United Kingdom

United Kingdom

Developing new grid solutions for offshore wind

Last October -- for the first time since the first power plant was fired up in 1882 -- the UK generated more electricity from renewable energy than from fossil fuels, an incredible milestone. And wind power is at the forefront of this increasing mix of clean energy.

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With more projects being awarded contracts for difference (CfDs) at record low prices in the most recent auction, the offshore wind boom shows no sign of slowing down.

However, if we are going to ensure we make the most of this energy, both now and in the future, there are challenges the industry needs to overcome, particularly the rising pressure on our electrical infrastructure network.

As a weather-dependent form of energy, changing conditions makes predicting long-term energy generation from offshore wind a difficult task.

This, combined with sudden, unpredicted changes in demand, means that grid operator the National Grid needs to be able to balance the supply and demand of energy so that it can maintain stability.

As we scale down our reliance on conventional power plants, which provided a consistent supply of energy, these frequency variations will naturally become more of an occurrence.

The National Grid has an obligation to maintain a grid frequency of 49.5-50.5Hz, as anything more than a small variation from this can potentially cause significant damage to our infrastructure.

As the risk of increased frequency variation becomes more common, this challenge becomes even more important to address.

Switch of direction

We are also using a system designed to channel energy from centralised regions located near areas with higher population counts, such as cities, to remote areas where few people live.

Renewable generation, particularly offshore wind, is concentrated far away from the population centres, meaning the power flow of the grid has to reverse direction and transfer power from remote locations, where the grid is weaker.

This change in geography, not technology, is one of the biggest problem facing the grid.

Electrical storage solutions, such as battery technology, which has the capability to stockpile energy and feed it to the grid when required, is one solution to maintaining a consistent frequency and support infrastructure that may struggle to handle large power supplies.

However, even this technology has its limitations.

The limit on capacity in current battery storage results in large costs to increase stockpiling levels, while other solutions that can store larger amounts of energy, such as hydrogen storage and compressed-air energy storage, are slower to react to increases in demand.

Support for new ideas

Thankfully, the industry is responding to this monumental challenge. Infrastructure developers are creating solutions to put electrical storage at the heart of the grid.

From SMEs to established developers, exciting new ideas and solutions are breaking through.

Bringing solutions to market can be difficult, though, particularly for smaller businesses. Investment and testing is critical to gain the necessary industry certifications.

If the UK is going to meet the needs of the grid of the future, we need to support these developers, providing them with the necessary insight, funding and testing facilities so that their solutions can go from concept to reality.

New programmes are emerging to provide this vital support, such as ORE Catapult’s Grid Connection Support Series, a programme of courses for SMEs in the electrical-infrastructure sector run in conjunction with global industry leaders in offshore wind.

The expert advice provided can help smaller businesses understand how to access new markets and funding, collaborate with others in the sector to stimulate growth, and receive personalised support for their projects through access to the latest facilities to test their products.

Harnessing the benefits of offshore wind requires more than just efficient turbines and the right weather conditions.

The UK’s electrical infrastructure will play a key role in the wind-power revolution, and we can’t simply wait until issues arise to react.

The energy industry must be proactive and ensure the tools and systems are in place to harness the increasing supply of offshore wind power, and advanced, fit-for-purpose energy-storage solutions that will help achieve this.

By nurturing developers and providing them with the right support, the UK will be better prepared to embrace even more wind power and create the clean, green future we need.

Michael Smailes is research engineer for offshore electrical infrastructures at Offshore Renewable Energy (ORE) Catapult

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