The energy “trilemma” is the dilemma of three dimensions : how to decarbonise the energy system, whilst continuing to provide affordable energy to consumers, at a high security of supply. The unspoken fourth dimension is that of investment : just who is going to invest in British energy, particularly if green energy booster subsidies and regulatory measures are binned ? The UK Government have in the past few years believed that they need to support new investment in new technologies, but it looks likely that this drive is about to lose all its incentives.
Today, Amber Rudd, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, faces an inquiry into Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) accounts and budgetary spending, and some say this could be a prelude for the closure or severe contraction of the whole department. If all Climate Change measures were put into abeyance, or passed over to the new Infrastructure Commission, the only remaining function of DECC could be nuclear power plant and nuclear waste decommissioning. It might have to change its name, even.
At last week’s Energy Live News conference, Andrea Leadsom, Minister of State for Energy at the UK Government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), headed up the morning, with a bit of a lead in from ELN Editor Sumit Bose. He said that continuing challenges arose from the optimisation of balancing reserves and demand side management in electricity generation. He said that policy had perhaps swung away from the projection of 100% electrification of British energy, as this would require at least 15% more committed capital expenditure – although there would be savings to be had in operational expenditure. He also said that there is an ongoing budgetary conflict going on in government departments about the public money available to spend on investment in infrastructure (including that for energy). Obviously, the announcement of the Infrastructure Commission is going to help in a number of areas – including reaching for full electrification of the railways – a vital project. Then he introduced the Minister.
Andrea Leadsom said, “This government is determined to resolve the energy trilemma, decarbonising at the lowest cost to the consumer whilst keeping the lights on. In the past we did tend to have crazes on different technologies….”. At this point I wondered if she included nuclear power in that set of crazes, but her later remarks confirmed she is still entrenched in that fad.
Leadsom said, “There’s been a big move to renewable energy technologies, and quite rightly too. We need a wide diversity of electricity sources. We need to try and improve the new nuclear programme…”, at which point I thought to myself, “Good luck with that !”. She said, “Renewable energy has trebled. We need [to fund] that transition from unabated coal, [turn on to] gas and renewables. [But] as we saw yesterday – there is an intermittency of renewables.”
Andrea Leadsom was referring to the previous day, when National Grid has issued their first call for surplus top-up power generation since 2012. Owing to a confluence of weather systems over the UK, the atmosphere was becalmed, and wind power output was close to zero. However, this had already been predicted to happen. The lack of wind power was not the problem.
The problem lay in two other areas. Of the completely inflexible nuclear power plants, three generators were out of action for scheduled maintenance (Hunterston B, Reactor 3; Heysham 1, Reactor 1 and Hartlepool Reactor 1). And so when two coal-fired power plants which normally would have been operational were out of action, and one failed apparently between 12:45pm and 12:51pm (Eggborough, Fiddlers and Rugeley according to various sources) dropping approximately 640 megawatts (MW) out of the system (according to BM Reports data), National Grid had to resort to elements of their balancing “toolkit” that they would not normally use.
The operators generating for the National Grid were able to ramp up Combined Cycle Gas Turbine (CCGT), and various large electricity users with special arrangements with National Grid were stopped using power. By around 18:00 6pm the emergency was over, with peak demand for the evening levelling off at around 48 gigawatts (GW).
Although National Grid handled the problem well, there was a serious risk of blackouts, but again, not because of wind power.
If during the period of supply stress, one of the nuclear power plants had suddered an outage, that would have created the “nightmare scenario”, according to Peter Atherton, from Jefferies, quoted in The Guardian newspaper. The reason for this is that the nuclear power plants are large generators, or “baseload” generators. They have suffered from problems of unreliability over the recent years, and whenever they shutdown, either in a planned or an unplanned manner, they cause the power grid a massive headache. The amount of power lost is large, and there’s sometimes no guarantee of when the nuclear generation can be restored. In addition, it takes several hours to ramp up replacement gas-fired power plants to compensate for the power lost from nuclear.
Yes, Andrea Leadsom, more renewable energy is essential to meet decarbonisation goals. Yes, Andrea Leadsom, renewable energy technologies have an inherent intermittency or variability in their output. No, Andrea Leadsom, National Grid’s problems with power generation during the winter months is not caused by wind power on the system – wind power is providing some of the cheapest resources of electricity. No, Andrea Leadsom, insecurity in Britain’s power supply is being caused by ageing nuclear and coal power plants, and the only way to fix that is to create incentives to develop a plethora of differently-scaled generation facilities, including many more decentralised renewable energy utilities, flexible top-up backup gas-fired power plants, including Combined Heat and Power town-scale plants, and Renewable Gas production and storage facilities.