Covid-19 Led Plunge in Energy Demand May Create Problem for the National Grid

According to National Grid, last weekend, the electricity demand in the UK fell to 15 gigawatts (GW). To preserve the system security and avoid overloading of the electricity grid, due to lessened demand for power amid the coronavirus crisis, National Grid is likely to turn off wind farms and power plants. According to the energy system operator, the UK is likely to see a reduction of 20 per cent in power requirements, which might lead to an oversupply of power.

The oversupply of power and lesser demand can strain the local energy grid, which might eventually lead to frequent blackouts. The National Grid is likely to cut electricity imports and allow wind farms to produce power only when notified to avoid straining the grid network.

The oversupply of energy in the hydropower projects could be utilised to balance the demand-supply gap by pumping the water back into lakes. National Grid is monitoring closely and implementing several measures to keep the supply of power in the UK undisrupted. As the nation gears up of easing of lockdowns, the power requirements are expected to surge back to normal levels soon.

The spread of the novel coronavirus has led to a catastrophe in the global markets, including the United Kingdom. The pandemic has claimed more than 32 thousand lives in the UK. The British government-imposed lockdown and closed all the economic activities across the country on 23rd March as a measure to contain the spread of the pandemic. However, the essentials such as the food staples and utilities like the internet and electricity providers kept on operating during the period.

Energy is the backbone of every economy. Both the manufacturing and services sector relies heavily on energy requirements. Most of the developed countries are leading in the manufacturing sector as they have invested heavily in the energy infrastructure. During the lockdown induced by Covid-19, the energy demands have risen for the households. However, due to shuttered retail shops and factories, which are the major consumers of energy, the energy demand has plunged.

It was the year 1970, when the UK witnessed a similar plunge in demand for energy. The UK was primarily dependent on coal reserves for power generation. The government announced a three day per week plan to ensure business continuity and conserve coal stocks. The power generation was restricted by the oil crisis and industrial action in the coal mining sector. The plunge in demand for energy was supply-driven, unlike the present crisis when it is demand-driven.

Last month, the crude made the highlights by recording a steep fall in prices. This was due to the oversupply of crude in the global markets along with the demand for petrol, diesel, and aviation fuel plummeting. There has been a steep decline in flights, public transport, and road traffic.

Another reason for weakening demand is a halt in operations in factories. Now, all kinds of economic activities have been halted or are just partially operational, which have contributed to record fall in demand for energy. However, with people being encouraged to work from home and children attaining virtual classes, domestic consumption of energy has certainly increased. As per media reports, nearly 30 per cent of the energy requirements of Britain are contributed from renewable sources of energy.

On the flip side, there are consumption decreases for petrol, diesel and aviation fuel, and an overall drop in energy demand would mean a proportionate decrease in emissions. Hence, a greater proportion of demand can be met with the low-carbon generation, which will lead to shutting down of some coal and gas power plants.

How does a national grid work?

If you want to illuminate your home, you need to get your home connected with a power station. The AC (Alternating Current) feed coming out of the power station would light your house. It is connected to a power station by a set up called a national grid. The set up includes transmission lines and transformers. First and foremost, thing to note here is that the national power grid is always on. Secondly, it is not supposed to store energy. Also, the power plants which feed the grid must be constantly adjusted to meet demand.

The grid is designed to get power supply from the energy producers and to deliver to places where it is needed. Now, the power plants and the consumers are at huge distances. At homes, offices, we use lower voltages. But to efficiently transmit electricity over long distances, high voltages are required. This high voltage is not required for domestic usage and can be dangerous. Another problem is power plants cannot generate high voltages.

So, there is a need for proper handling of electricity, as in treaded up to higher voltages for transmission and stepped down to lower voltages for distribution and consumption. The alternating current’s voltage can be deployed as per requirements with the help of transformers. Transformers are key to a power grid. These transformers help in stepping up the voltages for transmission and stepping down the voltages for distribution.

What is the problem with lessened demand?

Energy production in a country is done in accordance with the level of economic activity taking place within the country. The power grid in place uses conventional systems which are quite outdated. The national grid is a network of power plants and transformers connected by several miles long power lines carrying different voltages. Since the demand keeps on varying all the time, and the power cannot be stored, the control centres are continuously adjusting how much power is generated and where it is getting consumed. As the grid is always ‘on’, and demand goes down, it would be difficult for the control centres to find the delicate balance, which would lead to power outages. The power outages might keep you stranded at airports, traffic lights and affect the daily chores. They are likely to cause chaos across the transport systems.

The Solution

The conventional systems should be upgraded with digitised systems which are driven by smart sensors to sense the constant fluctuations in supply and demand. This would help in making the grid smart with enhanced real-time analysis. Moreover, the power centres should be decentralised by creating microgrids, as this would help in better management of power supply and demand fluctuations.

Use of smart electrical equipment and appliances should be encouraged to reduce the wastage of electricity. The power produced from the renewable sources of energy such as the solar power or the wind energy must be stored in reserves in the form of giant batteries which can be used as an alternative to power the grid.

The outbreak of the novel coronavirus has indirectly affected the energy systems in the United Kingdom. At this juncture, nothing much could be said about how long this demand-supply gap will last. However, as the UK prepares to kick start its economy, the demand is likely to gradually inch towards the pre-covid-19 levels. There is even a chance of exceeding the previously demand levels, for entities which might like to leverage upon cheaper crude.