I happened to be watching the status of the UK grid the other day and I noticed how solar power was a one point running at just short of 9 GW’s, which given the grid was drawing about 30 GW’s at the time meant solar was supplying just over a quarter of the UK’s power for some good proportion of the day. This also meant that solar alone was for part of the day outperforming natural gas output.
At the same time, wind and other renewables weren’t adding a further 15-20%, meaning the UK grid was meeting about half its demand from renewables. Nuclear’s not been doing so well the last few months, Hunterston (in Scotland) is shut down (cracks in its core, fixing it might push the operator into negative equity, hence its not clear if it will ever restart). So nuclear has been running at about 20%. So this means that for a good proportion of the day, the UK was 70% powered by low carbon energy sources, with the balance met by either gas fired stations and imports. No coal was running, but then again coal is on death’s door, in the UK right now.
Now okay, this was only for a few hours and yesterday was a very sunny day, so its only to be expected solar would do well. However, I noticed the same sort of thing starting to happen in Scotland a couple of years back (but with wind being the driver rather than solar). Renewables would hit +50%, the naysayers would say, oh that’s just a one off, so what. Well nowadays “only” getting 50% from renewables in Scotland would be considered sub-par. The latest figures suggest the average is running closer to 68% renewable for 2017.
The Scottish government has a target of 100% renewable electricity by 2020 and 30% of all energy use to be renewable by then as well. Currently there’s enough in the pipeline that its possible they’ll hit that target. But even if they don’t, its not going to be off by much. Indeed, once you factor in Scotland nuclear plants (running at about 33% of power, although closer to 20% recently due to the aforementioned issues), Scotland’s already more or less met its target from low carbon sources. Although that said, relying on nuclear is probably not a good idea, given the age of the reactors. Even if Hunterston manages to dodge the bullet this time, sooner or later its going to have to shut, as will Torness and the end for both will almost certainly come within the next ten years. But like I said, there’s plenty of capacity in the pipeline to pick up the slack.
My point is that the naysayers who said that getting anymore than X amount of the UK’s power from solar/renewables is impossible, well you’ve been proven wrong. But isn’t it all horribly expensive and going to make the grid less reliable? Well not necessarily so, indeed, as Blomberg point out, solar can have the effect of reducing peak demand (from fossil fuel plants), which will ultimately reduce overall electricity prices (helping to offset the cost of installation of all those solar panels).
Granted, there’s still quite a bit to go. Its not sunny right now for example (but it is a bit breezy), so we’re probably going to need to add more energy storage at some point (but, as I’ve pointed out before, you don’t necessarily need to add as much as the naysayers claim). Alternatively, reinforce the grid, add more powerlines and interconnectors with neighbouring countries, manage the load side a bit better (to avoid sudden un-predicted jumps in demand), or just diversify your renewable load. As yesterday proved, solar works fine in the UK, so adding more of PV would help. Having a range of sources helps, particularly when it comes to the likes of tidal, biomass and hydro which are more predictable.
But my point is that there are solutions. Never mind Scotland getting 100% of its electricity from renewables, a UK that is 100% renewable is certainly a possibility. Its just a matter of the political will being there to do so.
And keep in mind that while Scotland’s government has been supportive of renewables, the opposite is very much true down in England, where the Tories have gone so far as to start taxing solar power, while bending over backwards to encourage fracking, diesel farms and massive subsidies to Hinkley C (despite every independent expert they’ve asked telling them its a terrible idea).
So what’s perhaps most surprising is that solar and renewables are doing in well in the UK not thanks to lots of government support, but despite Tory attempts to kill the industry off.