What is the Operational Energy Manager responsible for?
I’ve been working in the Control Room since 2011 and even though it can be quite complicated, we have incredibly experienced engineers who all work together to keep supply and demand in balance. Each day we produce a plan with a number of options for how we manage the system.
I then take the best of these options and make sure we have exactly the correct amount of energy generated to balance supply and demand second by second. We monitor and control the GB network and have to instruct more than a thousand individual generators to produce exactly what is required. Each of these generators charges a different price in the electricity market.
We have 3 teams in the control room. Transmission, Strategy and Energy who work together to do this. The end result is a near perfect match of supply and demand at the lowest cost and without overloading any part of the network.
We naturally try to run as much renewable energy as possible, not only is it clean but as there is no fuel cost, it is the cheapest option. It does create a few peculiar challenges for the control room though. Solar generation for example peaks at noon but then drops away by the time we all make our evening meals and need energy. We use additional plant which includes fossil fuels to boost generation for this daily peak. The wind output can vary at any time but on windy days it can meet 50% of our energy need.
Once all the data analysis is complete, we have to send instructions to each generator to precisely control the output so demand is met perfectly. I think of control as being similar to the cruise control function in a car. That’s if a car had more than a thousand motors and each motor had a different fuel cost to run!
How is your work helping Britain during the coronavirus outbreak?
My role has changed a lot because the demand curve is so different. Usually we see what we call a demand pick up early in the morning when everyone gets up, cooks their breakfast and makes a cup of tea or coffee. We’re finding that people are staying in bed later because they don’t have a commute and so this pickup is much slower and later.
Because of the reduction in pickups, and overall drop in energy demand, it’s more challenging to run a “lighter” system. The system is lighter as we need less generators to meet this lower demand. Our daily planning now take longer and are more complicated to ensure we run the right combination of equipment in the right place across GB. We do this to ensure this lighter system can handle any sudden disturbance like a generator trip at any location across the network.
On the plus side as demand is lower by up to 20% we can use a higher proportion of solar and wind and not have to top it up as much with fossil fuels. I am sure we will see many new records for renewables this year due to COVID-19 creating a lower demand than normal and the hard work by the industry to increase renewable capacity.
This weekend is the bank holiday to celebrate the 75th anniversary of VE Day and we’re anticipating another period of reduced demand. So the control room and supporting teams will be working extra hard to ensure safe and economic operation while the nation enjoy the holidays. I wonder if people realise we work harder when they use less power.
How has your day to day work changed during the outbreak?
I’m in the control room and continue to work there during lockdown. We’ve made changes and have been social distancing and using protective screens between us. We have an extra backup control room in case one gets infected and all the expected precautions have been put in place to ensure we can operate under almost any COVID-19 outcome.
The biggest change however is the massive amount of contingency planning the control engineers and supporting teams have been doing. They have created new services to cope with low demand and created plans for almost any scenario COVID-19 could create on the system due to staff shortages at generators or further reductions in demand etc. So us control engineers have been very busy advising on these plans and doing practice runs of the new processes. It is a very rewarding time to be in the power industry with all this activity.
What effect has coronavirus had on the relationship with your team?
We’re still on site, just social distancing. We do have a virtual meeting group though and we’ve found this meeting a good way to fast track work. We discuss the plan before each day. It’s forced a lot of non tech people to log into WebEx and ultimately, it’ll make us work more efficiently once all this is over I think as we will retain the good bits of COVID working.
Biggest changes you have made since lockdown?
I’m probably less impacted than most because I’m still travelling to work in the control centre. I was actually stopped by the police the other day because I was the only car on the road. They were very friendly though and just said please be safe.
I feel I’m lucky that I’m still able to go to work and find it a nice break from home. I’ll often go 7 days between shifts and usually I’d go into work to do project management work. I’m now doing that part of the role from home.
I’m finding lockdown hard as I love to relax in nature. I like Wales and Scotland to camp in the mountains and I can’t do that. I can’t swim in the sea either. I also love glamping a couple of times a month! The kids are so bored because they can’t see their friends and are watching way too much TV.
What’s the first thing you’ll do after lockdown ends?
I need to go to the dentist! I’ve chipped a tooth and did a facetime dental appointment and got a DIY filling kit as all dentists are closed. I couldn’t believe it. Not ideal. But go to the beach would be straight after the dentist.