Britain’s drive for wind farms will result in businesses routinely being paid to switch off their power when there is not enough wind to stop the lights going out, National Grid has said.
Thousands of wind turbines are being built around the country and off the British coast under Government plans to hit green energy targets, but the power they produce is intermittent.
This has forced the National Grid to find alternative ways of keeping the lights on when wind levels are not high enough to meet power demand.
Steve Holliday, chief executive of National Grid, said this would include businesses such as factories, which use a lot of energy, reducing their electricity usage on days when there is low wind and receiving payments in return.
Mr Holliday said that it would be very expensive to solve the problem by building extra back-up power stations that would only run infrequently, and it would be cheaper for consumers to instead fund measures to cut demand.
He said this would be one of a a number of measures, including connecting wires to the continent and storage of energy, to deal with variable power output from renewable sources.
National Grid, which operates Britain’s electricity system, began on Tuesday recruiting businesses to a similar, short-term scheme that is aimed at getting businesses to switch off between 4pm and 8pm on winter weekdays over the next four years to help avoid blackouts.
The temporary measures, which will see businesses being paid tens of thousands of pounds to take part and then receive further payments if they stop drawing power from the Grid, were described as a “last resort” to keep the lights on.
But Mr Holliday said that the plans were in fact just “the beginning” and that measures to cut demand would become commonplace in the longer-term, as Britain builds more intermittent renewable energy sources.
“We should be optimistic that demand response could avert the need to build significant amounts of power stations in ten years’ time or so,” he said.
He said that historically, energy users had “expectations that the supply will always be there” to meet maximum demand.
But “with renewables in the world in which we are moving towards” this would no longer be the case as it would make more sense to shift energy demand to times when the wind blows or the sun shines.
“We have to get used to a world in which when power is cheap we use it when power is expensive we find a way of not using it,” he said.
Mr Holliday said households as well as businesses would take part in such schemes. “This is the beginning of a world in which demand will be managed more actively by all of us as consumers, when we have smarter homes, smarter meters.”
Smart meters, which monitor energy usage in real-time, will enable customers to be rewarded with cheaper prices for using energy when it is plentiful to help ease the strain on the system at peak times.
Ed Davey, the energy secretary, confirmed that the government saw more potential for demand management but insisted the development was not driven by the need for backup for wind farms.
But Richard Smith, head of energy strategy and policy at National Grid, told the Telegraph renewables were the main driver for such schemes in the longer-term.
“Going low carbon has forced us to consider greater demand side participation in the market because of the variability of renewables,” he said.
He said he expected to see more businesses volunteering to switch off on rare days when the weather forecasts showed wind power would be low. “You can see it coming two or three days ahead,” he said. “You will see people start to respond to that kind of thing, thinking ‘how flexibly can I manage my business and respond to that?’.”
As well as encouraging businesses or consumers to cut demand when supplies were low, they could also be encouraged to shift their usage to make use of surplus wind power at other times when the wind is blowing but demand is low, he said.
Nick Molho, head of climate and energy policy with WWF-UK, said: “If we want to move to a renewable energy system in a way that’s both sustainable and provides best value for consumers, then the Government should make of the development of demand management solutions, electricity storage and greater interconnection with Europe a priority.”
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