Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Will we all freeze in the dark this winter?

We’ve had a number of people warning us about blackouts this winter. Strange. I read a report 10 years ago called “Mind the Gap” which predicted that the lights would go out in 2015. Now we’ve heard from the heads of npower and edf, and the National Grid has just published its annual Winter Outlook Report. Ed Davey, Environment Secretary, has told us that there’s absolutely no cause for alarm, so now we know it’s really serious! Or do we?

Our problem is that electricity demand grows year by year and our power stations get older and older. As they get older they get less reliable, and this year we’ve had two major fires and four stations taken off-line for urgent boiler repairs. If there’s another breakdown, will we be plunged into darkness? And is darkness all we have to worry about?

National Grid is responsible for the distribution of gas and electricity across the United Kingdom. It doesn’t generate power and it doesn’t sell gas or electricity to consumers. It just provides the energy super-highway, and the generators and the energy companies pay to use it. National Grid must balance supply with demand and ensure that power is available wherever and whenever it’s needed. December and January are the months of greatest demand; hence the Grid publishes a Winter Outlook Report. The press have made much of the suggestion that the safety margin, the amount by which supply exceeds maximum demand, has fallen from 17% three years ago to only 4.1% now. 

These statistics, as always, have to be looked at in context. The 4.1% margin is against Average Cold Spell (ACS) demand, the coldest part of winter. Winter weather is unpredictable, so we could have a cold spell which lasts longer and is even colder than predicted. National Grid admits that it cannot predict the weather, but then, even the Met Office struggles at times. Apart from bad weather, the other risk factor is power station breakdowns. Although some are much bigger, the average power station accounts for around 1% of supply. So theoretically we could lose four of them, in the coldest weather, and still struggle by. Of course, this is a very unlikely scenario, and National Grid has in any case taken steps to increase the safety margin. Three power stations that were mothballed have been recommissioned and placed on standby. Two of them are gas turbine plants and can come up to full power very rapidly. 

On the demand side, National Grid has agreements with major industrial users to accept power cuts if usage exceeds available supply. Taken together, these measures bring the safety margin, in the worst weather, up to 6.1%.

So is everything all right then? Probably a lot better than the tabloid press might make you think, but there are surely underlying problems. As economic growth continues, energy demand increases. Many of our power stations are due for replacement, but energy policy from all governments has been fragmented and vague. It’s difficult to plan a power station with a 30 or 40 year life if the politicians’ horizon goes no further than the next election. My prediction is that things can only get worse, because there is no quick fix to a shortage of generating capacity. Even with a 6.1% safety margin National Grid can’t rule out localised blackouts, although they do expect to hold them to no more than 36 minutes. 

The popular reaction to blackouts is to rush out and buy candles, and that is certainly what we did when we had regular power cuts in the 1970s. The world has changed dramatically since then. We didn’t have mobile phones and we didn't have cash machines. We certainly didn’t have computers. Many families still kept warm in front of open fires. Remember, you may have gas central heating, but it goes off when the electricity goes off because all the controls are electric. Quite a lot of infrastructure has back-up generation. For example, you’ll usually find a diesel generator tucked away at the back of your supermarket. Generators support mobile phone masts - the remoter ones, anyway, - but a blackout is likely to close ATMs. If the weather turns really cold, make sure you stock up on cash. And it might be worth buying a camping gas stove so you can have a hot drink. And a wind-up lantern is so much safer than candles! In business, data is your most precious resource. You do always back up, don't you? Keep your laptop and your phone charged up. And a UPS - uninterruptible power supply - should be in place to let your larger computers power down smoothly if the power goes off.

All this is about electricity, but National Grid is responsible for gas as well and we use a lot of that in a cold winter; for industry, for central heating and for generating electricity. We still get gas from the North Sea, but it’s declining and we now import a significant proportion of our gas. The predictions of the Grid’s Winter Outlook are that we have a substantial margin of reserves and production over maximum demand - around 24%. The key risk factor here is political. Russia is a major supplier of gas to Europe and much of it is routed via Ukraine. If Russia restricts supplies to Ukraine, as it has done in the past, then the rest of Europe suffers. The UK does not import gas directly from Russia, but if supplies to Europe were cut any imports to the UK from the Netherlands or Belgium would probably be cut as well. 

The Winter Outlook takes this into account and assumes that any shortages would be made up by increased imports of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG). Last year just under 20% of our imported gas was LNG and most of that came from Qatar in the Persian Gulf - not the most stable region politically. National Grid makes the point that we could maintain supplies by increasing these imports, but only by paying world prices which are highly likely to escalate if there is a shortage. As far as gas supply is concerned, we’re in a secure position. Cost is something else, so turn down the thermostat a degree or two, fit that double glazing and roof insulation, upgrade the boiler and enjoy as much heat as you can from as little gas as possible.

The supply and distribution of energy to the UK is clearly a highly sophisticated operation. Now there’s another factor to add to the risks from breakdowns, bad weather and politics. This week the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its fifth assessment report (AR5), warning that we must cut co2 emissions by drastically reducing fossil fuel use. Launching the report, Ban Ki-moon, UN General Secretary, said, “Science has spoken. There is no ambiguity in their message. Leaders must act. Time is not on our side.” At the moment, well over half the electricity in the UK is generated from fossil fuels - coal and gas. The UN urges nations to divest from fossil fuels and invest in renewables to prevent global warming from exceeding a 2℃ rise. The report shows how this path can improve economic performance. 

This is a big issue for the UK, where the government is offering substantial tax incentives and subsidies for the development of fracking. Fracking produces oil and gas securely, free from interference by foreign governments, but oil and gas are fossil fuels. Should we be going this way, when even the Rockefeller Foundation, based on the fortunes made from Standard Oil, is selling off its fossil fuel investments and investing in renewables? Surely the tax breaks and subsidies should be going into continued development of renewables. 

Whatever happens, we need some hard and urgent decisions made by government. Unfortunately the present government seems inclined to ignore the evidence, pushing on with fracking, talking about “green crap” and the “green blob” and with a former environment minister calling for our Climate Change Act to be suspended. Despite all this we need decisions. 

Decisions which will determine whether or not we spend our future winters freezing in the dark!