Britain came close to blackouts during winter as electricity remains 'under pressure like never before'

Britain narrowly avoided blackouts during the winter and the nation’s electricity system remains “under pressure like never before” it is claimed.

Reduced energy usage by firms and an increased use of renewable energy helped Britain avoid blackouts during the winter, it can be revealed.

Independent analysis, conducted via Imperial Consultants by academics from Imperial College London for Yorkshire’s Drax Electric Insights shows how volatile the country’s electricity system was in the first quarter of 2020.

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When output from wind power fell sharply on cold, calm days the stress to the system increased and in one incident created a higher chance of blackouts, with just 0.2GW of spare capacity available, compared to over 4GW the following day.


However, flexible technologies like biomass, pumped storage and gas were able to increase their output to fill the void on some occasions when wind power reduced.

Severe storms in February resulted in renewables supplying more than 40 per cent of electricity during first quarter of 2020, with output overtaking fossil fuels for the first time during the month.

An evening peak in demand was also managed with factories and supermarkets reducing their electricity usage, helping to maintain normal day-ahead power prices.

After lockdown measures were introduced to contain the spread of Covid-19, weekday demand for electricity fell by 13 per cent to levels not seen since the early 1980s.

Drax Power Station

Maintaining a flexible power system able to rapidly respond to changes on the grid is increasingly critical in preventing power cuts as Britain transitions to a net zero economy, the new report says.

Dr Iain Staffell of Imperial College London and lead author of the quarterly Electric Insights said: “Britain’s electricity system is under pressure like never before, with both the country’s weather getting more extreme and a global pandemic testing its resolve.

“So far in 2020 we’ve seen companies reducing their demand for electricity to help keep the grid stable when supply from wind power rapidly decreased, and then the Covid-19 lockdown caused many businesses to shut up shop, reducing electricity demand and creating new challenges with oversupply of power.

“Having flexibility within the power system at these critical moments is crucial to keeping Britain’s lights on.”

The report from Drax details how the demand for electricity has fallen to match a time when there were 10 million fewer people in the country, and GDP was a third lower than today.

The decline in demand is being seen across the world with Spain, Italy and France all having seen electricity demand fall by 10–15 per cent, according to analysis by Ember. Across the Atlantic, New York City has seen similar reductions.

Will Gardiner, Drax Group CEO said: “So far in 2020, our lives, as well as the power system, have been affected like never before. To overcome the challenges we’re facing, we must keep sight of the importance of building a sustainable recovery for both our communities and our climate.

“By embracing flexible, low carbon technologies we will enable the UK’s power system to evolve and provide the secure and sustainable electricity supplies a post-Covid, zero carbon economy needs.”

The report adds that the impact of lockdown on Britain’s electricity demand is much like living through a month of Sundays. The average profile for a March weekend day in previous years looks very similar to the daily profile for weekdays since lockdown begun – both in the amount of electricity consumed and the structure.