Friday , November 22 2019
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They would say that, wouldn’t they?

Serious questions remain about the failures that resulted in a widespread blackout across Britain on 9 August.  According to Jillian Ambrose at the Guardian, the event was triggered by lightning from one of many storms that crossed the UK that day:

“National Grid has blamed a lightning strike for Britain’s biggest blackout in more than a decade after it caused two power generators to go offline.

“The strike was one of many to hit the grid on the same day as the 9 August blackouts but National Grid claims the bolt hit a transmission circuit north of London and managed to bring down two electricity generators more than 100 miles apart in an ‘extremely rare and unexpected event’.”

Apparently contradicting reports on 10 August, National Grid also seems to have rowed back on the claim that the Little Barford gas plant failed prior to the Hornsea wind farm – a claim that did not match the Grid data.  According to Ambrose, National Grid now says that the two plants failed “within seconds of each other immediately after the [lightning] strike.”

This explanation will no doubt come as a relief to the proponents of non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies, who had come in for something of a drubbing at the hands of Britain’s largely right-wing print media.  As Mike Small complained (in a largely ad hominim article) at Resilience:

“While National Grid was quick to explain that this was a ‘rare and unusual event’, the breakdown was used to push an anti-climate action agenda under the auspices of debate over energy policy.”

The trouble with this is that the lightning strike itself is anything but a “rare and unusual event.”  Grid infrastructure gets struck by lightning frequently; but this rarely causes widespread power outages.  What was “rare” on 9 August was that two-thirds of Britain’s electricity was being generated by wind and solar; so that the sudden loss of power caused Grid frequency to drop.  With little storage in the system to compensate, the Grid operators were left with no choice than to cut the power.

Grid frequency matters – it is what prevents power surges from frying our electrical equipment; and ultimately what prevents the Grid from failing.  In the past it has been maintained through the inertia of millions of tons of spinning steel in the turbine halls of coal, nuclear and gas power stations.  Wind turbines have (some) inertia; but it is intermittent (second by second) and so must be removed.  As wind and solar (which has no inertia) make up an increasing proportion of the total electricity mix (on 9 August they accounted for nearly two-thirds of the power) balancing the Grid becomes increasingly difficult.  As Ambrose reported on 12 August:

“National Grid blamed the ‘incredibly rare’ nationwide power cut on a severe slump in the grid’s frequency – a measure of energy intensity – following the unexpected shutdown of two power generators… But industry sources claim National Grid has been aware of the growing potential for a wide-scale blackout ‘for years’, and has suffered a spate of near-misses in recent weeks.

“The Guardian understands that in every month since May there has been a severe dip in the grid’s frequency from its normal range around 50Hz. Industry sources have confirmed that the grid’s frequency has fallen below 49.6Hz on three different occasions in recent months, the deepest falls seen on the UK grid since 2015. On Friday the blackout was triggered when the frequency slumped to 48.88Hz.

“In June, the frequency of the grid plummeted to within a whisker of National Grid’s legal limit of 49.5Hz after all three units of EDF Energy’s West Burton gas-fired power plant in Nottinghamshire tripped offline without warning.”

Small uses the connections of the various “energy experts” cited in the media coverage to demonstrate their links with fossil fuel-funded organisations in an attempt to discredit their criticism of the current (lack of) health of the UK Grid.  It is only toward the end of the article that he gets to some actual problems with current arrangements:

“Sure, high volumes of renewable energy can make it more difficult for National Grid to balance the frequency of the grid, which was originally built to accommodate fossil fuel power plants. But to prepare for the UK’s energy transition, National Grid has developed a wide range of tools to ultimately prepare for the full phasing-out of fossil fuel power…

“Some questions do remain, however – just not ones that ideology of the above outlets would permit them to ask.

“For instance, why do we have to have a huge national grid? Many people argue for a district heating system and a more devolved system of regional grids.

“And should we be looking to nationalise the national grid? Many people believe that the failures stem from cost-cutting not the form of energy supplying.

Unfortunately, Small underestimates the scale of the problems being encountered by the Grid engineers in attempting to keep up with a largely out-of-control wind energy industry that is increasingly a subsidiary of the fossil fuel corporations.  The reality is that National Grid hasn’t “developed a wide range of tools to ultimately prepare for the full phasing-out of fossil fuel power,” but – rather like the UK government approach to climate change – has produced a lot of PR spin about what it might do at some unspecified point in the future. 

The necessary changes are inevitably expensive and – given the current market structure – will require Britain’s poor to shoulder the burden; something that has already resulted in political discontent and the imposition of a (largely counterproductive) price cap.  As Small suggests, nationalising the Grid might help – but only if the electricity pricing system is restructured to do away with the separate standing charge and to have prices increase (they currently decrease) with use – by transferring the cost of upgrading the Grid to those who consume the most electricity.

There is a reason why climate change denying organisations latched onto Britain’s power outage to push their pro-fossil fuel agenda; it is the weak spot in green capitalist faux climate solutions.  As I warned three years ago:

“The narrative… has been that we can continue to enjoy extravagant Western lifestyles and, indeed, continue to grow even as we abandon coal, gas, oil and nuclear in favour of a new energy infrastructure based around renewables like solar, wind, hydro, biomass, tide and wave.  Perhaps for fear of frightening the horses, the proponents of this narrative neglect to mention that our current fossil-fuelled way of life would inevitably collapse in the event of our making that shift in anything like the timescale required to prevent runaway climate change; and may do so anyway if we experience bankruptcy in the fossil fuel industry before we have deployed green energy alternatives.”

The same counter argument has been used by the fracking lobby for much the same reason:

“In practice, with the economy still on life-support eight years after the 2008 crash, we simply lack the capital, resources and skilled labour force required to realise the vision of a low-carbon (i.e electric-powered) economy in the time we have before fossil carbon shortages kill the global economy.

“In recent years, Britain’s margin of energy supply over demand has shrunk alarmingly.  On several occasions the National Grid has been forced to switch off high-energy consuming industrial customers in order to keep household lights on.  As energy shortages and the ‘energy death spiral’ deepen, we will soon experience unpredictably intermittent electricity supply…

“Although fracking on any serious scale is an unaffordable pipe dream, rather than understand that its failure is due to Britain’s tortured geology and the unaffordable cost of extracting what little gas is  technically recoverable, the energy companies will want to blame protestors for standing in the way of the fracking industry.

“The dilemma for environmental campaigners is that avoiding blame for the energy crisis involves letting go of the fiction that we can switch to green energy in the timeframe required.”

The barrage of pro-fossil fuel articles in the print media following the blackout on 9 August was inevitable.  The lobby groups had been waiting for several years for precisely that chain of events to occur.  Most importantly, they had been waiting for a power outage that could not be contained within National Grid’s’ scheme to disconnect large industrial users when they needed to shed load.  When the event cascaded out to ordinary households and small businesses, the lobby groups were able to bombard the media with ready-prepared press releases; why wouldn’t they?

The deployment of non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies has become big business; and its interests cannot simply be assumed to be in line with the interests of the wider public. As John Michael Greer recently noted, however:

“Yes, anthropogenic climate change is a reality; yes, that reality is being used as an excuse for various manipulative political games. I’m not sure why so few people seem to be able to hold both these ideas in their minds at the same time.”

There are, of course, solutions to the Grid frequency problem; the widespread deployment of storage being the most obvious.  However, these come at a steep price – in money and resources – that neither government nor Mother Earth is able to provide… at least not in anything like the time required.  Meanwhile, adding even more renewable electricity to a fossil fuel grid may not be the best use of our remaining resources.  After all, electricity amounts to less than a quarter of the average Briton’s primary energy consumption (and is a tiny fraction of the energy consumed by the bottom half of the population).  Home heating and transport are much greater polluters; and even these pale into insignificance compared to the embodied energy in the goods and services we consume.

By continuing to deploy wind turbines and solar panels before we have updated the Grid to accommodate them, we do indeed play into the narrative of the fossil fuel lobbyists.  But that is our problem, not theirs.  The fact remains that for all of the resources and money spent on non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies, they have not even slowed the growth of human energy consumption; but have merely allowed us to grow our destructive economy even more.

There is, of course, just one thing that we know of that can lower our carbon emissions.  In 1973, 1991 and again in 2008, something caused them to fall (although nowhere near to the amount they need to fall).  The OPEC oil embargo, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Great Financial Accident 1.0 each halted the economy in its tracks.  The resulting fall in energy consumption also, briefly, caused carbon emissions to drop – something that wind and solar technologies have never done.

It is the dishonesty of the green capitalism crowd in not acknowledging that degrowth is the only viable means of curbing carbon emissions, which plays into the dishonesty of the fossil fuel lobby in their objection to renewable energy.  Renewable energy will have a place in a de-growing economy; but it will never allow us to power the current global economy… and the fossil fuel lobby knows it.  They may take the opportunity of public blackouts to denigrate renewable energy.  But until and unless the Grid is upgraded and the global economy downgraded, we can hardly expect them not to point out the flaws.

As you made it to the end…

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