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It’s time for Whitehall to catch up with the energy revolution

Saturday was an historic day for the clean energy transition. The last throes of winter were banished just hours before British Summer Time came into effect and with it the sun shone on the UK’s more than 12GW of solar PV capacity. Generation skyrocketed and National Grid was forced into action, turning off coal – and more significantly gas – generators to make way for circa 8GW of electricity that surged on to the system between 12 and 4pm.

For the first time ever the UK’s minimum afternoon demand dipped below minimum demand from the night before, due solely to solar sending transmission system demand down. It was a landmark event for what was still considered a cottage industry just a few short years ago. Solar, and indeed the wider renewables space, is now a key strategic component of the UK’s power system which must continue to decarbonise. With more solar to be connected before this month’s Renewables Obligation deadline and summer months on the way, events like Saturday stand to become a recurring theme throughout 2017.

National Grid was obviously prepared for such an occurrence. It curtailed fossil fuel generators to balance the transmission system and it has other tricks up its sleeve. It was an ironic twist in the tale that the Demand Turn Up scheme, which pays large consumers of power to ramp up their demand within a few hours’ notice should National Grid foresee an issue, opened two days after Saturday’s turn of events.

But the National Grid should be prepared. The government would, at least on the face of things, appear to be less so.

Last week the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy quietly pushed out a report compiled on its behalf by Frontier Economics. That report discussed the whole systems cost impact of implementing further renewables on the grid and despite being kept under lock and key for more than a year – even former energy secretary Sir Ed Davey was denied a Freedom of Information request to see it – it was not particularly illuminating.

Revelations such as system costs increasing in tandem with the penetration of renewables, and such costs being mitigated by flexible technologies such as storage, were not even ground breaking before the report’s completion 13 months ago.

But that report will have been used to contribute towards much of the government’s current thinking on the future UK energy market, which will be encapsulated in its emissions reduction plan – or clean growth plan as energy minister Jesse Norman is now calling it (despite BEIS itself telling sister publication Solar Power Portal that it did not recognise that name a month ago).

That document was originally scheduled to be published before the end of last year. Then it was in early 2017. Then it was before the end of March and now, all ministers are prepared to reveal is that it will be published as early as possible in 2017.

It’s almost as if the government has something more pressing it needs to be getting on with at this moment in time.

That the government’s major carbon document is being sat on should be of little surprise. It did precisely the same with the smart power call for evidence of last year which was ready for publication on time in May but was held back until November because of the UK’s vote to leave the European Union.

But this is now becoming a matter of urgency. In a written response to a question earlier this week Norman said the document would be published as early as possible this year so the government can press ahead with its delivery.

And quite right too. Last Saturday’s event was proof – if the UK needed it – that a great evolution of its power system is already well underway. Any further delay by government only stands to achieve one of two things; hindering that evolution, or ensuring that the country is simply not ready to realise it.