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The cure for wind

Image: Will De Freitas

Once again we have a country whose electricity generation from wind was greater than its demand.  This time it was the UK’s green energy champion; Scotland:

“WWF Scotland analysed wind power data provided by Weather Energy and found that wind turbines provided 86,467MWh to the national grid on 2 October, more than double the country’s total daily electricity needs.

“For the day, Scotland’s total electricity consumption, including households, businesses and industry, was 41,866MWh, meaning that wind power generated the equivalent of 206 percent of the country’s daily electricity demand.”

Before you start celebrating, you might want to consider that all of that excess electricity had to go somewhere.  And that somewhere was not “storage” because even “green” Scotland has barely scratched the surface of the storage problem.  Instead, that excess electricity went to northern England.

What’s wrong with that? I hear you ask.  Surely excess electricity on this scale must be too cheap to meter?  No, actually it is quite the opposite.  In order to accommodate that excess wind power, National Grid has to pay fossil fuel (mainly gas) generators to shut down.  And if this is not sufficient to use up the excess, it will pay large industrial users to increase their energy use.  The cost of all of those compensation payments is added onto customers’ bills… you know, the ones that are so eye-wateringly high that even the Tories are looking at imposing a price cap.

Of course, we could just get rid of the fossil fuel generators altogether and simply use wind instead.  Or could we?  As Euan Mearns said of one of these stories a few years back:

“What they forgot to say, the day before… was flat calm across the UK and we were pretty well 100% dependent upon these old-fashioned fuels – nuclear, coal and gas, so derided by the renewables industry.”

Sure enough, a cursory glance at the data on Gridwatch confirms that 2 October 2017 was in the middle of a week of high winds in the UK.  But on 30 September and again on 6 and 8 October, wind generation fell back close to zero.  As Mearns reminds us:

“Wind comes and goes with the N Atlantic weather systems, >6GW one moment <0.5GW the next. It is fundamentally dishonest to describe this as secure. The security of electricity supplies is provided by natural gas, coal and imports that are cycled up and down to balance for erratic wind.”

In the absence of an affordable storage solution (which is more likely to be pumped hydro than some yet-to-be-invented battery technology), intermittent renewables in general and wind (because of its scale) in particular are essentially parasitic.  This is something that Dieter Helm, the UK government’s energy reviewer is expected to address.  It is also something Mearns picked up on:

“A few years ago I recall Amber Rudd, when she was UK Secretary of State for Energy,  airing a sensible policy idea along the lines that the vendors of intermittent wind should be required to provide and pay for the services required to integrate wind into the grid. Essentially, the policy idea was to have wind vendors provide dispatchable power.”

The trouble is that this would render wind and solar uncompetetive, guaranteeing that the UK would fail to meet its climate emissions targets.  But not to do so forces the fossil fuel and nuclear generators to pick up the tab (and pass it on to us).  Insofar as we maintain the charade that a natural energy monopoly can be run as if it were a free market made up of competing firms and bargain-hungry customers, this outcome is more or less guaranteed.  The alternative – particularly if the state imposes price caps – is that the fossil fuel generators (that we cannot currently live without) are asset stripped or forced into bankruptcy.

There is, however, a third option available to the UK.  The Labour Party is committed to renationalising the energy industry.  Done properly, this would bring all of the costs of generation and supply within a single entity.  What this entity lost from shutting down its gas generation would be made up with what it gained from the wind without the need to compensate anyone or to add anything to customers’ bills.  Perhaps, rather than trying to fix the “energy market” we should simply do away with it entirely.

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