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The other side of the story

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For the first time, the UK generated more electricity from renewables than from fossil fuels in 2020.  The obvious fly in that otherwise green ointment is that it depends on a definition of “renewables” that includes decimating North American forests and shipping the wood across the Atlantic to be burned in converted coal power stations.  Since this version of “biofuel” generates more carbon dioxide than burning domestic coal, it might be better placed in a category of its own… but that would spoil the establishment media’s bright green narrative.

This said, at times during 2020 wind generation has accounted for more than half of the UK’s electricity for the first time.  This would seem to validate the UK government’s charge to build even more wind farms around the coast.  Indeed, the need to invest in infrastructure to reboot the economy in the wake of the pandemic, makes this “green” investment even more urgent.

There is another side to the story though.  There is a reason why British people obsess about the weather.  The location of the British Isles means that – unusually – they are subjected to four distinct weather patterns.  Least common are the Arctic north-westerlies, which provide enough additional wind to cover the additional demand of an arctic freeze.  Most common is the wet moderate weather caused by Atlantic south-westerlies driven by the Gulf Stream; precisely the conditions needed to generate electricity from wind.  Not quite so common, but still frequent are the two – continental and Scandinavian – high pressure easterly weather systems which cause still air to settle over the UK for days, and sometimes weeks at a time.  When this type of weather settles over the UK, it has a profound economic impact on the energy system.  As Jonathan Ford at the Financial Times reported at the end of January:

“There’s not much that connects West Burton, a sleepy rural hamlet in Britain’s east Midlands, with the US state of California.

“But this month the owners of a power station near the Nottinghamshire village became the beneficiaries of an energy imbalance of a kind that enriched power companies, caused blackouts and infuriated countless consumers across the Golden State last summer.

“A power squeeze in the east of England briefly allowed West Burton B, a gas-fired station owned by EDF of France, to sell its output for the vertiginous price of £4,000 per megawatt hour (MWh). Normal UK wholesale prices are closer to £40 to £50 MWh. 

“Nottinghamshire was not alone in experiencing this unwelcome blend of low output and high prices. Over the past three weeks, wholesale purchasers of electricity across Britain have frequently paid £1,000 MWh at peak times, according to Nord Pool, a day-ahead electricity market that matches up buyers and sellers.”

This will cause particular problems for energy supply companies, which already struggle to remain profitable, when they attempt to pass the cost on to consumers.  The pandemic has already seen more than 800,000 jobs disappear, despite the government supporting wages through the furlough scheme.  More than a million additional jobs are expected to be lost once the support schemes are removed.  What that adds up to is some 1.8m customers who will have changed from being moderate to minimalist consumers.  Indeed, a sizable proportion may even default; forcing the companies to add to their costs when they take court action to recover the arrears.

This can only fuel an energy death spiral in which the wealthy opt-out by deploying rooftop solar arrays and by investing in home insulation, while those at the bottom opt-out by shivering in the dark.  And the more the energy supply companies seek to pass the cost onto the shrinking middle, the more of that middle opts out, one way or the other.  The end result – which we have already seen among the energy start-ups – is that supply companies go bust in large numbers.

The deeper issue here is that while the UK has been leading the world in its dash for wind, this only really applies to the deployment of wind turbines.  The broader renewable energy infrastructure – both a greatly expanded grid and undreamed of volumes of storage to iron out moment to moment and season to season intermittency – is non-existent.  Instead, fossil fuel generators have to be maintained to provide an alternative to storage.  As Ford explains:

“Critically, although renewable operators are responsible for these ups and downs (which can also involve them overproducing and having to be paid to switch off), they do not bear the economic consequences. These are lumped on the system as a whole. 

“Managing variability is a real issue in the medium term. That is because this may get worse before it gets better. Consider one of the features of renewables: unlike fossil fuels, solar and wind have no marginal fuel costs to recover. That, together with the subsidy they receive, permits them to sell electricity profitably at levels which are ruinous for fossil fuel stations.

“In days of plentiful sun and wind, prices can even go negative. One day last May, for instance, they fell to negative £9.92 MWh.

“What this means is that the grid is likely to become ever more dominated by intermittent capacity. There is little merit in building new fossil fuel capacity when margins are so slender.”

For these reasons, Hannah Bloomfield from the University of Reading argues that in the near future we will have to rely more heavily on weather forecasts:

“In the past, demand spikes and tight supply margins would be solved by ramping up generation from fossil fuel power plants, which are effectively on standby. But the UK’s power grid increasingly relies on renewable energy sources – and the government plans to quadruple offshore wind generation by 2030.

“Instead, maintaining a continuous supply of largely renewable energy during difficult winter periods will mean improving our weather forecasting ability so that potential energy shortages can be predicted weeks in advance.”

In other words, we are fast reaching the point at which supply can no longer be managed.  Instead, we must shift to demand management.  This is already happening to a degree when the wind stops blowing.  National Grid has agreements with large industrial consumers to shut down when demand outstrips supply.  These large users are then compensated for their loss; with the cost inevitably ending up in consumers’ bills.  Ironically, as wind capacity has increased in recent years, National Grid has used similar agreements to pay industrial consumers to use more electricity on days when there is too much wind.  Once again, the cost feeding into that accelerating energy death spiral.

What Bloomfield is suggesting though, goes much deeper than disconnecting large industrial users.  With the remaining coal plants due to close by 2025, and with some 7GW of nuclear due to be decommissioned by 2030, both business and lifestyles will have to adjust to weather conditions in a manner not seen since the early nineteenth century.  That is, rather like a medieval miller, businesses will have to close and workers have enforced holidays during high pressure weather, only to be required to work continuously as low pressure systems pass over us.

Even this, though, may be fanciful.  As Bloomfield notes:

“We tend to check the forecast to find out what the weather will do over the next few days. But in the last few years, meteorologists have made rapid progress in forecasting the weather at longer timescales – from one week to several months ahead.

“When creating a weather forecast for these extended periods, meteorologists tend to focus on predicting large-scale weather patterns, as this is where the relevant models still have some skill.

“Forecasters can then infer the average relationship between these weather patterns and the surface weather conditions that usually result based on past events…

“But these traditionally defined weather patterns don’t strongly influence the rates of wind and solar power generation over Europe. That’s because they’re based on data drawn from large geographic regions, most of which are over the ocean and don’t adequately capture finer scale conditions in regions where most people live. This makes forecasting energy demand very difficult.”

It is, perhaps, ironic that the far more accurate weather  forecasting that Bloomfield is working toward, itself requires electricity-intensive computing power to deliver… hers might turn out to be one datacentre that we dare not disconnect when the wind stops blowing.

Adding to the coming crisis is the fact that, and not only because of the pandemic, our 2020 electricity consumption hit an all-time low.  As Grant Wilson, Joseph Day and Noah Godfrey explain:

“In 2020, Britain’s electrical use was the lowest it had been since 1983. This wasn’t entirely due to COVID – demand for electricity had been falling for more than a decade anyway, thanks to savings from energy-efficient appliances, moving industry offshore and consumers becoming more careful as costs increased.

“But demand will bounce back after COVID. And the electrification of transport and heat, both critical to achieving net-zero emissions, will require lots more electricity in future.”

As an example, they point to the proposed switch from internal combustion engine to electric cars:

“Cars and taxis currently travel nearly 280 billion miles a year in Great Britain. Multiply that by the 24-25 kilowatt hours per 100 miles that the current best electrical vehicles technologies can reach, and you have a total of around 70+ terawatt hours of electricity needed each year (interestingly, a similar value to the total amount of wind generation in 2020).

“Generating enough electricity to cover these cars and taxis – even ignoring other forms of transport – would take Britain’s annual demand back up to its peak year in 2005.”

But without firm electricity generation, simply adding more wind capacity to the mix does nothing to power all of those additional vehicles.  Indeed, one way in which grid engineers have proposed responding to intermittency is to develop a so-called “smart grid,” which would allow electric car batteries to act as storage.  In effect, when the wind stops blowing the cars stop running… and you can add 12 hours after the wind picks up again to recharge all of the batteries.

In reality, of course, as the cost of non-discretionary  essentials – particularly food, housing, utilities and transport – continues to increase, far fewer of us are going to be travelling anywhere.  For the most part, electric cars are a publicly subsidised rich man’s toy; and they’re likely to remain that… at least until the public gets fed up of subsidising them.  A more productive short to medium term way of cutting carbon and saving energy would be to lean into the pandemic trend of working from home and expand the internet infrastructure to allow far more people to avoid commuting; dispensing with the need for cars entirely.

In the long-term though, almost all work is going to be local and almost all energy is going to be renewable… not in the techno-utopian way that the Build Back Better crowd imagine, but in the way our great great great grandparents lived in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

As you made it to the end…

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