Mind the power gap – how to keep the lights on

Posted by Clare Burns on 22-Mar-2016 10:00:00

Recent forecasts of a shortfall in electricity supply are worrying, but CHP can play a key role in reducing the risk of blackouts.  


Latest research from law firm Bircham Dyson Bell, supported by a recent forecast from National Grid, point to a looming 'energy crunch'.

According to Bircham Dyson Bell, the combination of  power station closures and fewer new stations being built means that there will be almost 19GW less capacity available to the grid by 2030 than was available in 2012. Despite a slight fall in electricity demand in recent years, they say that the UK could be heading for a significant power capacity shortfall.

The report claims that the closure of 18 major power stations since 2012 has reduced the UK’s total capacity by almost 14GW to just over 86GW.

“We have observed increasing concern in recent years that as old electricity generation comes offline, new power generators are not being built at a rate that is keeping pace", said Angus Walker, head of government and infrastructure at Bircham Dyson Bell.

The report states: "The UK is on the brink of an energy crunch. The margin between supply of electricity and demand is narrowing and it is now at its lowest level in eight years. The winter of 2015-16 has been tight – with emergency measures activated to keep the lights on – but the winter of 2016-17 is expected to be tighter still."


There may be trouble ahead

This gloomy outlook is reinforced by National Grid, itself, which has admitted that the UK faces a supply shortfall over 11 weeks in winter 2017. According to latest figures released by the network operator, demand is forecast to exceed available capacity by 2.3GW during the  second week of 2017. There is a predicted supply gap of more than 2GW during six of these 'crunch' weeks and surplus capacity could be less than 1GW during a further four weeks.

But in a statement to Utility Week, National Grid defended its position, saying: “We publish this information so that suppliers and generators can make decisions and respond accordingly, it is not an indication that there will be supply problems next year. It is a forecast based on current data, current notifications of generator outages and demand forecast."

The Institution of Mechanical Engineers in its recent report Engineering the UK Electricity Gap has also warned of future supply gaps. It says that the  Government’s policy to close all coal-fired power stations by 2025, combined with the retirement of the majority of the UK’s ageing nuclear fleet and growing electricity demand will leave the UK facing a 40-55% electricity supply gap.

Dr Jenifer Baxter, Head of Energy and Environment at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, and Lead Author of the report said: "Under current policy, it is almost impossible for UK electricity demand to be met by 2025."


CHP can bolster power supplies

As a proven and popular method of on-site generation, CHP is already playing an important role in reducing network demand and is a key plank of National Grid's Demand Side Balancing Reserve DSBR.

Tim Rotheray, CEO of ADE, points to the important role combined heat and power (CHP) can play in the power generation mix. He said: "As CHP is the most efficient way of burning gas, it is something that affects not only security of electricity supply, but also security of the actual energy (the gas that we buy, or import, by reducing demand), as well as reducing carbon emissions and managing energy costs."

CHP is the generation of both electrical power and thermal energy from a single efficient process. The CHP electrical generator is connected to a site’s main electrical system and the electrical output is used to offset the imported electricity from the grid.

By generating energy at the point of use through decentralised energy production, such as CHP, transmission losses are avoided and assets can bolster supplies.  

In addition, cogeneration provides a sizeable number of financial, operational and environmental advantages over traditional solutions. CHP systems can reduce electricity costs by approximately one third. while providing firms with carbon legislation compliance, reductions in CO2 emissions and lower SOx emissions.

To optimise energy savings, CHP needs to operate at its maximum output efficiency. It is essential, therefore, that the technology is correctly sized to match a site’s actual energy demands.


Improving energy resilience

On-site energy generation also means improved security for  a business, with a lower dependency on grid electricity and a more reliable supply, especially if the CHP unit is built to operate in standby mode.

In the event of a mains blackout, a standby enabled system would provide a back-up supply of electricity and heat, thereby avoiding production losses from unexpected downtime.



  • The margin between electricity supply and demand is narrowing – leading to predictions of an 'energy crunch' and possible blackouts.

  • Researchers state that 54% of energy used to produce electricity is lost before it reaches the end user – amounting to £9.5 billion of waste.

  • CHP systems can cut electricity costs by around one third and provide a secure off-grid supply.

  • CHP is a key plank of National Grid's Demand Side Balancing Reserve (DSBR).

Find out how CHP help relieve increasing uncertainty over electricity supplies. Download the Essential Guide to CHP

Essential guide to small scale chp

Topics: Energy Consumption

Clare Burns

Clare Burns is a technical marketer with many years’ experience in the energy arena, as well as in fashion, telecoms and education. Fluent in 3 languages, Clare has worked across Europe. She currently works for ENER-G, a UK manufacturer of carbon reducing, energy efficient products exporting its cogeneration technology across the globe.