It’s the 20th January and southern Britain is experiencing its first full week of winter weather. Other than a brief cold snap at the beginning of December, the winter has been unusually warm and wet – a consequence of living in the path of the Gulf Stream in a changing climate. One result of the unseasonably wet – and windy – weather is that the propagandists in the mainstream media were able to begin the year with headlines claiming that renewable energy had overtaken fossil fuels (provided we counted decimating American forests and turning them into wood pellets as “renewable”) in Britain’s electricity mix.
As it happened, the headlines were fake. Gas, not renewables, continues to be the UK’s primary fuel for producing electricity. But let’s not let the facts get in the way of the story. The British establishment has decided that Britain must be seen as a world leader in combatting climate change; and so every opportunity to pretend that we are making the switch to “green” energy must be broadcast to the wider world.
Intermittency is a problem; of course. But even this (major) problem is portrayed as sympathetically as possible. Various science prizes have been created to encourage improvements in battery storage technologies to bridge moment-to-moment fluctuations in wind and solar generation. This, however, is the simplest intermittency problem (albeit one that our best scientific minds have yet to crack). By far the greatest intermittency problem is the seasonal variation both in supply and demand. Storing energy for months at a time is not something being considered, but it would have to be an essential component of any system that does not use fossil fuels to balance the gap between supply and demand.
Because of its advantageous position in the Northeast Atlantic, it is rare for the UK to experience the kind of weather that would cause severe disruption were it not for fossil fuels. This weekend – while far from the most severe of its type, gives an indication of the kind of problems that will arise without a large amount of seasonal storage capacity being added to the system; over and above the normal moment-to-moment storage. According to the BBC:
“The highest air pressure in the UK for over 60 years has been recorded in Wales – in the Mumbles, Gower.
“Atmospheric pressure readings were recorded at 1050.5 hectopascals (hPa) on Sunday night – the highest reading since January 1957 in Scotland.
“Weather experts said an “incredibly strong” Atlantic jet stream had pushed vast amounts of air over the UK – sending the mercury rising. It means a spell of settled weather – with some frosty mornings for some.”
The temperature underneath the high pressure system has dropped below freezing even in temperate western coastal regions. And while nothing like the severe weather in Canada last week, it is enough to cause Brits to ramp up the heating over and above the already high winter levels. Nor is there an early end to the weather pattern in sight – high pressure systems of this kind can remain over the UK for several weeks; although this one is expected to shift by the weekend. Crucially, though, while this kind of system is associated with cold weather in winter, it is also characterised by its lack of wind:
Just after midday today – when electricity consumption is at its lowest (although still uncomfortably high) – gas power stations were providing over half (50.36%) of the UK’s electricity. Coal – which will be gone by 2025 – provided 7.73%, while nuclear – much of which will also be decommissioned in the 2020s – provided 14.19%. Wind, in stark contrast to the usual cheerleading media headlines had fallen to just 12.54% of electricity supply; biomass (largely wood burning) and solar provided another nine percent. The remaining five percent came from hydro and imports from Europe and Ireland.
The point here is not to complain about the weather – we have experienced far worse and will do in future – or to suggest that the Grid can’t cope – there is still plenty of unused capacity. Rather, it is to raise the question of how Britain is to cope after the coal plants and most of the nuclear facilities have been demolished in the course of the 2020s. Relying on gas to make up the difference is probably our best hope; but given that UK gas production peaked in 1999 and that we face ever stiffer competition for imports, this is not something we can take for granted. Domestic fracking has turned out to be a non-starter; not least because it is too expensive to turn a profit. Simply adding more wind turbines is not going to work for days and weeks like these when high air pressure has left most of the wind turbines we have already installed standing still. Nor will additional solar panels do much at a time of year when the sun rises and falls well to the south. Pumped storage – which comes at a multi-billion pound cost – can provide a small cushion; far greater (and cheaper) than anything that might be achieved using batteries. But neither is going to allow us to store indefinitely the equivalent of the additional gas, coal and nuclear energy we are using today.
Global warming may spare us the worst of this in future. The potential disadvantage of living in the Northeast Atlantic is that the UK may experience colder winters as a result of the North Atlantic cold spot caused by the melt waters from the Greenland ice sheet and/or from a collapsing polar vortex. If, though, in the days after we have shut down the nuclear and coal plants and failed to increase the gas infrastructure, we are hit with a far colder high pressure weather system, it is hard to imagine how the lights and heaters will stay on. Industry will no doubt be the first to be disconnected; services like food supply and banking are likely to be next. Household electricity supply being the last to go.
Adding more intermittent technology to the Grid without first solving the storage problem merely adds to the risk. Worse still, fossil fuels are anything but renewable. As the world eats its way through the cheapest and easiest gas reserves, we can expect the gas market to mirror the experience of the oil market, with supply shocks and price spikes followed by collapsing demand taking us into a no-mans-land in which prices are too low for producers but too high for consumers. In short, we cannot simply assume that gas provides us with a get-out-of-jail-free card to bridge the gap when the wind stops blowing.
With this in mind, now would be a good time to concede that there is no supply-side route out of our predicament. If we are going to invest time, money and materials into cushioning the combined blows of environmental decline, energy shortages and resource depletion, then addressing the demand side – lowering our need for energy to begin with – is likely to provide a far bigger return on investment than adding ever more intermittency to an already shaky Grid.
As you made it to the end…
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