The present energy crisis has seen massive increases in the costs of electricity and gas and petrol. If there is a silver lining in this particular cloud it is that it has focussed the public’s attention on the need for the country to have a sensible energy policy. Unfortunately, we do not have that. Following his conversion to eco-zealotry, Boris Johnson set out the U.K.’s Energy Strategy earlier this year. This committed us to generating the majority of our electricity from renewables by 2030 but, as everyone knows, renewables are unreliable. So if they become the main source of our energy then what will happen on days when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine? The answer is either we will have frequent and widespread power cuts or electricity bills will have to rise to pay for expensive back-up measures.
National Grid statistics for last year showed that on average renewables produced 22% of our energy, but this varied greatly, some days it was as high as 40% and other days as low as 5%. At the moment the grid can cope with these large swings in output because at 22% renewables are still only a relatively small part of the energy mix. As the contribution from renewables goes up or down then the contribution from gas-fired power stations is scaled down or up and this keeps everything balanced. But if, as foreseen in the Energy Strategy, renewables increase to 70% and gas-fired power stations are closed, then there is simply no way to compensate for the large variations in renewable output.
To appreciate the scale of the problem, the National Grid statistics show that in 2021 there were two periods when there was a prolonged and very large shortfall in the output from renewables, the nine days between February 27th and March 7th and the five days between December 17th and 21st. These dates corresponded to periods of low wind speed and because they occurred in the winter then solar made little contribution because most of the time in the winter in the U.K. there is no sun; it is dark. If in 2021 we had been relying on renewables for 70% of our electricity and our gas-fired power stations had been closed, then the energy shortfall during each of these periods would have been enormous, 2,000-3,000 gigawatt-hours (GWh). This is equivalent to the whole of the U.K. being without electricity for several days. Power cuts of this magnitude would have a devastating impact on people’s lives. Homes would be without lights and refrigerators and in many cases heating and hot water. Businesses and national infrastructure, such as transport and communications, would all be seriously affected.
Supporters of renewables blithely talk about energy storage technology improving and coming to the rescue. They talk of progress in batteries and green hydrogen, liquid air and pumped hydro etc. All these storage technologies have potential but at the moment they are expensive and way too small. There is no guarantee that they will ever be capable of giving us low-cost, long-term energy storage with a capacity at the level of thousands of GWh. Likewise interconnectors – cables connecting us to other European countries – are too small-scale to cope with this level of energy shortfall and, even if the capacity could be increased, do we want our electricity supply to depend on the goodwill of our European neighbours? There is also talk of giant solar farms in the Sahara Desert that are connected to the U.K. via undersea cable from Morocco. But again, do we want our energy security to depend on others, in this case the countries of North Africa?
So if the Government pushes ahead with its Energy Strategy, of making us reliant on renewables, then either people will have to accept frequent and lengthy power cuts or the Government will have to come up with a back-up measure other than wishful thinking about energy storage, interconnectors and Saharan solar farms. At the moment the only viable option would appear to be paying the energy companies to keep open the gas-fired power stations. This option is costly; in essence the country would be running two parallel energy generation systems, a renewable one for when it is windy and sunny, and a fossil-fuel based one for when it is calm and cloudy.
In an excellent article in a recent Daily Sceptic it was proposed that wind and solar farm operators must in future guarantee that, every hour of every day, they will supply a certain level of power to the National Grid. So when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining it will not be the taxpayer but the wind or solar farm operator who will be responsible for providing the back-up measures needed to keep the power flowing. If this was done then we would very soon find out the true cost of renewables.
There is an option other than renewables. If we want to keep our Net Zero commitment but have a stable energy supply then nuclear power may be the better way forward. At the moment nuclear power is expensive, but Rolls Royce is developing a new generation of smaller modular reactors that it is hoped will be cheaper. If these are successful then an alternative Energy Strategy would be to keep open our gas-fired power stations as a transition whilst we build up our nuclear capacity.
Any pause in the Net Zero programme will of course provoke a storm of protest from the usual suspects. But even for those who agree with the general direction of travel of Net Zero there is the question of why is the U.K. in such a rush? We are an insignificant 1% of the world’s CO2 emissions. Three countries account for half the world’s CO2 emissions, China 29%, USA 14% and India 7%. These three countries have far larger carbon footprints than us yet are moving much more slowly to decarbonise. For example, we are proposing to close our fossil fuel power stations whilst these three countries are still building new ones! We are proposing to ban the sale of petrol and diesel cars in 2030 while China is not proposing a ban until 2035 and India is not proposing any ban at all. In the USA it is left to individual states, for example California and New York are proposing bans in 2035 but Florida and Texas are again not proposing any bans at all.
If the U.K. achieved Net Zero tomorrow we are so insignificant that it would make no difference to the CO2 levels in the Earth’s atmosphere. All that is being achieved by our Government’s rush to Net Zero is to adopt bad policies and inflict needless pain on the British people. If we wish to keep to our Net Zero commitment then so be it, although there is no clear democratic mandate for this since all three main political parties support it so it is barely possible to protest. But if we must, at least let us stop the political posturing, the desire to be world leaders, and instead let’s settle for a more sensible and modest goal, namely matching our rate of decarbonisation to that of the major CO2 emitting countries.
Dr. John Fernley is a retired scientist.