April 21st 2017. A Friday. Notice anything special about this day? It was the Queen’s 91st birthday for one. Some of us might have dusted off the bunting and celebrated our Monarch with hot tea and scones. Or perhaps, like most Fridays, we simply hit the pub to welcome in the weekend. What many won’t have realised is that this day marked another milestone. It was the first full day the National Grid operated without coal since the Industrial Revolution and represented a significant point on the Energy Revolution timeline. And since the Government has pledged to phase out coal from the system by 2025, we can only expect to see more days like these (reason enough to keep that bunting in place…).
The energy sector is certainly changing, and about time too. Economic, environmental, social and public health concerns, as well as national and international climate change ambitions, are shifting not only the way in which electricity and heat are generated, but also the way in which supply and demand are considered across the energy network.
In terms of supply, you just have to look out to sea from the Sussex coastline to witness the new string of wind turbines to add to the UK’s renewables bow. As of this month, there are 7,425 turbines in operation on our small island and, given our impressively windy conditions, we are now the sixth largest producer of wind power behind China, USA, Germany, India and Spain. In fact, Britain’s electricity generation from all renewable sources jumped up a whopping 30% between 2014 and 2015 and, whilst we saw a slight dip last year due to weather conditions, 2016 was still the second highest year of renewables power generation ever recorded.
In terms of demand and consideration, the latest government survey revealed that 79% of Brits support renewable energy technologies, while just 4% oppose it. The overwhelming level of public support, announced just last month, will continue to put pressure on the “powers that be” (pun intended) and drive the transition from the classical model of large carbon fuel stations towards a cleaner, more decentralised system.
This emergence and rapid uptake of renewable technologies have, however, created new strains on our network. The variable nature of renewable generation creates the need for baseload power and the flexibility on the grid to manage peaks and troughs so as to avoid black-outs if weather conditions are not playing ball.
One solution to these challenges is laying the world’s longest undersea power cable. A 450km cable is being planned from Kvilldal to Northumberland to connect Britain to Norway’s huge hydroelectric power supplies. Once completed, the UK could import 1,400 megawatts of electricity, enough to power more than 750,000 homes. This is just one part of an international power grid that is gradually being developed, using power interconnectors to trade surplus energy and allowing big wind power producers in northern Europe, for example, to trade electricity with large solar energy generators in southern Europe.
But buying and selling energy will not single-handedly solve the nation’s energy "trilemma" (1. ensuring energy security, 2. ensuring affordability for consumers, and, 3. meeting long-term decarbonisation goals) and we fully recognise that creating a sustainable energy market will not be the product of a single innovation or scheme. The answer is sure to be an evolving combination of new technologies, business models, and interactions between the UK’s consumers and their energy use. At the UK Innovation Hub, we support the emergence of such technologies, businesses and behaviours to keep the current momentum going (ok, that pun wasn’t intentional) and the Energy Revolution underway.
If you are into clean tech and new energy possibilities and you have a bright idea to power our nation, we look forward to meeting you during London Tech Week from the 12th June. To find our more about the UK Innovation Hub in the meantime and to get in touch, please visit