There was a serious black out incident in South Australia last month due to high winds. Inevitably the anti-wind farm brigade were quick to blame wind farms and inevitably the media (who don’t know any better) were soon parrotting these claims. Is any of this true? No, not in the least. South Australia has seen a significant rise in renewables, in particular wind power over the last few years. They are now supplying 27% of the state’s electricity. However the fact is that the wind farms stayed up and running through the high winds and that it was the collapse of several powerlines that actually caused the black outs.This is what worries me about UK energy policy. On the one hand there would be a silver lining to any possible power cut, as it would allow experts like me to rub it in the government’s face how they’d screwed up royal by failing to adopt a long term energy plan. I mean one of the first things Theresa May did in office was to close down the DECC! The UK should be prioritising energy efficiency in the first instance along side a strong push to roll out as much renewable energy as we can. Other countries have shown the way. At the same time there’s a need to build in more energy storage and distributed on demand generation (i.e. more CHP, ideally biomass powered at the expense of large fossil fuel power stations) to reinforce the grid against any possible interruptions to supply. However my fear is that the tabloids will inevitably blame wind energy and renewables, regardless of the evidence to the contrary.
And it almost happened a few years ago. In the middle of a powerful storm in October 2013, several power lines came down which connected one of the UK’s nuclear plants to the grid. This forced the plant’s two reactors offline. To make matters worse another nuclear station was also offline for repairs (this is the problem with the UK’s ageing fleet, they are much more fault prone) so the UK suddenly was left with a short fall of several GW’s of power. Fortunately, there was enough spare capacity between gas , hydroelectric and wind power to plug the gap. Although a number of the UK’s wind farms did have to derate as the winds peaked (although this didn’t happen to all of them and not all at the same time), given the high winds the UK’s wind turbines were doing quite well through that night.However, the headlines in the newspapers next day wasn’t “wind & hydro power helps saves the UK from nuclear power black out”. Instead they focused on how one small wind turbine (the sort which a farmer might use to go off grid, not the big multi megawatt units) had fallen down in the high winds. They focused on how some of the wind farms went down for an hour or two (again not all of them and not all at the same time). Very few even mentioned the fact that a nuclear plant had gone offline and indeed was still offline a week later. Fewer still mentioned the reason why it was shut down (nuclear powerplants need electricity from the grid to power cooling pumps and control systems, they are forced to shut down and switch to backup generators if there is any interruption to their power supply, Fukushima was caused by the failure of those generators due to a Tsunami).
My fear is that regardless of the facts (we after all in the post-truth era), if there is any sort of a power cut in the UK, instead of accepting they need to change policy, instead the Tories will use it as a battering ram to implement the changes they want. They’ll probably try to stop power companies installing wind farms, ban solar panels, etc.. Keeping in mind there’s still some construction ongoing despite the subsidy cuts because energy companies see wind energy as a hedge against future high gas prices. They’ll throw yet more money at the nuclear lobby and shale gas drillers. And of course they’ll renege on the Paris climate treaty. Will this solve anything? Of course not, Hinkley C has taken ten years to plan and will take at least another ten to build (assuming its not delayed again) and produce some of the most heavily subsidized and expensive electricity in UK history. How in blue blazes will more of them solve a power shortage this winter or the next?
So there is a need to confront this reality in advance, the UK energy policy is a recipe for disaster. It is going to lead to less reliable and more expensive energy in future. It is going to make meeting the obligations placed on the country by the Paris accords impossible. This is a known fact, it has been pointed out to the government on numerous occasions. If there’s a power cut this winter, or anytime over the next few winters, it is the not the consequence of adding more renewables to the grid (not sure if the Tories have noticed but renewables “generate” energy, how can having more of something that generates power cause power cuts?), but the failure of the government to come up with a coherent policy, as well as their constant pandering to the climate denial brigade.