Coronavirus: an unexpected challenge for National Grid

With global lockdown now the ‘norm’ for industry and individuals, the UK’s National Grid faces the surprising challenge of too little demand.

With manufacturing, hotel and hospitality and education sectors all running at a minimum for at least the next couple of months, the National Grid is seeking solutions to a problem it could have least expected at the start of the Coronavirus Pandemic – the prospect of too little demand. 

In its Summer Outlook report 2020, the National Grid ESO highlights a “unprecedented change to the behaviour of electricity consumers”, noting that electricity demand has already reduced.

The primary reason is that, with the majority of the UK’s population staying at home, daily domestic demand is still significantly lower than energy use from industrial and commercial activities.

The result is a projected reduction in daytime demand of as much as 20% against normal levels. By mid-April, the report states, demand was already somewhere between ‘medium impact’ and ‘high impact’ status.  The worst-case scenario could see demand of just 25.7GW in high summer, against the usual 32.1GW required nationally.

The challenge, therefore, is not the ability to supply electricity, but to be able to do so reliably.  Low demand means a challenge in balancing frequency and regulating voltages.  Quoted in The Guardian, National Grid’s Control Room Head, Roisin Quinn, stated: “The assumption will be that lower demand makes it easier for us to do our job, with less power needed overall and therefore less stress on the system. In fact, as system operator, it’s just as important for us to manage lower demand for electricity as it is to manage the peaks.”

The sunny weather across the UK for much of the lockdown period so far has certainly helped solar power generation, but is less beneficial for National Grid, which needs to focus on the most flexible and responsive power sources.  As a result, it is looking at a range of solutions from gas generation plants, to hydro-electric pumped storage, and cutting imports from Europe.

As the May Bank Holiday approached, National Grid is understood to have appealed to Ofgem for emergency powers to shut down both solar and wind production to prevent grid overload on a day when demand was expected to be particularly low.

Regulatory measures may also be an option, including contracts that “ensure minimum profitability” to retain generation, or the Balancing Mechanism to purchase reactive power.

Should the situation become critical, the ESO states: “we may also need to issue a local or national Negative Reserve Active Power Margin (NRAPM). To date a limited number of local NRAPMs have been issued, but none at a national level.”  

Meanwhile National Grid continues day-to-day operations under challenging conditions.  In order to maintain its control room in the West Midlands, the organisation set up sleeping pods to house staff and maintain social distancing.  With a total capacity of 68, the pods - created from portable cabins – were made to feel as homely as possible as the first staff were asked to occupy them over the Easter Weekend.