August 20, 2019 / 10:39 AM / a month ago

Breakingviews - Britain’s blackout whodunnit has multiple suspects

Electricity pylons are seen in London, Britain August 1, 2017.

LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - Ofgem is like inspector Hercule Poirot at the end of an Agatha Christie whodunnit. Britain’s energy regulator has multiple suspects to consider after this month’s major blackout. The true culprit may be how the government is implementing its uber-green energy policy.

The immediate cause for the Aug. 9 outage - which brought trains to a standstill and left a million homes without power - was a lightning strike, an initial report on Tuesday says. However, there was no explanation as to why two power stations - one wind, one gas - should have tripped out, triggering system-saving shutdowns. Hence the need for more detective work.

The lightning strike makes it less likely the operators of either plant – German utility RWE or wind-farm specialist Orsted – were guilty of simple cock-ups. That will be a relief for the $42 billion Danish company, the world’s biggest supplier of wind energy and a darling of environmentally conscious investors.

National Grid, the 29 billion pound firm overseeing Britain’s hotchpotch energy system, is also in the identity parade. Its network fail-safes may have been tripping each other out. Then there are the regional power distributors who had to turn off 5% of demand to stop the system from falling over. Throwing the switch on circuits supplying railways and airports was a strange choice.

More fundamental is Britain’s rapid switch to wind, which now supplies a third of its power and could rise for the UK to hit its zero net emissions targets by 2050. Compared to the massive metal turbines that whir away in coal-fired or gas-fired power stations, the sails on wind turbines don’t have the same heft, or inertia, that helps the overall grid tick along after a fault occurs. This means power dips are likely to be more sudden and dramatic – as the Aug. 9 outage indeed was – giving less time for emergency generators to start.

The simplest solution is to beef up supplies of back-up batteries. Storage units with a 1,500 megawatt punch – equivalent to the power lost on Aug. 9 – would cost 500 million pounds a year, based on a 2016 tender for 200 megawatts. That works out at around 6 pounds on every household’s annual energy bill. Whether Britain’s politicians would have the guts to sell that – and even whether Ofgem will identify the guilty party – is another matter.

Breakingviews

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