Can the electricity grid be used more intelligently?

Friday, 7 December, 2018

Commodity Watch by Chris Osborne, UFU Senior Policy Officer

It is nearly 5 years ago since Down District Farmers for Renewable Energy (DDFFRE), in collaboration with South West College, East Down Rural Community Network, Invest NI and local residents groups launched their vision of the future in relation to Small Scale Renewable Energy Generation and how it can be utilised in their local area. In other words, better use of the existing grid system through energy storage and demand side management.

The grid has faced a notable constraint in the form of Reverse Power Flow. Resulting capacity issues meant that many generators were unable to connect to the grid. The proposal was to development a micro grid with an integrated storage solution for the Lecale area, which includes Ballyhoran, Ardglass, Killough and Bishopscourt. The former airfield at Bishopscourt was identified as the preferred location for a “centre of excellence” base for the micro-grid serving the energy and heat requirements of 300 homes in nearby Ballyhoran and it was envisaged that the project would incorporate a broad mix of small scale renewable technology; wind, Solar PV and on-farm AD. The idea being that they will be largely independent, generating and storing their own energy and utilising the excess energy.

The Ulster Farmers Union fully supported this project and we attended meetings with Michelle O’Neill, then Agriculture Minister, Mark H Durkan, Environment Minister and made representations (presentations/press articles/letters of support) for this initiative.

Central to the micro grid project is the concept of energy storage and a significant body of work, led by B9 Energy. STORY CAES (Compressed Air Energy Storage) is a joint project of 18 international partners and is funded through Horizon 2020. The project shows the added-value of storage in the distribution grid and formulates policy and regulatory changes needed to create an integrated future for energy storage. Since this is a new concept, such a change needs to be encourage and hence the value of STORY CAES, addressing many of the barriers we have faced to date.

One of the significant solutions offered by CAES in this instance is that is provides local “load on demand” which counters the Reverse Power Flow constraint. As well as being stored, excess wind can be put to other uses, namely, it can be converted to hydrogen. New Holland have developed a fuel cell tractor and this could ensure integration with the micro grid. Small scale on-farm hydrogen project is already being looked at in Scotland and could very well form the future energy policy landscape in NI. In fact, I wrote a Commodity Watch article on this very subject in early 2017.

With the NIRO closed and grid connection more or less closed to new capacity, small-scale renewables in Northern Ireland stands at a crossroads. As we head into 2019, the Lecale project remains a possible blue print for small scale renewables in Northern Ireland. If successful, this “intelligent” solution, could be rolled out to the other 70 rural sub stations in Northern Ireland. 

In the last 5 years, the UFU have been lobbying extensively on the topic of alternative grid connection and got traction with NIE Networks/SONI and the Utility Regulator, as I now have a seat on the Connection Innovation Working Group, which met for the first time on 6 November. This project would allow for the existing grid to be used, without significant capital costs normally associated with line reinforcement/grid upgrade work. Hence, it avoids the significant cost to the industry and wider consumer and offer a subsidy-free option for would-be renewable energy generators.

Later in December 2018, the UFU are attending a demonstration of STORY CAES pilot installation, and if successful, could form a part of an intelligent new energy policy as we approach the end of the decade.