Renewables find success in ‘black start’ experiment

Have you ever considered what would happen if a power plant went out of business? It would be almost impossible for a station not to get electricity to restart its operation.

This scenario would quickly lead chaos with schools and hospitals in darkness, refrigeration severely hampered, sanitation seriously compromised, and transport systems brought to a halt.

These are just a few of the many reasons why governments and electricity networks often have complicated and rigorous plans in place to bring down power stations. 

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These procedures are known as ‘black start’ plans and they are rarely necessary but when they are, the backup plans need to be dependable.

Black start plans are, however, mostly outdated. 

Commonly, black start methods include open-cycle gas turbines or diesel generators. It is believed that by starting small, a whole country could be brought up to speed using the following process.

  1. A battery is used to start a small diesel engine that is located in a hydroelectric generating plant. The generator is used in order to bring the generating stations into operation.
  2. The key transmission lines connecting the station to other areas are energized.
  3. The power from the station is used to start one of the nuclear/fossil-fuel-fired baseload plants.
  4. The power from the baseload power plant is used for the restart of all other power plants in this system.

However, as Venezuela discovered in 2019, and North America discovered back in 2003, these procedures don’t always work. Diesel generators can fail, or have too little power to work effectively. And if that happens, you can’t get past step one.

The last American black start incident arose from what should’ve been a manageable local blackout. Human error and software bugs caused a chain reaction that affected fifty-five millions people in the Northeastern and Midwestern United States, as well as the Canadian province of Ontario. 

Such events must be prevented at every cost.

A global breakthrough

Happily, renewable energy sources have played a role in restarting Great Britain’s electricity system after a successful world-first trial.

In southwest Scotland, a hydro generator connected with the distribution network self-start was used to energize the local transmission network and power up two wind turbines on two farms.

The UK has never had to test its black-start plans, but national security is dependent on the continuity and power. Trials like these give assurance that Britain can quickly restore full power in the worst-case scenario.

Due to the increased cybersecurity vigilance during these politically turbulent times, having the ability to light-up blacked out grids is even more urgent. 

It was so successful, it quickly became a model for reviving the UK’s electricity system in the case of a shutdown.

The research, funded by Ofgem (the UK Government’s energy regulator) is part of a three-year ‘ReStart’ initiative that will use solar, wind, and hydro to restart the grid.

The Scottish experiment performed perfectly and quickly established a stable ‘power island’ by using the hydro-generator as an ‘anchor’ to self-start and power the local network. This was used to power multiple turbines at Glenchamber wind farms and North Rhins wind farm, proving its viability in an emergency.

Industry commentators have been quick praise the research team. Ruth Chapman, MD of Dulas stated that, “yet again, renewables have proven themselves to be the clear solution to a problem that threatens power stability. It’s imperative that the findings of this research be deployed on a national scale at the earliest.” Project Lead, Peter Chandler agreed, stating that he hopes that “the concept will be further proven and lead to the adoption of a DRZC [Distribution Restoration Zone Controller]In the near future. 

This research is embryonic but it’s easy to see that 1) renewables have demonstrated their viability in a black start scenario and that 2) this research has global application.

I’m sure the residents of Venezuela and Northeastern America would agree!