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A matter of storage

The development of the Universal Serial Bus (USB) for computing has served to lull a generation into believing a fantastical version of what economists call “substitutability.”  According to the economists, when the supply of any input to the economy dries up, “market forces” will cause another input to take its place.  In the world of computing, too, this seems to be true.  The ubiquitous USB port can support everything from printers to scanners and from cameras to Kindles.  The apparent ease of “plug and play” easily gives the impression that the real world is like that too.

One manifestation of this is the insane belief that our advanced industrial economy can simply unplug our fossil fuel inputs and replace them seamlessly with non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies like wind turbines, solar panels and tidal barrages.  Indeed, for several decades during which developed states like the UK were using them to replace coal in electricity generation, it seemed for all the world like these technologies were instantly replaceable.

The engineers knew differently, of course.  Most of the UK’s coal-powered electricity was replaced by gas-powered electricity.  Meanwhile, so long as wind and solar accounted for less than a third of UK electricity, problems with intermittency could be accommodated by increasing and decreasing the amount of gas and coal generation.  And so governments could continue to subsidise (often already wealthy) landowners to erect wind turbines and solar farms without having to worry about what might happen on days when there was under-supply and over-supply.

In the course of the last decade, however, the scale of wind and solar deployment began to create problems.  Mass media were keen to report on the few days when there was so much wind and/or solar that fossil fuel generation was not needed; but far more reticent on days – such as during the “Beast from the East” cold snap in March 2010 – when there was insufficient renewable energy resulting in mothballed coal power stations having to be brought back on line.

By this time, National Grid had developed financial economy schemes to try to offset growing problems in the real economy.  Since the degree of penetration of renewable electricity generation had reached the point at which intermittency problems were unavoidable, National Grid and the regulator Ofgem approved a compensation regime in which large industrial users would be paid to shut down during periods where demand outstripped supply; and then be paid to use more electricity during periods when supply exceeded demand.  And since the UK energy sector operates a “renewable energy first” wholesale market, fossil fuel generators would also be paid to shut down when there was an over-supply, and to rapidly ramp up their output when there was an under-supply of renewable-powered electricity.

People can get seriously rich in a rigged market like this; but it is a sure-fire means of upsetting the majority of ordinary business and household consumers who must ultimately pick up the tab for all of these compensation schemes.  Worse still, since the schemes do not address the real economy problems of intermittency, not only are consumers increasingly angry – to the point that energy has become a political hot potato – about their rising bills; but they now have to tolerate an increasingly unreliable supply.

This became apparent in August 2019 when the UK experienced its first nation-wide intermittency-based power outage.  Although National Grid initially attempted to blame the outage on one of its gas-powered suppliers, publicly-available grid data showed an intermittency-related grid frequency drop prior to this.  In its report into the incident to the regulator in October, National Grid makes clear that it was the loss of 950MW of wind generation – ironically because the wind was too strong – which triggered the cascading collapse.

Nationwide blackouts, however, are merely the tip of the iceberg.  While the UK media was focussed on the general election last month, the British Chambers of Commerce published research showing that a third of UK businesses have experienced power outages in the past year.  As Jack Loughran at Engineering and Technology reports:

“While renewables are seen as essential for the UK to meet its carbon reduction obligations, their intermittence does create greater instability on the Grid, prompting concerns that even elongated power cuts could become more commonplace without proper backup systems.

“The BCC surveyed more than 1,000 businesses, a quarter of which said they expect dependence on electricity to increase in the years ahead, thereby placing even greater strain on power networks that are struggling to cope…

“BCC director-general Dr Adam Marshall said: ‘Our message to policy-makers couldn’t be clearer – work with us in business to fix Britain’s energy infrastructure and ensure it’s fit for the future.

“’Access to affordable and reliable energy is critical for businesses. It’s unacceptable that many companies are facing power cuts and interruption to supply, which can damage machinery and leave employees unable to do their jobs.

“’Reliance on electricity is set to increase across the economy as we move away from fossil fuel use. Electricity providers, industry, regulators and government must work together to accelerate improvements in generation and supply, with a firm eye on our shared goal of net-zero carbon emissions’.”

Several of the coal fired power stations which kept British people alive during the cold snap two years ago have since been demolished.  The once hoped for (by government) fracking-powered combined cycle gas power stations that were supposed to replace them have failed to materialise.  The ageing fleet of nuclear plants provides baseload (for now).  Subsidised non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies which can only make intermittency matters worse are the only form of generation currently being widely deployed.  But without yet-to-be-invented or yet-to-be-upscaled storage technologies deployed on a far wider scale than is currently the case, adding even more renewable energy to the mix is a recipe for both financial and real world disaster.  And there is only so much longer that an increasingly politicised population is going to tolerate ever higher bills in exchange for an ever less reliable service.

As you made it to the end…

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