Preparing power supplies for climate change

The Resilient Energy Networks for Great Britain consortium predicts ways that the National Grid needs to become more resilient.

Whatever the season, you don’t have to wait long for an extreme weather story on the news, accompanied by tales of human triumph and tragedy.

These stories often involve power cuts; the National Grid is not immune to the forces of nature. Violent winds, heavy snowfall and freezing temperatures all pose a serious threat to our electricity supply as cables snap and pylons buckle.

Climatologists says that the UK will experience more extreme weather, so blackouts could become much more common unless we can develop approaches to help the grid be more resilient to harsh conditions.

As part of the Resilient Electricity Networks for Great Britain (RESNET) consortium, researchers from Tyndall Manchester are developing models that combine climate change forecasts with information about the National Grid. Their computer simulations predict the likely extent of disruption that adverse conditions could cause to power supplies in the future.

National Grid and local network operators are looking closely at their output. “The network is constantly being repaired and upgraded,” explains says Professor Kevin Anderson, Director of the Tyndall Energy Programme. “If power providers make informed decisions today on repairs and upgrades, they can build up a resilient network able to withstand tomorrow’s harsher conditions.”

One of the strands of RESNET modelling looks at the resilience of high tension cables. Today’s cables are not designed to withstand heavy loads of ice and snow or the wind speeds of dramatic storms. Using data from climate models, the project’s researchers will calculate the likely loads that cables may endure in coming decades and identify how this differs from their current capabilities.

“This work is very innovative,” says Professor Anderson. “If we can predict the maximum loads in cold conditions we can prepare. We may have to change the specifications for these cables if we want to avoid regular and widespread blackouts. Cables installed now will last for 30 years so a smart investment will cut costs and minimise disruption in the future.”

Researchers are also investigating how hotter summers may increase the demand for cooling and air conditioning, which could in turn affect the efficiency of distribution in the grid and force the country to expand its generation capacity. Another factor to take into account is the relentless rise in overall electricity demand which may double or even triple over the next 50 years. The growing proportion of generation from renewables adds an extra challenge for the grid.

RESNET’s energy scenarios will consider population and industrial growth, climate change legislation, changing energy demands and the incorporation of renewable generation into the National Grid.

“The National Grid is facing changes from all angles,” observes Professor Anderson. “There are so many factors and uncertainties to take into account.” He illustrates his point with an example of the north of England. “We may see an industrial renaissance in the North that will require much greater supply of electricity. So can we link predictions of industrial growth with weather forecasts and patterns of energy use to advise where, when and how energy companies should invest?”

Project fact file

Project name: Resilient Energy Networks for Great Britain (RESNET)

Lead researcher: Professor Kevin Anderson

Department: Department of Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering

Research groups: Energy Demands and NetworksNuclear Engineering

Research Centre: Tyndall Manchester

Funding: EPSRC

Industry partners: National Grid; Newcastle University; Environment Agency; Ove Arup & Partners

Dates: January 2011 - August 2015

If power providers make informed decisions today they can build up a resilient network to withstand tomorrow’s harsher conditions.

Did you know?

Electricity makes up 20% of our energy but will soon make up 40-80%
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