While many of us will be familiar with the idea of a surge in electricity demand as thousands of kettles are flicked on after a World Cup penalty shootout, Covid had introduced an equal and opposite problem – plummeting demand.
My colleague Ben Copithorne wrote last week about the mammoth logistics task that food producers, supermarkets and others have had to keep goods on the shelves and food on our plates. It’s been no less of a challenge to keep the nation’s fridges, freezers and ovens – not forgetting those kettles – working away.
National Grid has had to keep the UK’s network supply and demand balanced while many factories, shops and other businesses use not a single watt.
In such extraordinary circumstances it had to request emergency powers from Ofgem and struck an agreement with Sizewell B power station in Suffolk that it should reduce its output. Lockdown has also seen some innovative energy suppliers paying domestic customers to use the surfeit of energy in the middle of the night for the first time ever.
This all comes at a time when our energy sources are already changing rapidly. The UK went its first full calendar month without burning coal to make energy in May this year, something that hasn’t happened since the early Victorian era. The black stuff has been squeezed off the system by solar and wind in the recent sunny and breezy conditions.
The Government’s legally binding commitment to a net zero UK by 2050 has huge implications, with energy generation having a central role to play in getting us there. Encouragingly, this Spring’s surge of renewables has delivered the lowest carbon intensity on record.
This week, the UK’s first 900-acre ‘super-scale’ solar park at Cleve Hill near Graveney in Kent was granted a Development Consent Order (DCO). 880,000 panels will bring the capacity to produce enough energy for 90,000 homes from the power of the sun. The project pairs its solar panels with increasingly affordable batteries. These allow it to ‘time shift’ its output by a few hours, releasing energy made from the afternoon sun at the peak of demand in homes at teatime.
The energy challenge ahead is the biggest re-design of our electricity system in generations. Whilst Cleve Hill is headline-grabbing, industry experts say for solar it’s the quiet revolution of many more ‘regular’ parks coming online that will ultimately bring the greater benefit. And estimates predict that our offshore wind capacity will also need to grow eight-fold to give us a chance of reaching Net Zero.
Covid is presenting many challenges, but it can hopefully also prove a metaphorical lightbulb moment that allows us to shape a clean, affordable, sustainable and publicly acceptable energy system for the future.
Mike Cheshire is an account director at Camargue