Right here right now
According to National Grid executive director Nick Winser, there has never been a better time to be involved in electricity transmission and distribution. He tells E&T why.
If there was ever a person who was in the right place at the right time then that person would surely be Nick Winser, currently an executive director at National Grid.
Connecting up all the new sources of electricity mandated by the UK's drive to combat power change requires radical thinking for the grid infrastructure. How do we incorporate the planned massive wind power projects, a lot of which are offshore? What do we need for the new nuclear build and new generation from proposed fossil-fuel power plant? What impact will connecting carbon capture and storage to the system have? How do we incorporate distributed generation? And, finally, what do we need to do to deliver the smart grid with an interconnected Europe?
With more than 25 years' experience in the electricity generation business, Winser is now at the forefront of the drive to deliver a 21st century power grid with all the challenges that entails.
"This is the most exciting time of my career," Winser tells E&T. "This is an astonishing time for us. When you look at the two principal challenges ahead of us, they are: moving to a low-carbon economy particularly impacting on the electricity side; and securing our gas supply. They are big challenges. It doesn't get any more exciting than that, [as well as] thinking about how we approach the system second-by-second with the very new set of low-carbon sources, which would be an extraordinarily exciting prospect on its own.
"However, I also get the fun of dealing with another huge change, which is moving on the gas side. From being pretty much self-sufficient in gas as a nation in 2003 we now look towards 2016, when we will be importing 80 per cent of our gas.
"So the second big issue is how to connect up all those new sources of gas; gas from Norway, more gas coming from mainland Europe, gas from new LNG terminals, one of which we are building ourselves.
"Those two challenges are just magnificent in an engineering sense, and this has led us to carry out some huge programmes. We are spending £1.7bn a year in transmission doing that work and starting to replace the ageing infrastructure that we inherited from the 1960s."
Dash for gas parallels
Winser draws some interesting parallels in the work that he is doing now to the famous 'dash for gas' that the UK went through in the late 1980s. The political, legal and commercial backdrops have changed, though in many senses the engineering continues to shine through.
"Many of the things that we think about today are very much the same technical and engineering problems that we had 25 years ago,"
Winser says. "The challenge of keeping the lights on and building infrastructure to do so has many of the same engineering challenges that we had back then.
"It is about the second-by-second controls of the system frequencies, it's about building bigger projects for connecting up the new low-carbon sources of generation.
In yesterday's context we had the 'dash for gas' with a lot of new gas-fired power stations being built. Before then of course we had connecting up those fossil-fuel plants which are now 20-30 years old. So, from a transmission perspective, everything has changed but also very much the same thrill of tackling the engineering aspects.
"One of the most interesting bits of all of this is thinking about how we do that second-by-second balancing in the future. Currently we have lots of fossil fuel generators that we can put on part-loaded so that if another generator falls off we can pick up the slack immediately. In the future with a lot of nuclear and wind-power systems - wind power being certainly more intermittent - we need to think about an entirely different way of balancing the grid. We are really on top of that and working very hard with stakeholders and governments to think about what future of balancing the grid is going to be."
What has changed in the 20 years since gas became a fuel of choice is the economic strictures that constrain innovation and demand the least cost solution. But Winser is adamant that engineers today are equipped for that challenge.
"There is a famous saying in engineering - an engineer can do for two and sixpence what any fool can do for a pound," he says. "So engineering has always at its heart, in my view, has had economics and being able to get the job done in an effective way, but also in an economic way.
"There has been quite a sharp focus on the efficiency and I think that customers have got to benefit from that. It has been a real engineering challenge to find ways of running the industry more efficiently. Actually customer bills have come down by 40 per cent for transmission over the last 20 years.
"I spend a lot of time looking at carbon targets and renewables targets and thinking about how we can make sure that we are taking a leadership role in trying to get to those targets."
There is also the prospect of a truly disruptive technology on the horizon; electric cars. If there were to be a widespread adoption of electric cars the whole generation and transmission landscape would change. There would be huge demand for electricity overnight as cars were charged, but also the tantalising prospect of using the storage capacity of cars top help peak loading on the grid.
"When you think about the possibility of connecting up potentially millions of electric cars in the future to our electric grid and the impact that will have, the opportunities it raises as well as the challenges that it represents, that is terribly exciting," Winser adds. "It is a real thrill for me in my job to get involved in thinking about electric cars these days because it could have a huge impact on us if they start being connected to the grid in say around 2020 and charged overnight or charged during the day on fast charge points on motorways or whatever we might see the future is holding."