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A far from perfect storm

Global warming may yet prove to be the one thing which saves us from our largely misguided attempts to respond to global warming.  This is because, while the crisis is real enough, the solution that we have bought into is an absolute stinker.  While a great deal of corporate profit has been made from the deployment of non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies (NRREHTs) whatever question they are an answer to, it is not “how do we operate a complex industrial society without fossil fuels?”

Up until now this has not been a problem, of course.  For the best part of half a century, politicians have been mouthing warm words about protecting the environment and saving the planet.  But in practice they have simply presided over more business as usual while hoping that clever people somewhere else will discover some new energy source or invent some new technology which will save the day.  In the meantime, energy-expensive solar panels and wind turbines were deployed – with huge subsidies doled out to landowners – to lull a gullible public into believing something was being done.

The establishment media played their part by conflating electricity with energy, so that they could falsely claim that this city, region or country had run entirely on renewable energy yesterday – although “yesterday” often turned out to mean “a couple of hours yesterday.”  But since electricity is only 20-25 percent of the energy we use, these media stories simply ignored the gas used for heating and cooking, the oil used to operate transport, plant and agricultural machinery, and the coal used to make steel and cement.

Establishment media have also – with a handful of exceptions – very deliberately ignored the many downsides of replacing fossil fuel with NRREHTs; which includes the problem that additional capacity does not translate into additional electricity.  That is, if we build a 1.5GW coal, gas or nuclear power station, the full 1.5GW of electricity is available to us 24/7/365.  But if we install a 1.5GW windfarm, that 1.5GW of electricity is only available in the most optimal weather.  Too little or – ironically – too much wind and the output drops.  And in a high-pressure weather system of a kind quite common in the UK, none of the theoretical 1.5GW is available.  Nor – as some social media commenters have suggested – would deploying even more windfarms help.  Add another 1.5GW windfarm to the mix and all you have achieved – at a high cost – is to have 3GW of capacity standing idle when the wind stops blowing.

So long as NRREHTs only accounted for 10-20 percent of the electricity mix, and at a time when Britain was self-reliant in gas and coal, this issue was manageable.  A gas or coal power station could increase its output to compensate.  Gas is particularly useful in this respect because its output can be increased far more rapidly than coal.  And since coal is also considerably more polluting than gas, politicians had no problem referring to it as a “transition fuel” and using it to replace coal.

For the last couple of decades, gas generation has been the backbone of British electricity, accounting – depending on the weather – for 30-50 percent of our electricity.  Nuclear provides a solid and stable 15 percent; wind some 10-26 percent; burning American trees six percent; solar 0.5-7 percent; coal 2-3 percent; and imports 0.5-15 percent.  However, because NRREHTs are given priority as part of the UK’s response to climate change, the economics of electricity generation means that they have become essentially parasitic.  That is, despite still requiring gas, nuclear and coal for backup, NRREHTs operators do not have to meet their costs.  One consequence in the UK has been that coal plants which were due to close in 2025 have been retired early to avoid the ongoing maintenance costs on 50-year-old power stations which are only needed these days when the wind stops blowing.  If the same problem were to begin to impact the newer gas power stations, the UK would be in a lot of trouble.

Trouble may be arriving sooner than anyone might have wished anyway.  This is because the much-touted “green energy revolution” is based on the erroneous and somewhat childish notion that whatever we need will be there when we need it.  So, for example, while Britain continues to depend upon gas to generate electricity, it became a net importer of gas in 2005.  Fortunately, because of its tiny population, Norway has had more than enough gas to supply the UK via the existing North Sea pipelines.  So long as the UK is the only European country to attempt a transition to NRREHTs, there will be more than enough gas to go around… except, of course, every other Western European state is attempting a similar transition.

Increasingly, Europe depends upon imported gas from Qatar, Russia and the USA to meet its demand.  And demand for imported gas is likely to increase significantly as the Belgian, French and UK nuclear power stations come to the end of their lives.  This is one reason why the price of European gas futures has increased dramatically.  As David Sheppard at the Financial Times reports:

“Natural gas prices in the UK and continental Europe have soared to record highs because of tight supplies ahead of winter, raising fears of a severe economic hit to industry and weather-induced shortages…

“Concerns about tight supplies started with a prolonged cold winter that drained natural gas storage. Normally this would be refilled over the summer when demand for heating largely evaporates. But storage filling has not happened at the pace traders would have liked in 2021. Russia has been sending less gas to Europe, for reasons fiercely debated in the industry. These range from Russia’s need to refill its own storage to suspicions that it is trying to pressure European governments, including Germany, to approve the start-up of the highly controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.”

According to Sheppard, this could cause additional problems for the UK:

“The UK is arguably more exposed than the rest of Europe. The country has won plaudits for its sharp reduction in emissions over the past decade — but this was achieved by boosting renewables capacity and supplanting coal with natural gas, particularly during periods of low wind speeds.

“The UK also in effect operates a ‘just-in-time’ approach to gas supplies. While it has more domestic production than countries in the EU, it also has far less storage capacity.

“The UK government says the country has diverse sources of supply. But it concedes that this means it has to compete in the global market for imports, particularly for cargoes of liquefied natural gas (LNG).”

Part of the problem with the UK government claim that it has diverse sources of supply is its over-reliance on imported electricity to fill gaps in its electricity generation.  In more benign circumstances, for example, the UK could mitigate gas shortages by reducing gas-fired electricity generation while importing electricity to fill the gap.  So the very last thing the UK would want is the sudden loss of one of its electricity interconnectors with continental Europe… as happened yesterday:

 “A key electricity cable between Britain and France has been shut down, sending wholesale energy prices soaring.  National Grid said a fire and planned maintenance at a site near Ashford in Kent means the cable will be totally offline until 25 September.  Half of its capacity, or one gigawatt (GW) of power, is expected to remain unavailable until late March 2022.”

Again, much of the concern at this point – September has been unusually warm here in the UK – is with the wholesale cost of energy which, one way or another, is going to be passed on to businesses and households in the near future.  However, just last month the UK experienced a weather system which forced grid operators to bring two retired coal power stations back into use to make up the deficit.  This was a lucky escape insofar as demand for electricity is low even in a cool and overcast August.

We may not be so lucky later in the year.  Sheppard argues that:

“The most important point is the weather. A mild winter in the northern hemisphere would go a long way to calming the market. A pick-up in wind generation would also help, reducing the amount of gas being directed to electricity generation.”

But this cuts both ways.  One of the consequences of the changing climate is that the UK gets far fewer extreme winters than in previous decades.  I have a vague memory of the 1963 events and personally watched the rail network grind to a halt in 1982.  And there is no law which says that something similar cannot occur again.  And, importantly, while such extreme snow blows in on the wind, it is the still, high-pressure air which arrives behind the snow that is the real menace.  Back in 1982 most of the power came from large coal-fired power stations which, learning the lessons of the previous decade, had a stockpile of coal on site.  Were anything remotely similar to strike the UK this winter – and if it can happen in Texas, it can happen anywhere – we could very quickly find ourselves overtaken by a cascading collapse of our critical infrastructure.  It isn’t just electricity that fails, but everything – like water, communications, fuel pumps and food distribution – which depends upon it.

So what this boils down to is that the continued operation of an advanced industrial economy like the UK depends upon the weather to avoid collapse this winter.  And we might, perhaps, want to ask some searching questions about how we reached this point, and what we might do to develop at least some resilience for the future.  But there again, most of us prefer the comforting lies to the inconvenient truth.  So maybe it will only be after we have experienced power outages and a cascading collapse that we will raise such questions.  And even then, half of us will find a way of blaming it on Brexit.

As you made it to the end…

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