Keeping the lights on


When I launched UKIP’s energy policy statement at our Party Conference in October 2012, the front cover said “Rolling Blackouts by 2020?  UKIP has the solution”.  I must admit that I worried at the time that I was being slightly alarmist.  So I was gratified when only weeks later, OfGem, the government energy regulator, made much the same point.  Only they didn’t cite 2020.  On Oct 5th 2012, they warned of increasing risks of blackouts in three years.  Do the math, as the Americans say.

Nor did their warnings stop there.  In June of this year, they warned that the risk of blackouts had tripled in a year.   The government assures us that the issue is under control, but the industry begs to differ.

What’s gone wrong?  The closure of most of our current nuclear fleet could have been foreseen – indeed was foreseen – for many years.  Nuclear power stations have a finite life.  But neither the previous Labour administration, nor our current Coalition, showed anything like a sense of urgency.  Gordon Brown even sold off Westinghouse, because he believed that nuclear would not be needed..  So we are reduced to buying from the French.  Or the Japanese.  And the delays have been nail-biting.  As I write it looks as though a new deal with EDF for Hinckley Point could be signed within weeks.  But it’s too little, too late.  The new reactors won’t come on stream until 2020 (probably). And the lights will go out before then.

In my view we should be aiming as a nation to start a new nuclear power plant every couple of years.  Then there would be secure work for manufacturers, and a clear career path for graduates in nuclear engineering.  And in sixty years (about the life-time of a new nuclear plant) we’d have a fleet of thirty nuclear power stations, constantly refreshed.  OK, by 2073 we may have nuclear fusion, which would be a huge step forward.  But we actually need energy available in the interim.

Then there’s the European Union’s Large Combustion Plant Directive.  This has required us prematurely to close down a number of perfectly good coal-fired power plants, creating a huge gap in our generation capacity.  Bizarrely, Germany, having decided to close its nuclear fleet, has been building or refurbishing 25 coal-fired plants (and there’s plenty of cheap coal from the USA, as America switches to even cheaper shale gas).  I’m sometimes asked how Germany can keep on building coal capacity when we’re closing ours.  It seems that the LCPD does allow coal subject to very tight emissions limits and environmental rules.  Germany has decided to swallow the costs involved: our industry decided that the cost of the major up-grades needed could not be justified in commercial terms.

I believe we should be building new coal-fired capacity, either (if we must) according to EU rules, or better still (if we can get out from under) using a more realistic approach in the UK.  It is a measure of the damage which Caroline Lucas and her green colleagues have done that our government simply doesn’t dare to propose new coal capacity.

The other problem we have is our huge over-commitment to intermittent renewables, driven by EU irrational targets.  Not content with the current proliferation of wind turbines, the government proposes to spend an eye-watering £100 billion on new ones.  For a fraction of that price we could build gas capacity – indeed gas is the only serious generating technology that could now be brought on-line in time to solve our energy problem.  But again, there’s no sign of urgency in government.  New gas capacity would dove-tail neatly with the availability of cheap shale-gas as that industry develops.

And meantime, the EU is proposing “capacity payments” to subsidise gas plants which would need to be on stand-by to back up wind.  There is no end to the types and costs of subsidies they will spend in a futile attempt to keep their green dream alive.

I have explained elsewhere why intermittent renewables fail to deliver either the net power generation, or the emissions reductions, that are envisaged, because they export inefficiency to the necessary fossil-fuel back-up.

So what can we expect?  Brown-outs, black-outs, price spikes, special “demand management” deals with large industrial consumers, huge payments to organisations with emergency generators to make them available when the grid runs out.  A hugely inefficient patchwork of ad-hoc measures in a desperate attempt to stave off the inevitable.

A warning to the government: one thing the voters will not forgive is an administration that lets the lights go out.  Ed Davey, you have been warned.


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16 Responses to Keeping the lights on

  1. maureen gannon says:

    Heard that the national grid has laid on diesal run generators to back up the windmills for when the wind does not blow .
    Is’nt there a saying something about “Couldn’t run something in a brewery ” with the Con Dems in power it fits them down to the ground, they are too busy grandstanding to care about this country they are there for the global acclaim .

    • David says:

      Just as bad as the last lot then.

    • Fubarroso says:

      Yes this is the Short Term Operating Reserve (STOR). A system by which standby diesel generators, far less efficient that coal will be brought into service at vast cost you you and I as well as emitting far more CO2.

      I’m not really sure why UKIP are still pushing the “black out” meme as STOR will almost certainly prevent that occurrence. It is the lunatic energy policies that are costing us a fortune that they need to concentrate on. Pushing the idea that the lights will go out will leave UKIP looking a bit silly when they stay on – providing we can afford to switch them on that is!

  2. Linda Hudson says:

    Maybe it will take blackouts to show the public that renewable energy is not adequate, and realize we must use a variety of energy, including nuclear power which will save us from a certain future of hunger and starvation.

  3. ogga1 says:

    re Linda Hudson
    It will not happen Linda, while the power is on make it a theme in “Corrie or Eastenders” and you
    may get the message through.
    A Genny outside the bedroom window cutting in at 3am tends to focus the mind, i have had
    some of that.

  4. cornwallwindwatch says:

    Reblogged this on Cornwall Wind Watch.

  5. As I understand it Roger, even if our coal power stations refit for lower emissions, they are still only allowed to operate for the same limited lifespan as before.

    So, for instance, if they are given a 25-year allowance, and are already 15-years old, they can only operate till 2023. This makes the huge cost of refitting uneconomic, as such costs cannot be recovered in 10 years.

    As the new coal plants in Germany will have the full 25-year life, it is economic. (I think I have got the gist of this right, but tell me if not!!)

    However, the real difference between us and Germany is that, by law, any new coal plants we build MUST have CCS fitted. As of course CCS does not exist at any commercial scale, this effectively outlaws all new coal plants (except the small pilot projects being subsidised, such as Drax).

    But in Germany, the law only requires that the plants are designed so that CCS can be fitted at a later date. (I think they call it “CCS ready”).

    Ironically the Greens in Germany opposed compulsory CCS because of fears about what pumping all that CO2 underground would do to the environment!!

  6. neilfutureboy says:

    Indeed the British Westinghouse, part of BNFL, was sold off, at a fire sale price because Labour had deliberately bankrupted them. It was ultimately bought by the Japanese and the Westinghouse AP1000 can be bought for £800 million (excluding governmental cost)

    Personally I would like to see much more than a new plant every couple of years. I would like to see them being mass produced in Britain (& sold abroad too) which would considerably reduce the price. 30 of them in 60 years would only keep our power usage stable but with the correlation between energy use and gdp being almost perfect if we want to achieve best world growth rates we should be increasing electricity supply by about 10% annually (as China has done for 30 years).

    I believe the highest electricity growth rate was the USSR between 1925 and 1940 of 23% a year – a time of remarkable economic growth for them (which they noticeably never matched again) .For Britain that would be 10 reactors a year – at less cost than we put into windmills now. Perhaps this will not be done but if so we should see a good reason why, not just that the anti-nuclearists won’t like it.

  7. BTW – I think the real problems will arise in the 2020’s. There is probably still enough spare capacity to let us stagger through the next few years, particularly with thousands of diesel generators linked up to the grid.

    But after 2020, the combination of the shutdown of our remaining coal plants and most nuclear, together with ever increasing targets for renewables will make the whole situation totally unsustainable.

    I had a look at some of the scenarios a few months ago and it is truly frightening.

    Remember as well that there will be huge extra demand for electricity, as decarbonisation of domestic heating and transport progresses under Climate Change Act targets.

    • neilfutureboy says:

      The way the lights are being kept “on” now is by increasing the cost. Simple supply and demand shows you can reduce sales simply by putting the price up and that is being done with a vengeance.

      Who would have thought our ruling cartel understood enough economics to do that – evidence perhaps that they are more evil than stupid as unlike usually thought.

      Of course the effect of pricing electricity out of use is the current rise in pensioners dying from cold and the continuance of recession as the rest of the world grows 6% annually.

  8. That total waste of space Ed Davey should begone immediately. Why on earth did Cameron put him in a position of power or was it Clegg. I do ponder the thought that Clegg must have some hold over Cameron or the later is just as stupid as the former.

  9. Mike Stallard says:

    Mr Clegg has the answer! If we invest heavily in renewables, then by 2030, (or some other time preferably ending in a difficult prime number), electricity will be completely free! The wind after all costs nothing! All we need is a little smidgeon of pain to get us through to that wonderful time!

  10. Chris says:

    Listening to Osborne in China trying to sell the idea of China investing in new nuclear plants in Britain was a lesson in smoke and mirrors. George thinks that letting the French and Chinese spend the billions in cosntruction, allows him to use that money instead for schools and hospitals. He fails to mention that, they will charge us nearly twice the current price for 40 years.

    Instead of doing this, we should be using British money to build these power plants using Rolls-Royce, Babcock, Sheffield Forgemasters and the expertise from the research laboratories of Harwell and Aldermaston. We can buy a design from Westinghouse, which was what the French did in the 1970s.

    This would require common sense and logic, which it seems, is lacking from your average PPE/History Oxford graduate.

    • neilfutureboy says:

      That would work & I would be happy to see these companies or others (including our government) to create a mass production system for reactors. A particularly bitter pill is that Westinghouse used to be a UK company sold off at fire sale price by the Labour government when they bankrupted BNFL by regulatory fiat.

      But the overriding problem is government regulatory parasitism. China is building European reactors at 1/3rd the price they can be built in Europe. If that parasitism didn’t exist there would be no problem building reactors without needing price promises & electricity bills could be as low as 10% of what they are (possibly lower). With the parasitism, whoever does the building, current costs will be maintained. All we really need is economic freedom.

  11. On the day that Hinkley Point PS is announced, I can’t seem to find any definitive information on price per megawatt hour for wind energy and how long the fixed rate contract lasts, maybe you could help me. Also if wind farms electricity prices are predicted 10 years hence.
    Than you Sir and keep up the good work..

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