What happens when the lights go out?

Imagine being at home, TV on, kettle on, just about to sit and watch your favourite programme after a long hard day. And then the lights go out. WTF is going on? Chances are you won’t be the only one saying that. Short-term blackouts can occur, usually because of a localised issue at a nearby substation or transmission line. Wide-spread power cuts, however, can have serious implications if they last for an extended period of time. These types of blackouts are generally caused by a major physical event, such as an earthquake or a storm, which cover much larger areas of the network. National Grid have a plan in place to help kick-start the electricity network if this happens. This is what is known as Black Start.

National Grid will contract with various generators across the country to provide the Black Start service when all other generation is down. They spend millions of pounds each year procuring contracts with generators to provide this – £45m in 2019 alone – and will likely spend a similar amount this year. This is despite the fact that this service has never been called on. To be able to provide the service, generators must be able to restart their power plant via an auxiliary generator which has no reliance on any outside support. Restarting the power plant in this way will re-energise the wider network by sending electricity to other components of the grid so they can function again. In certain cases, the power from the Black Start generator will be directed to other nearby power stations so that they are able to get up and running once again.

Due to the changing nature of the network (large, fossil fuel generation is being replaced by lots of smaller, renewable generation), National Grid are looking at ways that renewable generation can help kick-start the network (through their Distributed ReStart project with SPEN and TNEI). Initiatives like this are required if the UK is to meet our net zero targets. Additional renewable generation on our network is fantastic for carbon reduction, however, it can make it more difficult to securely and safely operate the network. Utilising renewable generation to provide such a valuable and important service for National Grid is a fantastic step forward.

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