This week, the FT reported that the National Grid was looking for emergency supplies of electricity for this winter ('Power shortage fears spur hunt for extra electricity', National News, FT September 03).
The emergency has come about it was said, because of shortages in output from the UKs coal gas and nuclear stations. In August, EDF, the main nuclear power generation company, had announced the closure, due to boiler faults, of four nuclear power stations and the resultant loss of a combined output of 2.3 GW ('Nuclear power plant warning puts spotlight on supply plans', National News, FT September 05). In addition, fires at Ferrybridge and Ironbridge power stations, two key coal fired plants, have resulted in a further loss in electricity generation capacity. A gas fired station in Barking East London has also recently closed.
With the NG urgently looking for new sources of electricity, it seems ironic then, does it not, to find that several new electricity generating projects have recently been scrapped ('Offshore wind farms hit by new blow', National News FT August 01). Centrica's project to develop the new 2.2GW Celtic Array, Europe's largest wind farm (which was to be sited off the North Wales coast near
Anglesey) has been closed. To
add to that, in recent months power companies have pulled out of a litany of
offshore windfarm developments. The £4B Atlantic Array which was to have been
built off the Devon coast by RWE has been
scrapped. Scottish Power pulled out of it's Argyll Array project late last year
and a second phase of
coast's London Array windfarm, run by a consortium of companies, has also ended
up as more flotsam and jetsam. Kent
The reasons given for the ditching of the Anglesey development are many and varied: Engineering difficulties, concerns about damage to shark and bird habitats, uncertainties about financial support, tightening of the Coalition government's subsidies regime, challenging ground conditions, the seabed of rock and sand leading to additional complexity and cost for the construction of footings for wind turbines. That’s a long list. The reasons given for the other project closures, as far as I can see, are similar - they cite, for example in the case of the Argyll project, problems with basking sharks and rocky seabeds.
I don’t believe the reasons given for those project closures.
Renewable electricity generation, for example, windpower, produces electricity more cheaply than conventional generation, like coal, oil, gas and nuclear and brings the electricity price down for all forms of generation. This is because, once installed, a wind energy converter say, requires no fuel, and requires only a small amount of maintenance work. Electricity is produced continually (when the wind blows) at little (or no) extra marginal cost. Contrastingly, all other forms of electricity generation - nuclear, gas, coal and oil based power stations - require a constant supply of fuel and the associated labour required to deliver the fuel and to maintain the equipment.
This can be confirmed to some extent, by taking a look at what is happening to electricity prices in
'Excess' renewables capacity is forcing RWE, as an operator of both renewables and also of conventional power generation, to close its (more expensive) conventional capacity when it has to choose as a result of dropping electricity demand (or lots of excess electricity due to high winds). The result is that the electricity price drops at these times when generation of electricity exceeds demand.
I believe that this underlines the primary reason for those closures listed above. Renewable generation brings the price of electricity down. Not just down for renewable electricity, but for all electricity, whether generated by nuclear, coal, oil, gas or wind turbines. Having more and more renewables generating electricity is not good for companies heavily invested in fossil and nuclear. If their prices have to drop, so do their profits from huge investments in conventional power.
contrasting phenomenon shines a little more light on the nature of renewable
electricity and the politics surrounding it. UK
Rather than an energy company, as in Germany, moaning about low energy prices, a national newspaper bleats here about how 'A windfarm has been paid £11 million not to produce electricity' (Sunday Telegraph August 24).
The National Grid has to constantly balance electricity supply with demand. Electricity cannot simply be thrown away once produced. Something must be done with it - heat an oven, light a room, power a fridge etc. If there is an excess of electricity being generated, then either some generation must be shut down, or some demand switched on. In Germany currently, it seems conventional plant is being switched off when necessary while in the UK, the choice, currently is to ask windfarm operators to temporarily stop their rotor blades from turning. That payment of £11 million would be arising from a pre agreed contract between National Grid and the generation company, that stated that amounts of cash would be handed over if a request was made to not generate. That kind of contract is drawn up between National Grid and every type of electricity generation organisation. The choices behind the different approaches in the
are political and commercially determined. In Germany (although how long this
will last is unclear), the Government is favouring some renewable generation,
while in the UK the Government is fully behind conventional fossil and nuclear
generation (and of course is also behind the new kid on the block, fracking) as
is evidenced by its removal of subsidies from onshore wind, and the recent
announcement by the Department for Energy and Climate Change that rival
technologies- implying offshore wind and fracking etc- would now have to
compete for funding. Germany
If we are to tackle effectively the most serious challenge affecting us regarding energy production - climate change - we should be building and installing more windfarms, not closing projects down.
The reason they are not being built fast enough and why sensible projects are in fact being closed down is because of the investment by the those multinational energy companies, those behind the projects mentioned above - some of the worlds most profitable firms - in oil and gas and their desire to keep making profits in the same old way from these investments with support in this from the UK government and governments in many countries worldwide.
That the National Grid balances the electricity grid by paying large amounts of money to windfarm companies to not produce electricity, while at the same time it is saying it is searching for emergency supplies of electricity elsewhere is one irony. Another is that while new, safe, clean and potentially reliable renewable electricity projects are shut down, massive amounts of investment continues to be spent on dirty dangerous unreliable old nuclear and fossil stations which frequently break down and require constant maintenance and safety inspections.
These ironies arise because of the irrational unpredictable outcomes that follow production for profit.
Much more investment should be made in energy storage and in building more electricity links (like the £1billion Western Link which will link Scottish renewable generation to the rest of the
With more links and more electricity storage, windfarms would not have to be paid to shutdown, any excess would simply be used to satisfy demand further afield, or would be stored for use later when demand had risen or for when the wind did not blow. But this investment is not happening, or is not happening quickly enough and this is because of the profit motive. Renewables can produce clean cheap electricity, but its development threatens the profits of the most worlds most profitable and powerful companies.
My new book, Safe Planet will be published on 26th September