Exactly when the Guardian made the transition from serious newspaper to neoliberal propaganda sheet is a matter of debate. Some would argue it goes back to the mid-1990s and the rise of Blair’s New Labour; others say that is only since 2008 that it changed for the worse. Whatever, the one thing that the Guardian has consistently propagandised is Britain’s increasingly insane charge to power its economy with wind.
In the same way as the Daily Express became infamous for its “Big Freeze” stories, so the Guardian became the champion of “Britain ran entirely on renewables” claims. One of these winters, the Daily Express may turn out – entirely accidentally – to be correct; although climate modelling suggests that prolonged deep freeze events like 1982, 1963 and 1947 are unlikely as global temperatures warm… although, of course, if the Gulf Stream were to cease… In the same way, one of these days the UK will run entirely on renewable energy because the oil, coal and gas that powers four fifths of the economy will have become too expensive for anyone to afford. Until then though, what the Guardian is actually talking about is the twenty percent of our energy that comes in the form of electricity.
It is true that there are now days and weeks where Britain generates enough electricity from wind that, with about 15 percent baseload from nuclear and a few megawatts from solar and biofuel, it is possible to claim that Britain’s electricity generation was fossil fuel free. On the other hand, there are also far more weeks like this one than anybody should be comfortable with. As happens fairly frequently in the UK, Britain along with a large part of the near continent is covered with still, high-pressure air. And while not particularly cold – just enough to produce a dusting of frost first thing – it has proved enough to drive up demand.
Guardian energy correspondent Jillian Ambrose will be all too familiar with this, because in her time as an energy journalist for the Telegraph she regularly covered the “energy death spiral” that the British economy is now trapped in. However, having moved to the Guardian, with the brief exception of her reports on the major power outage last August, Ambrose has had to grit her teeth and trot out the happy-clappy greenwash that usually masquerades as energy reporting at the Guardian these days. Which is why her report this morning reads as if someone had dropped a wake-up pill into the tea urn at this morning’s Guardian editors meeting:
“Britain has fired up some of its last remaining coal power plants to help keep the lights on as the country’s wind turbines slow over a few days and the demand for electricity rises.
“Three of the UK’s last coal power plants, operating at Drax, West Burton, and Ratcliffe, were called on to supply 6% of electricity on Thursday morning.
“Coal’s share of the electricity mix was roughly double the share of wind and solar power in the electricity mix, and six times the average contribution made by coal plants in the final months of last year.
“The coal plants are likely to keep running over the next few days, alongside a fleet of gas-fired power plants, before breezy weather returns to help meet the rising demand for electricity from renewable energy sources.”
It is worth remembering here that England is currently locked down, with millions of workers furloughed and thousands of businesses shuttered up for the duration. One can only guess at the chaos which might have ensued had the current lack of wind arrived with the economy operating at December 2019 levels of activity.
Among the questions this ought to raise is, what are we going to do when those remaining coal plants have been demolished as is planned by 2025? We might also want to look at how we are going to bridge the gap between much of our antiquated nuclear generation shutting down in the next couple of years and the eventual replacements coming online in the 2030s. There are limits to how much more we can do with the remaining gas from the North Sea and last time I looked dilithium crystals only existed in science fiction.
Unfortunately, the Guardian’s editorial leash does not extend quite that far. Instead, Ambrose is reduced to prattling about the added volumes of wind turbines that have been promised by government and assorted energy corporations:
“SSE and the Norwegian energy firm Equinor on Thursday gave the green light to the first two phases of the world’s largest offshore windfarm, at Dogger Bank, after completing the financing for the £3bn project.
“The Dogger Bank windfarm is also one of the most cost competitive offshore windfarms in the world after driving its costs down to record lows of between £39.65/MWh and £41.61/MWh in the government’s support contract auction last year.”
How, exactly, having thousands of extra wind turbines is meant to magically produce electricity in weeks like this when the wind isn’t blowing goes largely unexplored. There is brief mention of storage technology (which has yet to be invented) and nuclear power (mention of which will have had most Guardian readers choking on their vegan cornflakes). But the reality is that Britain’s National Grid will cope in future by extending its current practice of switching off and compensating large industrial users. That is, as fossil fuel back-up for wind becomes increasingly inadequate, so first small businesses and later ordinary households will be disconnected on days when the wind isn’t blowing.
Nor, necessarily, does building out the gas infrastructure help with this. Although, as was the case today, Britain was able to turn to gas power stations to keep the lights on, gas is also used directly for heating and cooking in millions of homes across the UK. For safety reasons, this direct gas supply will be the very last thing that gets switched off in an energy crunch. This is because once switched off, grid engineers would have to check that every household, business and industrial appliance that had been using gas had been switched off again before the national gas grid could be restarted. And so, ironically, in an energy crunch, among the first industrial operations to be turned off will be the gas power stations which currently keep the lights on.
This is not a story that the neoliberal Guardian wants to explore. Nor is it something that the UK government is about to acknowledge – although the previous Energy Minister’s investment in next generation nuclear prototypes suggests that the permanent civil service is painfully aware of the looming energy crisis. Instead we can, for the time being, comfort ourselves with the fact that Atlantic westerlies will be blowing across the UK next week, and we can look to the Guardian to lull us back to sleep with another of its greenwash “all you need is wind” stories.
As you made it to the end…
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