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Mind the gap

On balmy summer days in medieval times, the miller could often be seen lounging in the shade while the villagers toiled in the fields.  The miller, it seemed, had a cushy deal.  Not only did he get to relax on hot summer days, but he took a percentage of all of the flour he milled for the villagers.  It was an altogether different matter, though, when the wind began to blow.  On those days (and nights) the miller would labour continuously to produce as much flour as possible while there was energy to power the machinery.

This, dear reader, might soon become a common pattern of employment in the UK too.  The reason is simply that successive governments have failed to invest properly in our energy infrastructure.  Despite media propaganda suggesting that our economy can be powered with intermittent wind and solar electricity, gas has been our main source of non-transport energy.  And since 2005, the UK has been a net importer of gas; including from parts of the world (Russia, Qatar, etc.) that might not have our best interests at heart.  Fracking was supposed to solve this problem; with private companies like Cuadrilla and Third Energy unleashing a century’s worth of British shale gas.  Except, of course, that the gas didn’t exist in anything like the promised quantities; and what gas there was proved too expensive to extract.  Unfortunately, by the time we discovered this, we had already shed most of our coal generating capacity and had failed to replace our ageing fleet of nuclear power stations.

Still, at least our renewable energy is increasing, right?  Not so fast. According to Simon Evans at Carbon Brief, Britain’s renewable energy generation has stalled.  Meanwhile all but one of our nuclear plants is going to close in the 2020s:

“Low-carbon electricity output from wind, solar, nuclear, hydro and biomass rose by just 1 terawatt hour (TWh, less than 1%) in 2019. It represents the smallest annual increase in a decade, where annual growth averaged 9TWh. This growth will need to double in the 2020s to meet UK climate targets while replacing old nuclear plants as they retire…

“Given scheduled nuclear retirements and rising demand expected by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) – with some electrification of transport and heating – low-carbon generation would need to increase by 15TWh each year until 2030, just to meet the benchmark of 100gCO2/kWh.

“For context, the 3.2 gigawatt (GW) Hinkley C new nuclear plant being built in Somerset will generate around 25TWh once completed around 2026. The world’s largest offshore windfarm, the 1.2GW Hornsea One scheme off the Yorkshire coast, will generate around 5TWh each year.”

Increasing demand will become a serious problem if government targets to phase out internal combustion engine cars and light vehicles by 2030 are realised.  To drive an average electric car 100 miles requires some 30 kWh – roughly the daily consumption of an average home – and the government is planning to add 30 million of these in the course of the next decade.  That’s enough to cripple an already overloaded grid even before we account for a mass switch to electricity for household heating and cooking.

As Alex Brown at Northwest America Online notes, that scale of transition requires some fundamental changes in behaviour if the system is not to crash:

“Electricity demand fluctuates throughout the day; demand is higher during daytime hours, peaking in the early evening. If many people buy electric vehicles and mostly try to charge right when they get home from work — as many currently do — the system could get overloaded or force utilities to deliver more electricity than they’re currently capable of producing.

“In California, for example, the worry is not so much with the state’s overall power capacity, but rather with the ability to quickly ramp up production when demand is high…

“Charging during off-peak hours not only would allow many electric vehicles to be added to the roads, but also allow utilities to get more use out of power plants that currently run only during the limited peak times.”

The problem is that our current default is to demand that everyone else makes changes that we ourselves find too inconvenient.  Without some technological fix to prevent car charging when the grid cannot meet demand, too many of us will plug our cars in at peak periods.  And unlike the in USA, supply is shaping up to be a major headache in the UK in the coming decade. 

Even if at this point the government was to reverse the 2025 ban on coal power, too much of the coal industry has been demolished to fill the looming gap left by nuclear.  Indeed, only one of the existing nuclear plants – Sizewell B – is expected to continue generating into the 2030s.  And of the four proposed replacements, only Hinkley Point C is going ahead; Hitachi’s Wylfa Newydd nuclear plants on Anglesey in Wales and Oldbury in Gloucestershire, and Toshiba’s Moorside project in Cumbria – which would have supplied 15 percent of the UK’s projected electricity needs – proved too expensive to construct.  Even Hinkley Point C, which is due to begin operating in 2026 cannot be taken for granted.  In July, EDF – the company that is building the plant – added another £2.9bn to the expected cost of the plant; while construction of a sister plant in Normandy has been delayed again.  It would be rash at this point not to plan for delays in Hinkley Point C beginning operations.

For the moment, Britain attempts – and sometimes fails – to balance increasingly intermittent supply with demand using imported electricity from the continent.  But as European states decarbonise and make similar switches to electric transport, heating and cooking, continental supply will not always be available.

All of which leaves the UK increasingly dependent upon intermittent renewable (primarily wind) energy to power its economy through the 2020s.  this, in turn, brings us back to the medieval miller; whose work – and indeed, the work of medieval villages in general – was government by the weather and the seasons.  National Grid already operates a scheme to disconnect high-consuming industries during times when supply is low.  More recently, it has developed a scheme to pay them to use more energy when supply is too high.  In the absence of any serious energy storage technology, this may prove to be the only means of responding to intermittency.  And given the growing gap between growing UK energy demand and shrinking energy generation capacity, this implies a lot more than regulating the times when electric cars can be charged.

In our energy-constrained future, the optimal solution is likely to be including more – possibly most – business activities into schemes to cease or ramp up energy consumption according to the vagaries of weather and season.  That, in turn, means far more – most? – of us living like medieval millers – working 24/7 when the wind is blowing just to get as much done as we can while we have the energy to do it.  So kiss goodbye to planned holidays. Abandon any idea of instant access to banking, food, and consumer goods.  Even essentials like clean drinking water may be unavailable for periods in parts of the country that rely on electric pumping stations.  And don’t get too used to having instant access to light and heat at home.  A prolonged winter high pressure cold snap over the UK in the mid-to-late-2020s is likely to leave us all shivering in the dark.

As you made it to the end…

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