Tag: electricity

Why we need the whole country on the same frequency

Electricity frequency

The modern world sits on a volatile, fizzing web of electricity. In 2015 the UK consumed roughly 303 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity, according to government statistics. That’s an awful lot of power humming around and, in this country, we take it for granted that electricity is controlled. This means the power supply coming into your home or place of work is reliable and won’t trip your fuse box. In short, it means your mobile phone will keep on charging and your washing machine will keep on spinning.

But generating and circulating electricity at safe, usable levels is not an easy task. One of the most overlooked aspects of doing this is electrical frequency – and how it’s regulated.

What is electrical frequency?

To understand the importance of frequency, we need to understand a couple of important things about power generation. Generators work by converting the kinetic energy of a spinning turbine into electrical energy. In a steam-driven generator (like those at Drax Power Station), high pressure steam turns a turbine, which turns a rotor mounted inside a stator. Copper wire is wound around the rotor energised with electricity, this turns it into an electromagnet with a north and south pole.

The stator is made up of large, heavy duty copper bars which enclose the rotor. As the rotor turns, its magnetic field passes through the copper bars and induces an electric current which is sent out onto the transmission system.

As the magnetic field has a north and south pole, the copper bars experience a change in direction of the magnetic field each time the rotor turns. This makes the electric current change direction twice per revolution and is called an alternating current (AC). There are in fact three sets of copper bars in the stator, producing three electrical outputs or phases termed red, yellow and blue.

Electrical frequency is the measure of the rate of that oscillation and is measured in the number of changes per second – also called hertz (Hz). A generator running at 3,000 rpm, with two magnetic poles, produces electricity at a frequency of 50Hz.

Turbine Hall at Drax Power Station

Why is this important? 

Maintaining a consistent electrical frequency is important because multiple frequencies cannot operate alongside each other without damaging equipment. This has serious implications when providing electricity at a national scale.

The exact figure is less important than the need to keep frequency stable across all connected systems. In Great Britain, the grid frequency is 50Hz. In the US, it’s 60Hz. In Japan, the western half of the country runs at 60Hz, and the eastern half of the country runs at 50Hz – a string of power stations across the middle of the country steps up and down the frequency of the electricity as it flows between the two grids.

Sticking to one national frequency is a team effort. Every generator in England, Scotland and Wales connected to the high voltage transmission system is synchronised to every other generator.

When the output of any of the three phases – the red, yellow or blue – is at a peak, the output from all other phases of the same colour on every other generating unit in Great Britain is also at a peak. They are all locked together – synchronised – to form a single homogenous supply which provides stability and guaranteed quality.

How is frequency managed?

The problem is, frequency can be difficult to control – if the exact amount of electricity being used is not matched by generation it can affect the frequency of the electricity on the grid.

For example, if there’s more demand for electricity than there is supply, frequency will fall. If there is too much supply, frequency will rise. To make matters more delicate, there’s a very slim margin of error. In Great Britain, anything just 1% above or below the standard 50Hz risks damaging equipment and infrastructure. (See how far the country’s frequency is currently deviating from 50 Hz.)

Managing electrical frequency falls to a country’s high voltage transmission system operator (the National Grid in the UK). The Grid can instruct power generators like Drax to make their generating units automatically respond to changes in frequency. If the frequency rises, the turbine reduces its steam flow. If it falls it will increase, changing the electrical output – a change that needs to happen in seconds.

In the case of generating units at Drax Power Station, the response starts less than a second from the initial frequency deviation. The inertial forces in a spinning generator help slow the rate of frequency change, acting like dampers on car suspension, which minimises large frequency swings.

Frequency on a fast-changing system

Not all power generation technologies are suited for providing high quality frequency response roles and as the UK transitions to a lower-carbon economy, ancillary services such as stabilisation of frequency are becoming more important.

Neither solar nor wind can be as easily controlled. It’s possible to regulate wind output down or hold back wind turbines to enable upward frequency response when there is sufficient wind.

Similarly, solar panels can be switched on and off to simulate frequency response. As solar farms are so widely dispersed and tend to be embedded – meaning they operate outside of the national system, it is not as easy for National Grid to instruct and monitor them. Both wind and solar have no inertia so the all-important damping effect is missing too. Using these intermittent or weather-dependent power generation technologies to help manage frequency can be expensive compared to thermal power stations.

Nor are the current fleet of nuclear reactors flexible – nuclear reactors in Great Britain were designed to run continuously at high loads (known as a baseload power). Although they cannot deliver frequency response services, the country’s nuclear power stations do provide inertia.

UK plug on blue wall

Twenty times faster

Thermal power generation technologies such as renewable biomass or fossil fuels such as coal and gas are ideal for frequency response services at scale, because they can be easily dialled up or down. As both the fuel supply to their boilers and steam within their turbines can be regulated, the 645 MW thermal power units at Drax have the capability to respond to the grid’s needs in as little as half a second or less, complete their change in output in under one second and maintain their response for many minutes or even hours.

Before the introduction of high volumes of wind and solar generation almost all generators (excluding nuclear) running on the system could provide frequency response. As these generators are increasingly replaced by intermittent technologies, the system operator must look for new services to maintain system stability.

An example is National Grid’s recent Enhanced Frequency Response tender, which asked for a solution that can deliver frequency stabilisation in under a second – 20 times faster than the Primary Response provided by existing thermal power stations. Drax was the only participating thermal power station, however all contracts were all won by battery storage projects.

Frequency future

Given the decline in fossil fuel generation and uncertainty around our power makeup in future decades, National Grid is consulting on how best to source services such as frequency response. The ideal scenario for National Grid is one where services can be increasingly sourced from reliable, flexible and affordable forms of low carbon generation or demand response.

The next generation of nuclear power stations, as with some already operating in France, can provide frequency response services. However the first of the new crop, Hinkley C, is around a decade away from being operational. Likewise, solar or wind coupled with battery, molten salt or flywheel storage will provide an increasing level of flexibility in the decades ahead as storage costs come down.

Thanks to power generation at Drax with compressed wood pellets, a form of sustainable biomass, Britain has already begun moving into an era where lower carbon frequency response can begin to form the foundation of a more reliable and cleaner system.

This story is part of a series on the lesser-known electricity markets within the areas of balancing services, system support services and ancillary services. Read more about black startsystem inertiareserve power and reactive power.  View a summary at The great balancing act: what it takes to keep the power grid stable and find out what lies ahead by reading Balancing for the renewable future and Maintaining electricity grid stability during rapid decarbonisation.

Inside the machine shop

A klaxon sounds and a crane big enough to lift 160 tonnes moves slowly across the inside of a cavernous warehouse. Below, a team of engineers stand around a turbine spindle the size of a double decker bus but weighing four times as much at 65 tonnes, waiting for the crane’s descent.

Around them, other engineers work on similar-sized equipment. One uses a wrench the size of an arm. Another programs a computerised lever to carefully strip millimetres from a piece of steel. It’s just a normal day inside Drax Power Station’s machine workshop.

For the last 15 years, this workshop has been refurbishing, repairing and manufacturing tools and equipment for use at the power station – a fact that sets Drax apart from other stations like it.

“We’re envied by a few stations because we do most things in-house,” says Turbine Engineer and head of the workshop, Andrew Storr. “We’re leagues in front of everyone else in the UK because we’ve got our own manufacturing and machining facility. We can do all this work on site. We’re not relying on other people.”

Storr set up the workshop in 2001 after being asked to reverse engineer a replacement set of governor relays (components that help regulate the flow of steam going into the turbines) for one of Drax’s steam turbines. Today, it’s a thriving centre of activity filled with heavy-duty machinery and ingenious engineers.

A look inside the workshop

“When you’re manufacturing spares it’s not a matter of going down to our machine shop and just saying ‘make one of those’. You’ve got to have the correct grade of material, the correct size, the correct certification for the material – you can’t just have a scrappy piece of steel that you find. It’s got to have paperwork with it to say it’s certified up to whatever it’s supposed to be,” says Storr.

Turbine bearings need to be bored to size using a horizontal borer that very accurately shaves out the lining of the inner bearing. Getting it right is incredibly important, explains Storr: “If it’s made too large it causes the turbine shaft to vibrate. If it’s made too small the bearing becomes too hot and the white metal will melt and pour out the bearing. We need to avoid both of these issues at all cost.”

The inside of the turbine blading needs to have seal strips administered by hand as they’re delicately made to limit any damage to the spinning shaft should they touch each other. Despite the wealth of equipment at the disposal of the team in the shop, success depends on the skill of the engineers using it.

There are three 160-tonne cranes in the turbine hall, each installed before the turbines were built. This meant the construction companies who erected the turbines could lift all heavy components into place with ease. “Due to their size they move slowly. It takes approximately 20 minutes for the largest hook to travel from the ground all the way to the top,” says Storr.

“In mechanical engineering it’s sometimes necessary to fit one part inside another, and once these parts are assembled they must stay locked together and not come apart,” Storr says. One way the team does this is by shrinking some components, and for this they use liquid nitrogen.

The team places the component that needs to fit inside another into a bath of liquid nitrogen and shrink it at -190 degrees Celsius. Once shrunk, the team assembles the two, placing the now smaller component into the larger one. “Eventually the inner part warms up to ambient temperature and grows in size, making the fit very tight and preventing them from coming apart,” explains Storr.

In the past, Drax would send the work they now do in the machine shop to companies off site. And because all other power stations in the area would do the same thing, wait times would often be long and the quality of the output could vary.

“When we do it in-house I can keep my eye on it,” says Storr. “I can re-prioritise things depending on what is going to be needed back on the turbine first – we’ve got 100% control over it. We can make sure everything’s hunky-dory.”

Your neighbourhood electricity network

Engineers from Electricity North West fixing electricity wires.

Britain’s electricity network is a lot like its roads. For long distance, high-speed journeys, the road network has motorways – the electricity network’s equivalent is the National Grid, which transfers power across the country at extremely high voltages (between 400,000-132,000 volts) and high speeds.

For shorter journeys at progressively lower speeds, the traffic network has ‘A’ and ‘B’ roads. These are the regional distribution networks.

These regional distribution networks take power at 132,000 volts and transform it down in stages to 230 volts and make the link from the National Grid to local distribution systems that deliver electricity to homes and businesses.

And while these A and B roads of electricity may be one of the most important parts of getting electricity from power station to plug, very few people spare them any thought.

Electricity in the north west

“When the government first privatised the electricity network in 1989, it set up different distribution regions to provide national coverage through a series of similarly-sized regions,” says Pete Emery, Senior Director of Electricity North West.

Today each part of the UK is served by one of 14 different regional networks and in the north west, across the Pennines from where Drax Power Station operates in North Yorkshire, that’s the job of Electricity North West. It was formed in 1995 and today delivers around 23 terawatts of power to 2.2 million homes and 200,000 business every year.

It does that using a vast network of more than 13,000 km of overhead cables, 44,000 km of underground cables (making it the second most underground electricity network in the UK behind London) and more than 34,000 transformers, which work to convert the electricity from transmission voltage to one that can be used in UK homes.

The scale of infrastructure needed to create these regional networks mean that each one is a ‘natural monopoly’. In this case, it’s a monopoly that benefits customers.

Top of houses buildings in Manchester, England, Europe.

A ‘natural monopoly’

“A natural monopoly is when the cost of duplicating the assets needed to provide the service outweighs the benefits of efficiency that having competition would provide,” explains Emery. “So it is in the public interest to have only one provider.”

For decades, each regional distribution network has operated the same way, delivering power consistently to UK homes. But as the country moves into the future of cleaner, more sustainable energy, these grids are changing rapidly.

The potential proliferation of battery technologies, and the increasing variation of power sources and their demands on the grid mean changes are in store for distributors like Electricity North West.

One such factor already having an effect is embedded generation. Across the country there are sources of electricity generation that aren’t connected to regional distribution networks – for example, private solar panels on domestic roofs, wind turbines on private land, or small-scale power stations connected to a single, private distribution network. And when there is excess electricity generated from these sources, it can be sold back to electricity suppliers. In the north west, this embedded generation is fed back into Emery’s network.

“In our region alone, we have 2,200 MW of embedded generation – more than half the capacity of Drax Power Station – which means we already manage and control the power this input brings to the electricity system,” says Emery. “They are invisible to National Grid. This is a radical change and it’s happening now.”

Regardless of what’s to come, what’s certain is there’ll be traffic on the A roads of electricity.