If not nuclear then what? Time to reimagine the grid.

We don’t need expensive nuclear power to keep the lights on – a more flexible energy system will enable renewables to flourish.

Until recently, the UK government’s future energy plans relied heavily on expensive new nuclear power plants to provide baseload capacity as old fossil fuel plants shut down. This was also going to ensure grid stability to support increased intermittent and volatile renewable generation. However, the energy system is fundamentally changing and expensive nuclear power is no longer the answer.

Over the past decade, the rise of variable renewables has seen a significant amount of electricity shift away from centralized thermal baseload-generation that traditionally provided the power and stability the system requires. At the same time, the cost of the energy produced from renewables has dropped dramatically – according to IRENA, the cost of onshore wind power has fallen by around 23% since 2010 and the cost of solar photovoltaic (PV) electricity has fallen by 73%.

So why has this transition to cleaner and cheaper electricity generation not brought lower prices for consumers? The answer is the electricity system itself. At its core, the electricity grid is no longer fit for purpose – it was never designed for this new world of distributed renewable energy.

Managing the complexity of an increasingly flexible energy system

The cancellation of new nuclear plants at Moorside and Wylfa equates to approximately 15% of the total current UK electricity requirement no longer being developed. So what could the future look like with less nuclear generation?

Certain aspects of the future energy landscape seem clear. Renewables are the energy sources to be favoured instead of their fossil counterparts, in order to address the pressing environmental issues we face. These same renewable generation sources can ultimately lead to lower cost energy, as effectively they don’t incur any fuel costs, relying instead on the free natural resources of wind and solar energy to generate electricity.

Other aspects are far less clear. How do we manage the delicate balance of supply and demand with such a large number of distributed variable and volatile generation sources within a rapidly evolving energy system? A decade ago, the UK had only 80 points of generation to manage, today it has nearly 1 million.

At the other end of the electricity system, we are continuing to change the way we use electricity, with more demanding digital devices and the rise of electric vehicles. How can we compensate for the stability of inertia and frequency-response lost with the closure or cancellation of thermal and nuclear generation?

The answer lies at the heart of the system itself – the electricity grid. Our outdated grid, connecting all these points of generation and demand together, has fundamentally not changed in more than 100 years. It was designed for centralized generation supply and balanced by the ability to control the flexible output of large generation plants.

Improvements have of course been made to the electricity grid itself, but these have been limited to expensive add-on technologies that mitigate the symptoms of a changing world, but don’t address the problem at its core. From a systems-design perspective, these add-on technologies increase complexity, which in turn can only lead to increased fragility and costs – two factors which directly contradict our intention to have affordable and reliable energy.

An energy system for the future

It is clear that a new approach is required if we are to achieve our goals for a reliable, affordable, decarbonized energy system. A system that is flexible enough to tolerate variations in generation and consumption; one that is as agnostic to technology as much as possible, to avoid path dependence limiting our future prosperity.

To deliver clean energy at a low cost to consumers we need a new architecture for the electricity system, where the centre of control is the grid itself, rather than relying solely on balancing from dispatchable thermal generation. This should be a common platform which delivers the flexibility and resilience needed for the future and caters for a variety of technologies and solutions.

At Faraday Grid, this is exactly the approach we have taken in our pursuit of the energy platform of the future: we worked backward from the future vision to define an achievable pathway. Similarly to the way the router integrated into the telephone system to deliver the internet and its associated value into our lives, the Faraday Grid is enabled through the Faraday Exchanger - a drop-in replacement for existing transformers that are reaching the end of their useful life, enabling dynamic balancing and smoothing of bi-directional power flow within the existing, ever-changing, volatile energy system.

With 10GW (only 25% of the total system load) of the UK load operating as a Faraday Grid, the system would be able to provide the same levels of inertial power and frequency control as the cancelled nuclear reactors at Moorside and Wylfa combined.

Further than that, a Faraday Grid enables double the amount of renewable generation within the electricity system, significantly reduces the losses within the network, and even allows 25% more usable electricity to be delivered through the same wires.

Perhaps at first this seems too good to be true. But can you imagine travelling back in time 20 years and explaining what the invention of the internet has enabled us to do? 

A shorter version of this article originally appeared in the print and online versions of Utility Week.