Wind turbine image
The UK's dependence on fossil fuels is set to fall as wind and other renewables can start to offer stability services

Real estate hails ‘breakthrough’ in grid decarbonisation

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Karl Tomusk

The UK’s National Grid will for the first time be able to use renewable generators to provide essential stability services in what it has described as “a breakthrough moment”.

From this week, wind, wave and solar generators will be able to offer services needed to maintain a reliable electricity supply thanks to a change to the GB Grid Code, which sets specifications for everything connected to the grid.

The change will make the National Grid less reliant on gas and coal plants that have traditionally provided those stability services.

James Colville, head of ESG and sustainability at Landsec, called the announcement “a major step forward” in decarbonising the grid and making it easier for real estate to secure 100% renewable electricity supplies.

Why does this matter?

“With demand for energy fluctuating, it has historically been difficult to use renewables, as keeping up with this changing demand can be tricky,” said Sarah Bateman, CEO of Bruntwood’s Unify Energy business.

In order to maintain a stable electricity network, the grid has had to rely on traditional synchronous generators, like ones used in fossil fuel power plants.

As the National Grid Electricity System Operator said in this week’s statement: “Having a stable grid is crucial to delivering a reliable electricity supply. It ensures a steady frequency of 50Hz is maintained and voltages don’t fluctuate, which also protects equipment.”

Without getting technical, conventional generators are able to maintain the grid’s stability – and restart it in the event of a blackout – because of how they operate and the inertia they provide.

Renewable generators, however, have traditionally had to plug into an existing grid, unable to participate independently. But that is now changing.

“Thanks to the advent of grid forming technology, renewable generators like solar farms and wind farms can now produce synthetic inertia via their inverters, essentially replicating some of the characteristics of traditional synchronous power plants,” said Peter Sermon, senior director, Energy and Infrastructure Advisory at JLL.

For example, in the US, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and General Electric recently operated a wind turbine in grid forming mode, demonstrating its potential to set grid voltage and frequency and even operate without existing power from the grid.

Next steps

The announcement does not mean the UK’s grid will be decarbonised overnight. As Sermon explained, the change does not make renewables themselves any less intermittent or more stable.

What it does mean is that the system can start to transition away from its reliance on fossil fuel generators for stability, while opening up new revenue streams for renewable generators. By supplying a wider range of services, renewable asset owners have a stronger investment case for renewable technology.

Bateman said: “Commercial property owners are willing to invest in sustainable sources of energy, so these changes make an exciting turning point that should see a number of new options for owners and developers coming through.

“We’ll be looking more closely at these plans over the coming days, but we are optimistic and excited for what’s next.”

‘A breakthrough moment’

For National Grid ESO, the rule change was a culmination of 10 years of “thinking and working with stakeholders” to work out what equipment is capable of doing and what the system needs are.

Tony Johnson, who led the project, said: “This is a breakthrough moment, a key piece in the energy transition jigsaw that will ensure we can operate a fully decarbonised grid and deliver on our net zero commitments.

“It also ensures that as we transition away from conventional fossil fuelled generation, we can operate the grid securely and efficiently, which will ultimately save consumers money.”

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