Reflecting on my first 6 months at Energy UK
After six months working at Energy UK, it has already become very easy to forget what is considered ‘common knowledge’ and even more difficult to distinguish what information has been absorbed purely over the last six months. You almost become complacent about the level of what you now think of as basic or background knowledge, and realise how differently you regarded the energy industry, if at all, before being immersed in it five days a week.
Only in conversations with family and friends, outside of the energy sector bubble, do you get a stark reminder of just how far your understanding of the electricity system has come and the information you come to mistake for “common knowledge” is not common at all but actually rather specialised knowledge that not everyone understands.
To give a few examples, and perhaps also the due credit to the fast-paced learning environment at Energy UK, I have outlined below three main things I have learnt, or myths that have been dispelled, over the last 6 months.
- At the flick of a switch
Although I would be unable to explain the means by which I thought lightbulbs were supplied with electricity before, I remember being surprised to discover that electricity is generated in the same moment that it is being used. Thinking back, I had clearly assumed a system already existed where it was the norm for electricity to be stored for use later, much like the way in which water is supplied. Almost as soon as I joined Energy UK, I learnt that not only was this not the case, but it was the chief conundrum/dilemma underpinning almost every issue/challenge facing the energy industry. From that point onwards, it was easy to comprehend the knock-on effect of the need for the generation and use of electricity to be balanced and the impact this has on the design and operation of the energy system, from flexibility to the need for a baseload supply. One key realisation for me was how the intermittency of renewables means it is not currently possible to have an electricity system entirely powered by solar and wind energy. This is coming though as storage technology and communication systems improve.
- Wholesale markets
More recently, and still a relatively new discovery for me, was the concept of the merit order and how the most expensive power generators, known as the marginal plant, set the clearing price for all other power generators. For example, a thermal fossil fuel plant which has to account for fuel costs, carbon taxes and other running costs, sets the market price for electricity for generators that do not incur many of these costs or where they are much-reduced, such as wind farms. Understanding how this market works, highlights how any changes in wholesale prices or policy costs for one plant can set the bar for all other plant, whether they are affected by the costs or not. This was particularly interesting to me in the case of carbon taxes as, before working at Energy UK, I would have expected that a tax on carbon would only affect the price offered by fossil fuel generators. But this has served as a lesson in how interconnected the energy sector is, and is a stark reminder that when it comes to the energy market, actions are rarely confined to commercial silos.
- Emissions, efficiency and the environment
To home in on more of a specific policy area, working within the Environment and Climate Sub-Committee has opened my eyes to the wide range of environmental impacts power plant operators work hard to minimise and avoid. Whereas before, the only emissions I would have considered from power plants were carbon emissions, I have since discovered the more local-scale emissions to land, water and air that are all carefully monitored and reduced, as well as what a plant might abstract from its surrounding environment. Something interesting that has stuck in my mind is how waste is minimised through finding inventive uses for some of the by-products. An example of this resourcefulness is the industrial use of ash (or Pulverised Fuel Ash) from coal and biomass plant for construction material, to the extent where the construction industry is reliant on thermal power plant for this material. What this ultimately comes down to is maximising efficiency and sustainability: two concepts which arguably go hand in hand. The reuse of ash for construction is but one example. The way in which a plant is cooled and how the resultant heat is harnessed and recycled are key steps toward the goal of getting the most energy out of your plant with the minimal inputs, and then also balancing this with reducing your environmental impact. From what I have seen, this is a tight rope to walk and there are always trade-offs, but operators are extremely eager to meet these aims and prove their commitment to complying with environmental regulations.
These are just three of the numerous things I have learnt so far at Energy UK. I have been consistently reassured that this learning experience is in no way limited to new starters; I often hear other members of staff, especially those who have been in the industry for a long time, say that they are still learning something new every day. It reassures me that this work environment is not one which stagnates and settles, but rather one that is so dynamic with its new entrants, new approaches and ever-changing policy landscape that there will always be something new to learn and keep me on my toes.