UK may avoid winter blackouts owing to lower demand, says National Grid

The operator of the UK’s electricity system has said the risk of blackouts this winter has been reduced because energy demand is likely to be well below normal levels as people stay away from offices, pubs and restaurants during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The UK was on course to face its tightest electricity supply margins in five years after a series of coal power plant closures, according to a report from National Grid.

But its electricity system operator (ESO) said there would be “no threat” to the energy system during the colder months, in part because demand for electricity could fall by up to 6% compared with last winter.

Roisin Quinn, ESO’s head of national control, said: “We want to provide assurance to industry and the public that we will be able to manage electricity supply and demand this winter.”

The overall demand for electricity could fall by 2.4GW on last winter as people work from home and commercial sites close under the government’s plan to limit the second wave of coronavirus infections.

The slump in demand caused extra challenges for the ESO in the summer, when record quantities of renewable energy threatened to overload the power grids, but this winter it could mean that the lights stay on.

The lower demand will give National Grid a 4.8GW “cushion” of extra electricity, 8.3% of the total supply, to safeguard the system against blackouts. However, this is much smaller than the 7.8GW forecast last winter.

Without the slump in demand, supply margins would probably shrink further to 5.9%, narrowly above the 5.1% recorded in the winter of 2015-2016, when National Grid was forced to ask businesses to reduce their electricity usage to keep the lights on after a spate breakdowns at coal plants.

Quinn said the ESO was prepared to manage the outcome of the government’s Brexit transition negotiations after “extensively” modelling different scenarios.

Electricity is typically traded between EU member states under rules that help to make trading faster and more efficient. If the UK leaves the bloc without a trade agreement, it would need to buy and sell electricity using less efficient backup arrangements.

“Whatever the outcome of negotiations, we expect to be able to reliably manage electricity flow to and from the continent without interruption,” Quinn said.

The UK is also expected to have more than enough gas to help heat homes and fuel power stations, said National Grid. Demand is forecast to be slightly lower than usual, while extra imports of liquified natural gas are also expected to be on hand.

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The ESO issued its assurances hours after tweeting that the electricity system would be in short supply over the next few days because of a series of unplanned outages at power plants and unusually low wind speeds this week.

It was the second such warning from National Grid in recent weeks. Last month a supply squeeze prompted an official alert, which was withdrawn after extra power generation was switched on to meet demand.

“We’re monitoring how the situation develops,” a spokesperson for ESO said.

The Guardian

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