Monday, March 25, 2013

Keeping the Lights On

Back in October I predicted major power cuts on 18th January 2013. In the event, some 5,000 people in Wales lost their electricity as the result of bad weather, but nothing catastrophic happened. This weekend's weather caused power cuts for 10,000 people in Scotland and up to 200,000 in Northern Ireland. 

There are two issues here. One is the ability of the network to stand up to bad weather. The other is whether the system can cope with increased demand. 

Running out of Gas?
Saturday's papers were full of government denials that we're going to run out of gas. Apparently we have some of the smallest reserves of any country in Europe, and they are down to 10% of capacity. That's not a problem as long as gas flows into the system at least as fast as it's used up. The key issue is where we get the gas from. Yes, we still get about half of what we use from the North Sea. About 20% comes from Norway and about the same from the Middle East in ships. All our gas, whether it comes from the North Sea or elsewhere, is governed by world prices. Middle East gas - mainly from Qatar - is also governed by Middle East politics. The US is rapidly increasing its domestic production by exploiting shale gas and by 2030 could no longer need the Middle East. Who will attempt to keep the peace there then? Norway is a friendly, stable nation but its government already recognises that its gas may last little more than another 10 years. The biggest reserves in Europe are in Russia, at the end of a very long pipeline from the UK. In recent years Russia has been in dispute with Ukraine and others about gas prices and has simply cut the gas off - affecting innocent countries down the pipeline as well.

Powering the Future
In view of all this it's a bit of a worry that George Osborne has announced a policy of building a fleet of gas power stations. They are cheap and quick to build, they can react rapidly to fluctuating demand, but although they are much cleaner than coal they still burn fossil fuels and still create CO2 emissions. And where is the gas going to come from, George? Why not shale gas like they've discovered in the US? George announced special deals for "fracking" in the budget, and fracking installations which extract the gas from shale are likely to be fast-tracked for planning. (Locals will not be involved in the planning decision.) Why not? I'll tell you why not.
  1. Although there has been test drilling, shale gas reserves have not been proved in the UK.
  2. There are suspicions that the test drilling caused an earth tremor near Blackpool. 
  3. There are fears - yet to be proved or disproved - that the fracking process can contaminate the water table. Certainly it generates a lot of dirty water which has to be dealt with somehow.
  4. Shale gas, like any natural gas, is a fossil fuel and releases CO2 when burnt.

In the short term the question is whether existing systems and existing supplies will keep the lights on in the face of this terrible weather and increased demand. (Did anyone ever predict the consequences of rising emissions and resulting climate change? Wasn't there something about unseasonable weather? Did you read that Sir John Beddington, retiring chief government scientist, says that climate change is more serious than ever?) 

The Nuclear Option
Of course planning permission was awarded last week for a new nuclear power station at Hinckley Point, but that will take at least 10 years to build. All but one of our existing nuclear plants are scheduled to close by 2020. 

And if we run out?
What will happen if the nation does run out of gas? Probably, the lights will go out. That's because it's very much easier to turn off a major gas user like a power station than thousands of individual users. Let's hope it doesn't happen, because the consequences would be horrific. Last time we had nationwide power cuts - which, incidentally, brought down the government- was in the 1970s. At that time we had no ATMs, no computers, no barcode scanners, no electronic tills, no mobile phones. Which of those would you be happy to go without? And remember, your gas central heating has electronic controls and an electric pump. You won't just be sitting in the dark, you'll be sitting in the cold as well!

Cheer up, it's Spring!  

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