The UK’s first grid-linked solar farm: Thinking big to tackle renewable bottlenecks…

The arrival earlier this year of the UK’s first grid-connected solar farm was an important milestone in the journey towards net-zero. Phil Keet of Millennium Consulting considers how fresh thinking, updates to network infrastructure and a smarter approach to asset management all have a part to play in ensuring ambitions stay on track.

September 2023

Renewables and the issue of connectivity

Two years ago, the government committed to decarbonising the UK power system by 2035. As the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy put it, “To ensure this ambition becomes a reality, the government will double down on efforts to deploy a new generation of home-grown technologies – from offshore wind, hydrogen and solar, to nuclear, onshore wind and carbon capture & storage”. 

As ever, the devil is in the detail. Policymakers tend to be very keen to talk up their support for individual projects – e.g. those linked to solar and offshore wind – as well as disruptive technologies (advanced modular reactors and carbon capture being just two examples).

However, one important fact is often glossed over. Namely; no matter what disruptive technologies reach fruition in the next twelve years, no matter how many allocation auctions are undertaken and renewables projects get underway, the 2035 carbonisation goal is not going to be met unless renewables can be incorporated successfully into the existing National Grid. 

The significance of the Larks Green solar project

The National Grid was designed a century ago at a time when coal was king. The idea is a simple one: you establish your baseline and ramp up or scale down output from your power plants as demand shifts. When similarly easily dispatchable power sources came along (i.e. oil, nuclear and gas), the same principle applied – and those sources were incorporated into the system pretty seamlessly.

Renewables – particularly wind and solar – are, of course, different. The rate of power generation tends to be both intermittent and inconsistent. The grid was meant to fix the problem of meeting demand – i.e. ensuring electricity was transmitted effectively and efficiently to where it was needed. It was never designed to handle a system in which fluctuations and intermittency in supply were the norm.

Owned and operated by Cero Generation and Enso Energy, the new 50 MW Larks Green solar farm near Bristol offers a possible template for tackling some of these issues in the near and medium term.

One of the key characteristics of this new facility is scale. The plant comprises 152,400 solar modules installed in a 200-acre plant close to the National Grid’s 400kV Iron Acton substation. According to the National Grid’s press release, “It will generate over 73,000MWh annually – enough to power the equivalent of over 17,300 homes – and will displace 20,500 tons of CO2 each year compared to traditional energy production.

Secondly, the solar farm is co-located with a battery energy storage system (BESS), meaning that surplus energy generated in conditions that enable peak power generation can be accumulated. This therefore helps to directly mitigate the issue of intermittent and fluctuating generation.

Thirdly – and for this first time for a UK solar project – Larks Green provides a direct connection to the National Grid transmission network. Up until its arrival, all utility-scale solar plants were only capable of being connected to lower voltage local distribution grids. This new development means that the output of a solar plant is no longer confined to a particular area: energy can travel further, meaning that solar plants can be situated in those locations where output will be optimised – but the whole country can reap the direct benefits.

Further work to be done

Large-scale power generation projects twinned with battery storage assets are likely to become an increasingly popular model in the renewable energy market.

However, they are not an instant and permanent fix to all the issues linked to the country’s legacy National Grid infrastructure. According to the BBC’s calculations, there are currently more than £200bn worth of renewable energy projects sitting in the connections queue: the longest queue of any country in Europe.

What this means for companies

For parties involved in renewables projects, the risks associated with grid-related deployment delays need to be considered carefully in the planning process.

This issue also highlights one of the main differences between renewables projects and legacy infrastructure. Grid operators and power producers alike are going to have to come to terms with a proliferation of multiple dispersed projects. The greater the number of individual assets in play, the more challenging it becomes for grid operators to maintain strategic oversight – and for asset owners to monitor and maintain those assets effectively.

So far as reducing deployment bottlenecks is concerned, The National Grid’s ‘Pathway to 2030’ investment package is a step in the right direction, although stakeholders across the industry will obviously be eager to see further action taken at a governmental level.

In the meantime however, producers should act now to ensure that as their asset portfolio is diversified, they have the enterprise asset management (EAM) capabilities in place to ensure that assets are monitored, maintained and used effectively throughout their lifecycle.

Faced with new challenges linked to, for example, demand forecasting, load balancing and the need to minimise costs, sector-specific expertise is a must. A leader in the fields of ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning), EAM (Enterprise Asset Management) and Service Management, IFS is the go-to solution for companies across the energy sector. Find out more here.

As a premier IFS Managed Service Provider, Millennium Consulting is ideally placed to help you build the technological capabilities required for a successful renewables transition. To discover how IFS can help ensure the success of your renewables projects, speak to us today.

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