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UK energy policy puts lives at risk

Image: EDDIE

Journalists are quick to tell us about the days on which we burned little or no coal at all (for electricity generation).  They are more reticent when it comes reporting times when coal provides a quarter of our electricity and prevents a national catastrophe.

That, in effect, is what happened on Thursday and Friday (1-2 March 2018) of last week.  As moisture-soaked Atlantic Storm Emma collided with the sub-zero Arctic air dubbed “the beast from the east,” the result was the biggest snowstorm to hit Britain for more than a decade.  In response, a large part of the UK population cranked up the central heating and put the kettle on.

For National Grid, the situation proved unpleasant.  Demand for both electricity and gas spiked upward even as the UK’s ability to meet demand faltered.  Mainstream media were notified of potential gas shortages with the intention of preparing the population for power cuts and loss of domestic gas supplies.  This proved unnecessary because they were able to curb industrial demand for gas (including by lowering the output of gas-fired power stations).

It would be easy to conclude that the emergency plans worked and that there is no cause for alarm.  This would be complacent.  The first thing to note is that the storm itself may be a harbinger of things to come.  Because, while climate scientists tell us the Earth as a whole is warming, that general trend may not apply to the UK in coming years.  Just as last weekend’s storm was the result of a faltering “polar vortex” – the polar jet stream that used to separate frigid Arctic air from warmer temperate air further south – so Britain’s future winters are likely to be impacted by a faltering Gulf Stream coupled to cold air streams from the northwest Atlantic.  The likely result is more events akin to those of 1982, 1963 and 1947.

UK National Grid 1.03.2018-10.55am
Screen capture of National Grid performance at 10.55am on Thursday 1st March 2018. Via:

An examination of the UK’s energy mix at 10.55am last Thursday (see image above) – just as the snow was beginning to drift – reveals that gas-powered electricity generation had been dramatically scaled back to conserve gas supplies.  Ordinarily, gas – which is considered cleaner and more efficient than coal – would have provided 40-50 percent of the electricity generated.  Coal, by contrast, would ordinarily provide less than 10 percent.  What the Grid data tells us is that Britain fell back on coal to keep the heating and the lights on.  As demand spiked, Britain’s coal power stations were running at close to full capacity.  Wind power, too, was producing as much as the winds would allow, while nuclear was close to capacity.

The question this should raise is what would have happened if that coal capacity had not been there?  After all, in the very near future it won’t be.  As Adam Vaughan in the Guardian explained back in January:

“One of the UK’s eight remaining coal power stations is expected to cease generating electricity this year, the government has said as it laid out new rules that will force all the plants to close by 2025…

“While three plants shut in 2016, and most are expected to halt operations by 2022, the last ones standing will be forced to close in October 2025 because of new pollution standards.”

Without a massive investment in wind, solar and nuclear power (together with the necessary storage capacity) a similar snowstorm two or three years from now will result in widespread power cuts and gas supply failures simply because the coal power stations will no longer be there to fill the gap.  Instead of preserving gas, we will burn it (and, of course, the rich will burn a lot more than the poor and the not-so-poor).

There is a reason – beyond the PR disaster – that National Grid is desperate to avoid a widespread shutdown of domestic gas and electricity supplies.  Loss of light and heat in winter kills people.  Even people who put on extra layers of clothing and retreat beneath the duvet die because without the warm food required to fuel the body’s internal heat (something that frail and elderly people struggle with anyway) it is impossible to stay warm.  Even drinking water can become a problem when pumping stations fail and pipes freeze.  Surrounded by water in the shape of snow and ice, people can die of thirst for want of some means (a functioning stove or kettle) of thawing them into drinkable water.

In addition to the immediate threat to life, domestic energy supplies are a nightmare to restart because of the need to ensure that all appliances are switched off.  This is especially true with gas, as it can result in gas explosions when the supply is restarted.  A sudden surge of electricity to connected appliances can also result in electrical fires.  Grid engineers would have to conduct at least basic safety checks, property by property, prior to restarting.  What this means, in one word is; delay.

Delay, of course, is the very last thing anyone needs in a big freeze.  Had last week’s snowstorm hit in January rather than March, we might have expected several weeks of freezing temperatures before things warmed up again.  When this has occurred in the past, it has usually been the result of cold, high pressure air settling over the British Isles.  On the positive side, this means that solar power (which was all but absent last week) would increase dramatically (although this would barely matter since, in January, there is insufficient daylight).  On the downside, it would mean we would lose much of the 10.4GW of wind power that kept the lights and heaters burning on Thursday.

People died because of last week’s snow storm.  According to Tony Diver in the Telegraph:

“The death toll from Britain’s big freeze could rise to more than 2,000, as it emerged the Met Office had warned ministers a month ago about the cold snap…

“The estimated rise in deaths, compared to a five-year average, comes as thousands face broken down boilers and fuel poverty, preventing them from heating their homes to safe temperatures.”

Few outside the families of those affected will mourn – not least because the casualties will be indistinguishable from the tens of thousands of mainly frail and impoverished people who die in the UK every winter anyway.  But it is worth considering the circumstances of their deaths; because neither poverty nor frailty is a direct cause of death.  What those people died from was hypothermia and cold-induced illness.  In their case, it was the lack of funds that led to death.  But there is more than one way to end up unable to turn on the heating.

Persisting in voting for governments (of all colours) which embrace a neoliberal energy policy that places maintaining profits ahead of energy security is one of the less obvious ways of ending up unable to switch the heating on.  Britain’s energy policy (insofar as we ever had one) for the best part of 40 years has been to assume that in the pursuit of profit private companies will always supply us with the energy we need, whenever we need it.  The result – particularly since North Sea gas production peaked in 2000 and Britain became a net gas importer after 2005 – is that the UK lacks the energy supply margins necessary to cope with anything more than a relatively short cold snap.  Given that the government has all but abandoned fracking, and is actively dispensing with coal while simultaneously failing to deploy anything like the renewable and storage capacity (which has to be available 24x7x365 to fill the gap) one can only conclude that the British government believes we will not be having any more cold winters beyond 2022.

That is an irresponsible gamble at the very least.  So long as there is still ice at the North Pole, there is every chance of severe winter weather in the future.  Next time it happens, we will have to consume our remaining gas supplies because we will have no coal power stations with which to meet the emergency.  Once the gas supplies have been used, the death toll will begin to rise.  And unlike today, the death toll will not be limited to Britain’s poor.  Next time around, supposedly comfortable middle class and affluent families will freeze too… unless someone begins to take energy security seriously.

As you made it to the end…

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