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Potential winter blackouts as electricity supplies get tighter

Fears that blackouts could be a possibility this winter have spurred on National Grid to buy more power from generators and invest in demand-side response as electricity capacity margins are the lowest they’ve been since 2007 after several power station closures.

National Grid director of market operation Cordi O’Hara explains:

“It is clear that electricity margins for that coldest, darkest half hour of winter are currently tighter than they have been, due to power stations closures. As system operator, we feel we’ve taken a sensible precaution again this winter to buy some extra services. Together with the tools we already use to balance the network these additional services will significantly increase the energy reserve available this winter.”

Let’s hope they have accounted for what we need this year. Last year we were lucky enough to have had a mild winter along with high levels of electricity imports from the continent that the extra supply wasn’t required. This year could be trickier with more plant closures.

National Grid seem to have it under control though and have bought an additional 2.6GW and made use of the demand-side response scheme to help balance power usage at peak times. In fact, it is preparing to revolutionise how it maintains secure supply by relying on demand-side measures for “well over 50 per cent of the time” by 2030.

Margins are expected to continue to fall over the next two years as more power stations close but are set improve thereafter.

Peter Atherton, utilities analyst at Jefferies investment bank, said:

“Unfortunately, the closure programme has been progressing as planned, but the new build programme is running four to five years late. This is leading to a reduction of reserve margins, which in turn requires National Grid to implement additional emergency measures,” he said.

Energy experts say blackouts are unlikely, as long as existing plants in the UK’s ageing power fleet do not suffer serious breakdowns. However, the reliability of the network is under scrutiny.

Available money will therefore be spent on long-term solutions to tackle emissions, with offshore wind and solar power to become more prevalent and annual sales of hybrid electric vehicles to grow.

We just have to get through a couple more winters first.