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A tale of two grids

Image: Scott Zhang

Britain is currently a land where anything can exist as long as it remains solely in the minds of the increasingly deranged individuals who believe it.  No, for once I am not talking about our politicians’ inability to understand Brexit.  This time I am talking about two diametrically opposite views of the future of Britain’s energy grid that have emerged this week.

In the green corner we have the folks at Environmental Journal, whose Jamie Hailstone reports that:

“Britain’s power grid could run entirely on zero-carbon electricity by 2025, according to a new report…”

The devil, of course, is in the detail:

“The report by National Grid Electricity System Operator (ESO) states that by 2025, the UK’s electricity grid will be able to operate ‘safely and securely at zero carbon’ whenever there is sufficient renewable generation online and available to meet demand.” (My emphasis)

Okay, but what about the times when there isn’t “sufficient renewable generation online and available?”  Presumably we all get to shiver in the dark.  It gets worse, however.  The report itself turns out to be little more than a two-page wish list that highlights the many problems that the grid engineers will have to overcome – in several cases using yet-to-be-invented technologies – if a 100 percent zero-carbon electricity system is to be in place by 2025, including:

  • Frequency Management
  • Inertia and Short Circuit Infeed
  • Voltage Management

Set aside the warm emotional glow that we are supposed to enjoy from greenwash stories of this kind and we find that there is a very different version of a zero-carbon electricity system looming on the near horizon.  As David Wooding, Sunday Political Editor at the Sun* reports:

“BRITAIN will face power cuts unless the government steps up plans to build more nuclear energy plants, Labour has warned.

“Three planned giant generating stations which would have powered 17 million homes have been axed in the last six months.  And MPs fear a looming electricity shortage in the next few years unless the government fills the gap.”

The UK government decision to phase out the remaining coal power stations was based on the assumption that four new nuclear plants would be built to replace them.  Only one – Hinkley Point C – is now going ahead:

“Official figures reveal that major infrastructure projects cancelled or blocked by the Tories would have generated enough energy to power three-quarters of British households.

“In the last six months, the government has scrapped nuclear power plants earmarked for Moorside, Cumbria, Wylfa Newydd in Anglesey, and Oldbury, Gloucester.  Most of Britain’s remaining nuke stations are set to be closed in the next decade – with an energy gap feared if further investment is not secured.”

While Labour MPs are right to raise concerns about the UK’s looming electricity gap, they misunderstand the scale involved; seeing a potential solution in onshore wind and highly expensive tidal barrages.  The trouble is that these systems are an order of magnitude less powerful than the proposed nuclear stations that have now been cancelled.  The multi-billion pound Swansea Bay tidal barrage, for example, would have a maximum output of just 300MW compared to the 1,500MW coal plant just along the coast at Aberthaw which is being phased out, or the 3,200MW Hinkley Point C nuclear plant on the opposite side of the Bristol Channel.  And, crucially, whereas the tidal barrage’s 300MW only occurs immediately after high tide, the output from both the coal and nuclear plant is constant.  Indeed, it turns out that even if all of the proposed tidal barrages around the UK were built, the tidal patterns still do not allow a permanent steady baseload – what you get is predictable intermittency rather than the unpredictable intermittency from wind and solar.

For the foreseeable future – in the absence of economically viable storage that can balance seasonal variations – there is no low-carbon energy mix that does not involve nuclear replacing coal and combined cycle gas turbines on standby to compensate for fluctuations in wind, solar and tidal generation.  The closure of the coal plants, the failure to deliver the promised nuclear plants and under-investment in gas generation have combined to bring us the very worst kind of low-carbon electricity system – the one that will randomly supply no electricity at all. 

In an economy that that has been built around computer controlled just-in-time logistics, this is an existential threat.  Business as usual depends upon steady 24/7 electricity.  If that cannot be relied on then we risk chaos on a scale that will make the current Brexit fears look trivial.  And unlike Brexit, there is no way of negotiating the lights back on.

* I don’t normally regard the Sun as a reliable news source.  However, over the years some of their non-political investigative journalism has been first class.  In this instance, their coverage is in line with that of more highly respected papers including the Financial Times and Bloomberg that also regularly cover Britain’s coming energy crisis.

As you made it to the end…

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