this continues an ongoing decline that keeps the country on track to meet the Committee on Climate Change’s target of 100 g/kWh by 2030, it was, however, the slowest rate of decline since 2013.

It also highlights that while Britain can continue to decarbonise in 2019, the challenges of the years ahead will make it tougher to continue to break the records it has over the past few years.

The highs and lows of 2018

Last year, every type of renewable record that could be broken, was broken. Wind, solar and biomass all set new 10-year highs for respective annual, monthly and daily generation, as well as records for instantaneous output (generation over a half-hour period) and share of the electricity mix. The result was a new instantaneous generation high of 21 gigawatts (GW) for renewables, 58% of total output.

Wind had a particularly good year of renewable record-setting. It broke the 15 GW barrier for instantaneous output for the first time and accounted for 48% of total generation during a half hour period at 5am on 18 December.

Overall low carbon generation, which takes into account renewables and nuclear (both that generated in Britain and imported from French reactors), had an equally record-breaking year with an average of almost 18 GW across the full year and a new record for instantaneous output of 30 GW at 1pm on 14 June – nearly 90% of total generation over the half hour period.

While low carbon and individual renewable electricity sources hit record highs, there were also some milestone lows. Coal accounted for an average of just 5% of electricity output over the year, hitting a record low in June, when it made up just 1% of that month’s total generation. Fossil fuel output overall had a similarly significant decline, hitting a decade-low of 15 GW on average for 2018 – 44% of total generation over the year.

One fossil fuel that bucked the trend, however, was gas, which hit an all-time output of 27 GW for instantaneous generation on the night of 26 January. There was low wind on that day last year, plus much of the nuclear fleet was out of action for reactor maintenance. In one case, with seaweed clogging a cooling system.

This was all aided by an ongoing decline in overall demand as ever smarter and more efficient devices helped the country reach the decade’s lowest annual average demand of 33.5 GW. More impressive when considering how much the country’s electricity system has changed over the last decade, however, is the record low demand net of wind and solar. Only 9.9 GW was needed from other energy technologies at 4am on 14 June.

How the generation mix has changed

The most remarkable change in Britain’s electricity mix has been how far out of favour coal has fallen. From its position as the primary source from 2012 to 2014, in the space of four years it has crashed down to sixth in the mix with nuclear, wind, imports, biomass and gas all playing bigger roles in the system.

 

This sudden decline in 2015 was the result of the carbon price nearly doubling from £9.54 to £18.08 per tonne of carbon dioxide (CO2) in April, making profitable coal power stations loss-making overnight. With coal continuing to crash out of the mix, biomass has become the most-used solid fuel in Britain’s electricity system.

Interconnectors are also playing a more significant part in Britain’s electricity mix since their introduction to the capacity market in 2015. Thanks to increased interconnection to Europe, Britain is now a net importer of electricity, with 22 TWh brought in from Europe in 2018 – nine times more than it exported.

While more of Britain’s electricity comes from underwater power lines, less of it is being generated by water itself. Hydro’s decline from the fifth largest source of electricity to the eighth is the most noticeable shift outside coal’s slide. New large-scale hydro installations are expensive and a secondary focus for the government compared with cheaper renewables.

Hydro’s role in the electricity mix is also affected by drier, hotter summers, which means lower water levels. For solar, by contrast, the warmer weather will see it play a bigger role and it’s expected to overtake coal in either 2019 or 2020.

What is unlikely to change in the near-future, however, is the position at the top. In 2018 gas generated 115 TWh – more than nuclear and wind combined. But this is just one constant in a future of multiple moving and uncertain parts.

2019: a year of unpredictability

Britain is on course to leave the EU on 29 March. The effects this will have on the electricity system are still unknown, but one influential factor could be Britain’s exit from the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), the EU-wide market which sets prices of carbon emitted by generators. This may mean that rather than paying a carbon price on top of the ETS, as is currently the case, Britain’s generators will only have to pay the new, fixed carbon tax of £16 per tonne the UK government says will come into play in April, topped up by the carbon price support (CPS) of £18/tonne.

Lower prices for carbon relative to the fluctuating ETS + CPS, could make coal suddenly economically viable again. The black stuff could potentially become cheaper than other power sources. This about-turn could cause the carbon intensity of electricity generation to bounce up again in one or more years between 2019 and 2025, the date all coal power units will have been decommissioned.

The knock-on effect of lower carbon prices, combined with fluctuations in the Pound against the Euro, could see a reverse from imports to exports as Britain pumps its cheap, potentially coal-generated, electricity over to its European neighbours. That’s if the interconnectors can continue to function as efficiently as they do at present, which some parties believe won’t be the case if human traders have to replace the automatic trading systems currently in place.

Sizewell B Nuclear Power Station

A reversal of importing to exporting could also reduce the amount of nuclear electricity coming into the country from France. Future nuclear generation in Britain also looks in doubt with Toshiba and Hitachi’s decisions to shelve their respective plans for new nuclear reactors, which could leave a 9 GW hole in the low-carbon base capacity that nuclear normally provides.

Renewables have the potential to fill the gap and become an even bigger part of the electricity system, but this will require a push for new installations. 2018 saw a 60% drop in new wind and solar installations and less than 2 GW of new renewable capacity came onto the system, making it the slowest year for renewable growth since 2010.

Britain’s electricity has seen significant change over the last decade and 2018 once again saw the country take significant strides towards a low carbon future, but challenges lie ahead. Records might be harder to break, but it is important the momentum continues to move towards renewable, sustainable electricity.

Explore the quarter’s data in detail by visiting ElectricInsights.co.ukRead the full report.

Commissioned by Drax, Electric Insights is produced, independently, by a team of academics from Imperial College London, led by Dr Iain Staffell and facilitated by the College’s consultancy company – Imperial Consultants.

Electricity and magnetism: the relationship that makes the modern world work

Locked in a Parisian vault and stored in a double set of bell jars is a small cylinder of metal. Made of platinum-iridium, the carefully guarded lump weighs exactly one kilogram. But more than just weighing one kilogram, it is the kilogram from which all other official kilograms are weighed.

International prototype kilogram with protective double glass bell

Known as the International Prototype Kilogram, or colloquially as Le Grand K, the weight was created in 1889 and has been carefully replicated to offer nations around the world a standardised kilogram. But over time Le Grand K and its clones have slightly deteriorated through wear and tear, despite extremely careful use. In an age of micro and nanotechnology, bits of metal aren’t quite accurate enough to dictate global weighs and so as of May this year it will no longer be the global measurement for a kilogram. An electromagnet is part of its replacement.

An electromagnet is effectively a magnet that is ‘turned on’ by running an electric current through it. Cutting the current turns it off, while increasing or decreasing the strength of the current increases and decreases the power of the magnet.

It can be used to measure a kilogram very precisely thanks to something called a Kibble Balance, which is essentially a set of scales. However, instead of using weights it uses an electromagnet to pull down one side. Because the electric current flowing through the electromagnet can be increased, decreased and measured very, very accurately, it means scientists can define any weight – in this case a kilogram – by the amount of electrical current needed to balance the scale.

This radical overhaul of how weights are defined means scientists won’t have to fly off to Paris every time they need precise kilograms. Beyond just replacing worn-out weights, however, it highlights the versatility and potential of electromagnets, from their use in electricity generation to creating hard drives and powering speakers.

The simple way to make a magnet

Magnets and electricity might at first not seem closely connected. One powers your fridge, the other attaches holiday souvenirs to it. The former certainly feels more useful. However, the relationship between magnetic and electric fields is as close as two sides of the same coin. They are both aspects of the same force: electromagnetism.

Electromagnetism is very complicated and there’re still aspects of it that are unknown today. It was thinking about electromagnetism that led Einstein to come up with his theory of special relativity. However, actually creating an electromagnet is relatively straightforward.

All matter is made up of atoms. Every neutral atom’s core is made up of static neutrons and protons, with electrons spinning around them. These electrons have a charge and a mass, giving the electrons a tiny magnetic field. In most matter all atoms are aligned in random ways and effectively all cancel each other out to render the matter non-magnetic. But if the atoms and their electrons can all be aligned in the same direction then the object becomes magnetic.

A magnet can stick to an object like a paperclip because its permanent magnetic field realigns the atoms in the paperclip to make it temporarily magnetic too – allowing the magnetic forces to line up and the materials to attract. However, once the paper clip is taken away from the magnet its atoms fall out of sync and point in random directions, cancelling out each other’s magnetic fields once again.

Whether a material can become magnetic or not relies on a similar principal as to whether it can conduct electricity. Materials like wood and glass are poor conductors because their atoms have a strong hold over their electrons. By contrast, materials like metals have a loose hold on their electrons and so are good conductors and easily magnetised. Nickle, cobalt and iron are described as ferromagnetic, because their atoms can stay in sync making them a permanent magnet. But when magnets really become useful is when electricity gets involved.

Putting magnets to work

Running an electric current through a material with a weak hold on its electrons causes them to align, creating an electromagnetic field. Because of the relationships between electric and magnetic fields, the strength of the electromagnet can also be altered by increasing or decreasing the current, while switching the flow of the current will flip its north and south poles.

Having this much control over a magnetic field makes it very useful in everyday life, including how we generate electricity.

Find out how we rewind a generator core in a clean room at the heart of Drax Power Station

Inside each of the six generator cores at Drax Power Station, is a 120-tonne rotor. When a voltage is applied, this piece of equipment becomes a massive electromagnet. When steam powers the turbines to rotate it at 3,000 rpm the rotor’s very powerful magnetic field knocks electrons in the copper bars of the surrounding stator out of place, sending them zooming through the metal, in turn generating an electrical current that is sent out to the grid. The 660 megawatts (MW) of active power Drax’s Unit 1 can export into the national transmission system is enough to power 1.3 million homes for an hour.

Beyond just producing electricity, however, electromagnets are also used to make it useful to everyday life.  Almost anything electric that depends on moving parts, from pumping loud speakers to circuit breakers to the motors of electric cars, depend on electromagnets. As more decarbonisation efforts lead to greater electrification of areas like transport, electromagnets will remain vital to daily life into the future.

How to get more EVs on the roads

From school runs to goods deliveries, getting from A to B is crucial to life in modern Britain. However, a progress report by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) found that in 2017 transport was the largest greenhouse gas (GHG)-emitting sector in the UK, accounting for 28% of total emissions. Within domestic transport, cars, vans and HGVs are the three most significant sources of emissions, accounting for 87% of the sector’s emissions.

A zero carbon future relies on a major shift away from petrol and diesel engines to electric transport. A recent report, Energy Revolution: A Global Outlook, by academics from Imperial College London and E4tech, commissioned by Drax, examines the decarbonisation efforts of 25 major countries. The report found the UK ranked sixth in sales of new electric vehicles (EVs) in the 12 months to September 2018 and seventh for the number of charging points available.

The government’s Road to Zero strategy outlines the country’s target for as many as 70% of new car sales to be ultra-low emission by 2030, alongside up to 40% of new vans. It has, however, been criticised by the Committee on Climate Change as not being ambitious enough. A committee of MPs has suggested 2032 becomes the official target date for banning new petrol and diesel cars, rather than 2040 called for in the strategy.

Even as the range of EVs on the market grows, getting more low-emission vehicles on roads will require incentives and infrastructure improvements. Here’s how some of the countries leading the shift to electrified transport are driving adoption.

Expanding charging infrastructure

One of major barriers to EV adoption is a lack of public charging facilitates, coupled with reliability issues across a network that includes both old hardware and a plethora of apps and different connections. No one wants to set off on a long journey unsure of whether they’ll be able to find a recharging point before their battery goes flat.

According to the Energy Revolution report, there is one charger for every 5,000 people in the UK, compared to one for every 500 people in Norway, the leading country for charging points. The Scandinavian country’s government has invested heavily in its policy of placing two fast charging stations for every 50 km of main road, covering 100% of the cost of installation.

Government support has also been crucial in second and third ranked countries, The Netherlands and Sweden, respectively. The Dutch Living Lab Smart Charging is a collaboration between government and private organisations to use wind and solar to change vehicles. While Sweden has combined its ‘Klimatklivet’ investment scheme for both public and private charge points, with experiments, such as charging roads.

China, where half of the world’s 300,000 charge points are located, has issued a directive calling for the construction of 4.8 million electric charging points around the country by 2020. It’s also assisting private investments to make charging stations more financially viable.

The UK’s Road to Zero Strategy is to expand charging infrastructure through a £400 million joint investment fund with private investors.

Drax’s Energising Britain report found the UK is on track to meet its 2030 target of 28,000 installed chargers ahead of time. However, deployment still clusters around London, the South East and Scotland.

More direct government incentives or policies may be needed to balance this disparity and in the UK, the Scottish Government is leading the pack with a 2032 ban on new petrol and diesel cars plus a range of initiatives including public charging networks and the Switched on Towns and City Fund.

Charging points are necessary for electrified roads. However, it’s a chicken-and-egg situation –more chargers don’t mean more EVs. Getting more EVs on roads also requires financial incentive.

Money makes the wheels go around  

Putting infrastructure in place is one thing, but the reality is EVs are expensive, especially new ones and cold hard cash is an important driver of adoption.

Financial incentives have been a part of Norway’s policies since the 1980s, with the country’s high fuel prices, compared to the US for example, further helping to make EVs attractive. Current benefits for EV owners include: no import or purchase taxes, no VAT, no road tax, no road tolls, half price on ferries and free municipal parking. There are also non-financial incentives such as bus-lane usage.

Sweden, the second ranked country for new EV sales in 2018, is a similar case where high fuel prices are combined with a carrot-and-stick approach of subsidies for EVs and rising road taxes for fossil fuel-powered vehicles, including hybrids.

The UK has had a grant scheme in place since 2011, but last year removed hybrid vehicles from eligibility and dropped the maximum grant for new EV buyers from £4,500 to £3,500. EVs are also exempt from road taxes. In April 2019, Transport for London is implementing a Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) which exempts EVs from a daily charge.

Subsidies for both buyers and vehicle manufacturers have been a cornerstone of China’s policies, with support coming up to around $15,000 per vehicle. Chinese EV buyers can also skip the lottery system for new license plates the country has in place to reduce congestion.

Heavy subsidies have allowed the country to claim as much as 50% of the entire EV passenger market, however, it makes change expensive and the government is now preparing to find a more sustainable way of driving adoption.

Preparing for transport beyond subsidies

China isn’t afraid to strong-arm manufacturers into building more EVs. Companies with annual sales of more than 30,000 vehicles are required to meet a quota of at least 10% EVs or hybrids. However, the government has begun to scale back subsidies in the hope it will drive innovation in areas such as batteries, robotics and automation, which will in turn reduce the price for end consumers.

Norway, which owes so much of its decarbonisation leadership in low-carbon transport to subsidies, is also grappling with how to move away from this model. As EVs creep increasingly towards the norm, the taxes lost through EV’s exclusions become more economically noticeable. While the government says the subsidies will remain in place until at least 2020, different political parties are calling to make the market commercially viable.

There is also concern the schemes only pass on savings to those who can afford new EV models, rather than the wider population, who face higher taxes for being unable to upgrade.

It’s not just governments’ responsibility to make new markets for EVs sustainable, but for business to innovate within the area too. Drax Group CEO Will Gardiner recently said his company must help to “ensure no-one is left behind through the energy revolution”.

That’s a view welcomed by politicians from all sides of the political spectrum concerned not just about mitigating man-made climate change but also to ensure a ‘just transition’ during the economy’s decarbonisation.

Energy and Clean Growth Minister Claire Perry spoke at an Aldersgate Group event in London in January:

“It’s been very easy, in the past, for concerns about the climate to be dismissed as the worries of the few, not the many. Luckily, we’ve been able to strip out a lot of the myths surrounding decarbonisation and costs –but we have to be mindful that this is a problem which will have to be solved by the many, not just the middle class.”

Many countries have set ambitious targets for when the ban of new petrol and diesel vehicles will come into effect. Government involvement and subsidies will be crucial but may prove economically challenging in the longer term.

Explore the full reports:

Energy Revolution: A Global Outlook

I. Staffell, M. Jansen, A. Chase, E. Cotton and C. Lewis (2018). Energy Revolution: Global Outlook. Drax: Selby.

Energising Britain: Progress, impacts and outlook for transforming Britain’s energy system

I. Staffell, M. Jansen, A. Chase, C. Lewis and E. Cotton, (2018). Energising Britain: Progress, impacts and outlook for transforming Britain’s energy system. Drax Group: Selby.

 

The small devices that use lots of power and the big buildings that don’t

When Texas Instruments set about attempting to create the world’s first handheld calculator in the early sixties, it estimated that such a complicated device might require a battery as big and powerful as a car’s.

With some innovative thinking, the team were eventually able to power the device with just a five-volt battery, turning the calculator into a truly handheld device and kickstarting an electronics efficiency revolution. Continuous advances in the space mean that today’s super-powered smartphones run on more efficient, powerful – and smaller – sources than ever before.

But as more of our devices become ‘smart’ and grow in usage, their electricity demand is also increasing. On the other hand, many bigger objects that traditionally have used a lot of power are becoming more efficient and consuming less electricity than before.

The small devices eating up electricity

Think of the most electricity-intensive appliance in a home. Something constantly running like a fridge-freezer might come to mind – or something intensive that operates in short blasts like a hairdryer or kettle.

However, a surprising drain of electricity in homes is TV set-top boxes and consoles, which as recently as 2016 were reported to account for as much as half of all electricity usage by domestic electronics. This is because of how often they are left in standby mode, which means they are constantly using a small amount of electricity.

In 1999 the International Energy Agency (IEA) introduced the One Watt Initiative, which led to the electricity consumption of many devices on standby falling from around five watts to below one watt. And while this has helped reduce standby or ‘vampire power’, multiplied across the country – the electricity consumption becomes significant (in the UK there are an estimated 27 million TVs).

This is not just a TV-specific problem, however, it is symptomatic of many of the modern devices increasingly found in our homes, from smart lightbulbs to Amazon’s Alexa. These are constantly using small amounts of electricity, listening and connecting to the cloud even when not being directly used.

In 2014 the IEA estimated that by 2020 these networked-devices could result in $120 billion in wasted electricity. Adding to this is the increasing demand of the cloud and data storage, which has been estimated could account for 20% of the world’s electricity consumption by 2025.

Previous alarm bells surrounding the bitcoin network’s electricity usage highlights that it’s not just physical, connected objects that will put increasing pressure on electricity supply, but also entirely digital products.

Yet even as little things become smarter and require more electricity, some big things that have previously consumed huge amounts of electricity are becoming more efficient.

The big things becoming more efficient   

Buildings are a big source of electricity demand globally. Office blocks full of lights and blasting heating and air-conditioning units are among the main offenders, but poorly insulated homes that leak heat also have a significant impact.

Efforts are constantly being undertaken to reduce this via technological means such as companies generating their own electricity onsite from installed renewables. But cutting interstitial demand to a minimum doesn’t always have to be hi-tech.

The Bullitt Centre in Seattle is a 50,000 ft2office aiming to be ‘the greenest commercial building  in the world’. This is achieved in part through a rooftop solar array that allows the building to generate more electricity than it consumes, but is complimented by more straightforward steps such as maximising natural light and ventilation, collecting rainwater, and the use of geothermal heat pumps. On average the building consumes 230,000 kilowatt-hours (KWh)/year compared to the average of 1,077,000 KWh/year for Seattle offices.

Retrofitting can also make notable reductions to energy usage and New York art-deco icon, the Empire State Building, has been updated to consume 40% less electricity. This is largely thanks to straightforward renovations such as ensuring windows open properly and temperatures can be easily controlled.

Energy efficiency is even extending beyond the confines of the planet. The International Space station only consumes about 90 kW to run, which comes from a solar array stretching more than 2,400m2. When its solar panels are operational about 60% of their generation is used to refill batteries for when the station is in the Earth’s shadow.

The Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) in Utah

Technology like this will be essential if humans are going to put buildings on other planets where we will not have vast electricity generation and transmission systems we enjoy on earth. And if that is the ambition, continuously striving for ever more efficient devices on a smarter power grid is only going to help progress us further.

The renewable pioneers

People love to celebrate inventors. It’s inventors that Apple’s famous 90s TV ad claimed ‘Think Different’, and in doing so set about changing the world. The renewable electricity sources we take for granted today all started with such people, who for one reason or another tried something new.

These are the stories of the people behind five sources of renewable electricity, whose inventions and ideas could help power the world towards a zero-carbon future.

The magician’s hydro house

Water wheel by the side of the trail to the Power House at Cragside, Rothbury, Northumberland

Using rushing rivers as a source of power dates back centuries as a mechanised way of grinding grains for flour. The first reference to a watermill dates from all the way back to the third century BCE.

However, hydropower also played a big role in the early history of electricity generation – the first hydroelectric scheme first came into action in 1878, six years before the invention of the modern steam turbine.

What important device did this early source of emissions-free electricity power? A single lamp in the Northumberland home of Victorian inventor William Armstrong. This wasn’t the only feature that made the house ahead of its time.

Water pressure also helped power a hydraulic lift and a rotating spit in the kitchen, while the house also featured hot and cold running water and an early dishwasher. One contemporary visitor dubbed the house a ‘palace of a modern magician’.

The first commercial hydropower power plant, however, opened on Vulcan Street in Appleton, Wisconsin in 1882 to provide electricity to two local paper mills, as well as the mill owner H.J. Rogers’ home.

After a false start on 27 September, the Vulcan Street Plant kicked into life in earnest on 30 September, generating about 12.5 kilowatts (kW) of electricity. It was very nearly America’s first ever commercial power plant, but was beaten to the accolade by Thomas Edison’s Pearl Street Plant in New York which opened a little less than a month earlier.

The switch to silicon that made solar possible

When the International Space Station is in sunlight, about 60% the electricity its solar arrays generate is used to charge the station’s batteries. The batteries power the station when it is not in the sun.

For much of the 20thcentury solar photovoltaic power generation didn’t appear in many more places than on calculators and satellites. But now with more large-scale and roof-top arrays popping up, solar is expected to generate a significant portion of the world’s future energy.

It’s been a long journey for solar power from its origins back in 1839 when 19-year old aspiring physicist Edmond Becquerel first noticed the photovoltaic effect. The Frenchman found that shining light on an electrode submerged in a conductive solution created an electric current. He did not, however, have any explanation for why this happened.

American inventor Charles Fritts was the first to take solar seriously as a source of large-scale generation. He hoped to compete with Thomas Edison’s coal powered plants in 1883, when he made the first recognisable solar panel using the element selenium. However, they were only about 1% efficient and never deployed at scale.

It would not be until 1953, when scientists Calvin Fuller, Gerald Pearson and Daryl Chapin working at Bell Labs cracked the switch from selenium to silicon, that the modern solar panel was created.

Bell Labs unveiled the breakthrough invention to the world the following year, using it to power a small toy Ferris wheel and a radio transmitter.

Fuller, Pearson and Chapin’s solar panel was only 6% efficient, a big step forward for the time, but today panels can convert more than 40% of the sun’s light into electricity.

The wind pioneers who believed in self-generation

Offshore wind farm near Øresund Bridge between Sweden and Denmark

Like hydropower, wind has long been harnessed as a source of power, with the earliest examples of wind-powered grain mills and hydro pumps appearing in Persia as early as 500 BC.

The first electricity-generating windmill was used to power the mansion of Ohio-based inventor Charles Brush. The 60-foot (18.3 metres) wooden tower featured 144 blades and supplied about 12 kW of electricity to the house.

Charles Brush’s wind turbine charged a dozen batteries each with 34 cells.

The turbine was erected in 1888 and powered the house for two decades. Brush wasn’t just a wind power pioneer either, and in the basement of the mansion sat 12 batteries that could be recharged and act as electricity sources.

Small turbines generating between 5 kW and 25 kW were important at the turn of the 19thinto the 20thcentury in the US when they helped bring electricity to remote rural areas. However, over in Denmark, scientist and teacher Poul la Cour had his own, grander vision for wind power.

La Cour’s breakthroughs included using a regulator to maintain a steady stream of power, and discovering that a turbine with fewer blades spinning quickly is more efficient than one with many blades turning slowly.

He was also a strong advocate for what might now be recognised as decentralisation. He believed wind turbines provided an important social purpose in supplying small communities and farms with a cheap, dependable source of electricity, away from corporate influence.

In 2017, Denmark had more than 5.3 gigawatts (GW) of installed wind capacity, accounting for 44% of the country’s power generation.

The prince and the power plant

Larderello, Italy

Italian princes aren’t a regular sight in the history books of renewable energy, but at the turn of the last century, on a Tuscan hillside, Piero Ginori Conti, Prince of Trevignano, set about harnessing natural geysers to generate electricity.

In 1904 he had become head of a boric acid extraction firm founded by his wife’s great-grandfather. His plan for the business included improving the quality of products, increasing production and lowering prices. But to do this he needed a steady stream of cheap electricity.

In 1905 he harnessed the dry steam (which lacks moisture, preventing corrosion of turbine blades) from the geographically active area near Larderello in Southern Tuscany to drive a turbine and power five light bulbs. Encouraged by this, Conti expanded the operation into a prototype power plant capable of powering Larderello’s main industrial plants and residential buildings.

It evolved into the world’s first commercial geothermal power plant in 1913, supplying 250 kW of electricity to villages around the region. By the end of 1943 there was 132 megawatts (MW) of installed capacity in the area, but as the main source of electricity for central Italy’s entire rail network it was bombed heavily in World War Two.

Following reconstruction and expansion the region has grown to reach current capacity of more than 800 MW. Globally, there is now more than 83 GW of installed geothermal capacity.

The engineer who took on an oil crisis with wood 

Compressed wood pellet storage domes at Baton Rouge Transit, Drax Biomass’ port facility on the Mississippi River

While sawmills had experimented with waste products as a power sources and compressed sawdust sold as domestic fuel, it wasn’t until the energy crisis of the 1970s that the term biomass was coined and wood pellets became a serious alternative to fossil fuels.

As a response to the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) placed oil embargoes against several nations, including the UK and US. The result was a global price increase from $3 in October 1973 to $12 in March 1974, with prices even higher in the US, where the country’s dependence on imported fossil fuels was acutely exposed.

One of the most vulnerable sectors to booms in oil prices was the aviation industry. To tackle the growing scarcity of petroleum-based fuels, Boeing looked to fuel-efficiency engineer Jerry Whitfield. His task was to find an alternative fuel for industries such as manufacturing, which were hit particularly hard by the oil shortage and subsequent recession. This would, in turn, leave more oil for planes.

Wood pellets from Morehouse BioEnergy, a Drax Biomass pellet plant in northern Louisiana, being unloaded at Baton Rouge Transit for storage and onward travel by ship to England.

Whitfield teamed up with Ken Tucker, who – inspired by pelletised animal feed – was experimenting with fuel pellets for industrial furnaces. The pelletisation approach, combined with Whitfield’s knowledge of forced-air furnace technology, opened a market beyond just industrial power sources, and Whitfield eventually left Boeing to focus on domestic heating stoves and pellet production.

One of the lasting effects of the oil crisis was a realisation in many western countries of the need to diversify electricity generation, prompting expansion of renewable sources and experiments with biomass cofiring. Since then biomass pellet technology has built on its legacy as an abundant source of low-carbon, renewable energy, with large-scale pellet production beginning in Sweden in 1992. Production has continued to grow as more countries decarbonise electricity generation and move away from fossil fuels.

Since those original pioneers first harnessed earth’s renewable sources for electricity generation, the cost of doing so has dropped dramatically and efficiency skyrocketed. The challenge now is in implementing the capacity and technology to build a safe, stable and low-carbon electricity system.

What causes power cuts?

On the night of 5 December 2015, 61,000 homes and properties across Lancaster were plunged into darkness. Storm Desmond had unleashed torrents of rain on Great Britain, causing rivers to swell and spill over. With waters rising to unprecedented levels, the River Lune began threatening to flood Lancaster’s main electricity substation, the facility where transformers ‘step down’ electricity’s voltage  from the transmission system so it can be distributed safely around the local area.

To prevent unrepairable damage, the decision was taken to switch the substation off, cutting all power across the region. Lights, phones, internet connections and ATMs all went dead across the city. It would take three days of intensive work before power was restored.

It was a bigger power outage than most, but it offers a unique glimpse into the mechanisms behind a blackout – not only how they’re dealt with, but how they’re caused.

What causes blackouts in Great Britain?  

Flooded electricity sub station in Lancaster, Sunday 6 December 2015

When the lights go out, a common thought is that the country has ‘run out’ of electricity. However, a lack of electricity generation is almost never the cause of outages. Only during the miners’ strikes of 1972 were major power cuts the result of lack of electricity production.

Rather than meeting electricity demand, power cuts in Great Britain are more often the result of disruption to the transmission system, caused by unpredictable weather. If trees or piles of snow bring down one power line, the load of electric current shifts to other lines. If this sudden jump in load is too much for the other lines they automatically trip offline to prevent damage to the equipment. This in turn shifts the load on to other lines which also then trip, potentially causing cascading outages across the network.

Last March’s ‘Beast from the East’, which brought six days of near sub-zero temperatures, deep snow and high winds to Great Britain, is an example of extreme weather cutting electricity to as many as 18,000 people.

High-winds brought trees and branches down onto powerlines, while ice and snow impacted the millions of components that make up the electricity system. Engineering teams had to fight the elements and make the repairs needed to get electricity flowing again.

Lancaster was different, however. With the slow creep of rising rainwater approaching the substation, the threat of long lasting damage was plain to see in advance, and so rather than waiting for it to auto-trip, authorities chose to manually shut it down.

Getting reconnected

An emergency generator brought from London is reversed into position adjacent to the sub station in Bold Street Morecambe, near Lancaster, Monday 7 December 2015

Electricity North West is Lancaster’s network operator and after shutting down the substation, it began the intensive job of trying to restore power. On Monday 7 December, two days after the storm hit, the first step of pumping the flooded substation empty of water had finally been completed and the task of reconnecting it began.

To begin restoring power to the region 75 large mobile generators were brought from as far away as the West Country and Northern Ireland and hooked up to the substation, allowing 22,000 customers to be reconnected.

Once partial power was restored, the next challenge lay in repairing and reconnecting the substation to the transmission network. While shutting the facility had prevented catastrophic damage, some of the crucial pieces had to be completely replaced or rebuilt. After three days of intensive engineering work the remaining 40,000 properties that had lost power were reconnected.

Preventing blackouts in a changing system

The cause and scale of Lancaster’s outage were unusual for Great Britain’s electricity system but it does highlight how quickly a power cut may arise. In a time of transition, when the grid is decarbonising and the network is facing more extreme weather conditions because of climate change, it could create even more, new challenges.

Coal is scheduled to be taken entirely off the system after 2025, making the country more reliant on weather-dependent sources, such as wind and solar – potentially increasing the volatility of the system.

On the other hand, growing decentralised electricity generation may reduce the number of individual buildings affected by outages in the future. Solar generation and storage systems present on domestic and commercial property may also reduce dependency on local transmission systems and the impact of disruptions to it.

The cables and poles that connect the transmission system will always be vulnerable to faults and disruptions. However, by preparing for the future grid Great Britain can reduce the impact of storms on the electricity system.

If you’re experiencing a power cut in your area, please call the toll-free number 105 (in England, Scotland and Wales) to reach your local network operator.