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Time for a competent electricity generation strategy

On a mild still day last November a serious problem crept up on the UK electricity network.  Darkness approached, lights came on and industrial demand stayed high.  National Grid declared a “Notification of Inadequate System Margin” in order to bring in more generating capacity.  The situation led to the price for extra power rising to 60 times the more usual buy-in price.  With our present electricity market this is an inevitable response to urgent demand when we have hardly any reserve generating capacity now available on the grid to accommodate breakdowns, cold weather and absence of wind (common during cold anti-cyclonic weather).

Why should we worry about this detail?  Because we the consumers pay for the predicament the UK electricity grid now faces.  UK government has created market rules which discourage appropriate investment in new electricity infrastructure.  Investment has not been totally lacking because we now have a very large fleet of wind generators at great cost (through extra charges to customers).  The wind farms exacerbated the recent crisis – there was next to no wind!  This illustrates the fundamental flaw in the government’s renewables strategy.  Wind generation does not displace the need for new generating plant capable of adjustment to match demand.  German experience shows that wind generation on the grid must be matched to about 90% level by standby generation.  We do not have this and strategic planning to provide it has failed.  Nor do we have any prospect of storing the required capacity at reasonable cost on a reasonable timescale.

Here in Scotland we have lost flexible coal-fired Cockenzie power station and we are about to lose flexible coal fired Longannet power station.  Most of our UK wind capacity is in Scotland and we are removing our local generation capacity needed to match the vagaries of wind.  We must not close Longannet until Scotland has replacement flexible generation at a sensible price.  We need this balancing power locally, not imported from England.  Gas replacing coal could reduce carbon emissions in the medium term.  We must also plan for long term replacement of Hunterston and Torness with 4th generation nuclear plant, carbon free and resistant to proliferation (possibly using thorium).  Development of nuclear power technology globally will provide the safe generation capacity we need at a competitive price.

These important energy decisions are not devolved to Scottish Govt, which tends to stand back and deny responsibility for our predicament.  Alex Salmond has made the preposterous statement that the Pentland Firth has enough wave energy for whole of Europe – indeed it might have, but it is neither available at reasonable cost nor transmittable if it were.  To bleat about subsidies being removed from terrestrial wind generation is to ignore the shocking neglect of provision to provide balancing power for all the wind capacity we already have which is destabilising the grid by forcing fossil power stations like Longannet into retirement when they are needed.  Scotland has enjoyed many years of grid security due to the foresight of those who conceived power projects like Cockenzie, Longannet, Hunterston and Torness.  These enormously valuable assets have either gone, or will go soon.  There are no clear plans to replace them with appropriate alternative capacity    Furthermore, in the case of the replacement nuclear capacity provided by Hunterston and Torness, Scottish Government has declared that planning approval will not be granted for nuclear replacement because, according to Alex Salmond nuclear power is dangerous, but he allowed Hunterston a life extension and Torness with receive the same favour.  So is Salmond wrong, stupid, or contemptuous of the public over his allegation that nuclear is dangerous?  Nuclear power is the safest practicable method of generating electricity available to us, demonstrably so from international statistics on safety. 

Last June a Holyrood select committee interviewed National Grid about system charging and security.  The spokesman gave no indication of the growing problems faced by the UK grid during winter conditions.  The incident on November 4th illustrates the cynical attitude of National Grid with its sole obligation to shareholders and not to system security and its customers.  This was a clear statutory obligation on the grid operator until privatisation

In the long term we can only recover from the perilous shortage of dispatchable electricity by building more flexible fossil generation and carbon free nuclear base-load capacity.  We need both in Scotland in the long term.  What about saving the planet in the longer term?  Well, that may be a problem but we shall have longer to think about solutions by new technology we cannot even imagine now.  Our immediate problem is to avert the perilous slide towards winter electricity crises whilst our politicians (English and Scots) play “The King’s New Clothes” as they pursue policies based on faith rather than evidence.   


Keith Burns

The Scotsman - January 2016