Colin Gibson 1942 - 2021

We regret to announce that Colin Gibson, former Member of Council and Treasurer of IES has died. He was a key member of the IES Energy Strategy Group.

Obituary

Colin MacDougall Gibson (22 July, 1942 - 1 April, 2021)

Colin Gibson was a leading UK electrical power systems engineer. He had an impressive grasp of the technical side of power systems engineering and had an equally impressive ability in financial matters. Also, it is clear that he had leadership qualities of the highest order - a rare combination of talents.

He was born in Dundee and attended Harris Academy. He obtained a good grounding in electrical power engineering at Dundee College of Technology (now the University of Abertay), graduating in 1965.

He joined the South of Scotland Electricity Board and gained wide experience in different roles including power station management and system planning. In the latter role he was one of the early developers of the use of probability analysis for decision-making in power systems.

He was awarded a Diploma in Management Studies from the University of Strathclyde in 1965. He was made a Fellow of IET (1986), a Companion of the Institute of Management (1996), an Honorary Fellow of University of Abertay (2001) and a Fellow of the Institution of Engineers in Scotland (2010).

In 1990 Colin was recruited as General Manager of the Pumped Storage Business (PSB) a subsidiary of the recently formed National Grid Company. PSB owned the Dinorwig and Ffestiniog pumped storage facilities in Wales. Once created, Colin was responsible for setting up the commercial arrangements for the new business. The PSB plant had previously been designed and operated to manage frequency control and to intervene if a major loss of generation occurred on the system. Colin quickly brought his skills to bear on establishing new income opportunities through the sale of ‘contracts for differences’ which allowed Regional Electricity Companies and others to hedge potential variations in their purchasing costs. The flexibility of the plant allowed other opportunities for new income generation, such as ‘fast response’, which led to the business becoming very successful in its own right. At the same time, the wider use of the plant for commercial purposes meant the introduction of new practices for repair, maintenance and overhaul, to ensure that contractual commitments were always met. Colin said that this was his most enjoyable appointment. He had a fiefdom in the Welsh Mountains that he ran with great financial and technical success.

In 1992 he took up the appointment of Group Power Network Director in the National Grid Company. In this role he was responsible for the technical and the financial performance of the GB Grid that included System Planning, System Operations and Asset Management. Under his expert leadership, with over 1000 professional staff, he again used his wide-ranging technical and financial skills to make the system highly profitable for the company. He was careful about expenditure. He colleagues nicknamed him 'Frugal MacDougall'.

He retired from the National Grid Company in 1997and moved back to live in Scotland. In the early 2000s he became increasingly concerned about the way the electricity system was being changed without sufficient attention to security or cost. He advised that the replacement of thermal generation (coal, gas and nuclear) with wind and solar power generation is not a practical strategy because of the severe intermittency of the latter types. Closing down thermal generation will lead to a system that is increasingly insecure and at a high cost.

In some quarters his views were not welcome. People would say that he did not know what he was talking about but Colin only spoke when he did know what he was talking about. He would say of those people who claimed he was wrong "How many of them have run an electricity system". A main problem was that, for many people, what he said was counter-intuitive. 'How can wind and solar generation, for which there are no fuel costs, be expensive?' Colin explained that the capital costs are high, and even if they are not high, the integration costs become very significant as the proportion of intermittent generation in the system increases. The integration costs are due to a number of factors including extra transmission, capital and revenue costs.

Beginning in 2011 and as a result of what he believed to be governmental and industry negligence with regard to consumer costs, Colin produced a series of papers commenting on electricity generation in the UK. Between 2011 and 2019 he worked on a series of complex analyses calculating the Levelised Cost of Electricity (LCoE), ranged from conventional thermal and nuclear plant to onshore and offshore wind, solar, carbon capture and storage for coal. Uniquely, these studies estimate the system management and integration costs that result from the intermittency of renewable generation and from building generation such as wind power in locations remote from load centres. Since National Grid’s annual Future Energy Scenarios provided no generation costings, assessment of grid security, or falling system inertia, Colin produced a series of papers to correct these deficiencies.

The result was cost predictions that are much higher than by other estimates. But Colin believed that they could be underestimates because he did not have the means to assess the line losses in transmitting energy over long distances that he suspected are important. When challenged on his estimates, he would respond by saying that they needed to be tested using more accurate models and that reasons for the 3% p.a. compound increase in price of electricity for domestic customers since 2004, needs to be explained.

In 2008 Colin began to give support to the Institution of Engineers in Scotland who were also promoting the principle that changes to the electricity system needed to be engineered. He was the leading contributor to their 2018 Engineering for Energy report which advises that, if emissions targets are to be achieved, a National Energy Authority must be appointed to plan the changes taking account of security and cost optimisation. This principle is his legacy.

Colin Gibson was a man of impeccable integrity. He was forthright in presenting his ideas but welcomed challenge to them based on reasoned arguments. While it is important that the views of experts are challenged, ignoring them represents unacceptable risk.

His character was notable for its warmth and humour. In his younger days he was a keen road racing cyclist; he was a sailor and loved walking in the hills with his dog.

He is survived by his wife Irene, his daughters Jan and Lauren and grandchildren Robyn, Eva and Livia.


Remembrance by John Pettigrew, CEO, National Grid Company

Colin Gibson was one of the architects of the Utility industry we have in the UK. A passionate engineer with immense understanding of the industry and what was needed during a period of significant change. Following privatisation he initially played a key role in heading up the Pumped Storage Business, helping to create a business that to this day plays a pivotal role in ensuring the lights stay on.

He then became the Power Network Director of National Grid. This post carried with it responsibility for the high voltage Electricity Transmission system of England and Wales including commercial development, system design, asset management, and system operations. This was during a time which saw a rush of new gas generation connecting to the grid leading to major investment in the transmission system as well as the rapid development of new services needed to optimise efficient operation of the transmission system.

Whichever role he played, his enthusiasm and passion was widely recognised across the sector. As a young graduate I was lucky enough to have worked in one of the functions that reported to him and able to see the attributes he had as a leader, not least how he was able to get the best out of people right across the business.

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