Will the lights go out in the UK?

Photo by David E. Scherman. Taken in Piccadilly, London, during the wartime Blackout, February 1944.
Photo by David E. Scherman. Taken in Piccadilly, London, during the wartime Blackout, February 1944.

Quite recently Ofgem’s outgoing CEO Mr Buchanan, warned us about electricity shortages and rising energy prices. For the limited attention span of busy media and public that may have come as a surprise. But it wasn’t really one. Mr Buchanan, was in fact following up from Ofgem’s earlier press release on the same issue. Ofgem reported that the electricity margin could fall from 14% in 2012 to the dangerously low 4% in 2015/16. But how did we arrive here?

In brief, the dirtiest UK coal-fired power plants are shutting down as a result of the Large Combustion Plant Directive (2001/80/EC). No, the EU is not to blame. The Directive was rightly agreed to control the very harmful SO2 and NOX emissions. Notice, it was agreed in 2001 and by the way it succeeded similar Directives of 1994 and 1988. There was plenty of time to prepare. Scottish Power’s Cockenzie (1200MW), E.On’s Kingsnorth (1940MW) and RWE’s Didcot A (2000MW) are taken off the grid. That’s a significant capacity loss but there are several other coal-fired power plants remaining in operation in the UK. Tighter environmental regulations will probably take them out of the market by, or before, reaching their lifespan. New coal-fired plants in the UK will have to be fitted with CCS systems which do not exist yet. Germany seems to have different views on that matter planning to open about 12GW of coal-fired capacity by 2020.

Germany has to do that to substitute the 23% capacity loss their will suffer after shutting down all their nuclear power plants by 2022. Which brings me to the next problem of the UK’s power sector. That of underinvestment in nuclear power. In fact, there’s no investment at all. After all nuclear players deserted the UK’s “new nuclear scene” we’re left with EDF demanding guaranteed prices for life. The Government tries to offer that in a politically correct way and in the meanwhile pushes back to 2030 (instead of 2025) its plan for 16GW of new reactors. EDF is probably less in a hurry than the Government should be. While any new capacity is being delayed the Government will have to choose between switching the lights out or extending the already extended lifespan of the existing nuclear fleet. Did I mention that nearly all of the UK’s operating nuclear fleet belongs to EDF?

This stranglehold was identified in 2009 in a DECC’s report “The UK Low Carbon Transition Path“. The Analytical Annex, found low levels of capacity margin and significant expected energy unserved by 2025. It seems that in 2013, things only look worse.

Let me then return to the initial question. Will the lights go out? As someone who believes that power-cuts are entirely unacceptable at these times and part of the world I’ll say that it won’t happen. It is not my faith in existing policies that is responsible for this optimism. I just tend to believe that since the capacity exists (even if retired) it will be used for generation. We may also need to import as much electricity as possible from the continent. We may finally need to use more open cycle gas turbines than we planned.

Quite shamefully, we’ll also have to bare the environmental and financial costs for these choices. The government promised to act over the looming energy gap but they don’t seem to have a clear plan, let alone a plan B…

PS1: Even though it certainly reads like it, I’m not frustrated only with the Coalition government. It doesn’t look to me that the previous Governments treated this matter with the sense of urgency it deserves either.

(this article was originally posted at the author’s personal blog “Energy and Sustainable Business“)

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Markus Wohlfeil says:

    While the blog raises some important points about the flawed UK energy policies, the author’s obvious advocacy of (and blind faith in) nuclear energy as THE solution to our woes sounds a bit naive.

    The much voiced safety issue with nuclear power plants – though valid – has received a disproportionate focus, but is actually not real problem. The main problem is much more pragmatic and ordinary. So ordinary, in fact, that none of the nuclear energy supporters in the UK even bothers to mention it (most are probably not even aware of it).

    The main problem is the disposal & storage of the nuclear waste generated by those plants. The lethal radition of nuclear waste lasts for more than 2000 years (Actually, 10000+ years, but 2000 are definitely lethal!). Yet, The UK has NO existing strategy on dealing with its nuclear waste as it is; never mind coping with any future waste. The current solution has been to pay other countries for taking it of their hands (in the past, it was even France who then paid Germany to store it in the infamous Schacht Konrad in Gorleben).

    The facts given about Germany aren’t so accurate either. Germany is not exiting nuclear energy because of “irrational” safety fears about their nuclear energy plants (though there have been numerous incidents in the past), but because the 5 former salt mines in which the nuclear waste is disposed (and containers in which it is locked) are proving to be unsafe. Indeed, the Asse disposal has already collapsed with water breaking slowly in and is currently in the prices of a very expensive relocation and clean-up operation (state-funded only, of course). As several “safe” containers have started to leak after barely 30-40 years, there is currently an ongoing threat that drink water might become contaminated with lethal radiation levels. In addition, the infamous Schacht Konrad has recently also been found on the verge of collapsing. Hence the question, if these two oldest storage facilities for nuclear waste already become unsafe after 50 years, while the “safe” containers start leaking after 30 years, what can we expect to happen in the other 1950+ years that are still to come? How can we advocate nuclear energy when we haven’t got a clue of how to deal safely with the waste we generate – and not leave it to future generations in 200 years to deal with the consequences of certain individuals’ short-sighted stupidity?

    Also, Germany’s energy policy is using the coal solution only as a backup, the real move is towards recyclable energy sources such as wind, water and sun. In fact, Schleswig-Holstein, Hamburg, Bremen and parts of Niedersachsen are already fully supplied by wind and water energy. Moreover, the German minister for the environment as well as the minister for enterprise – both former advocates of nuclear energy and stern critics of alternative energy – had suffered the embarrassment in December 2012 to confirm that an off-shore wind farm in the North Sea near Sylt was generating 5x more energy than the supply network (previously supplied by the nuclear plant in Buxtehude) could cope with… Here is where the future of energy supply really lies. However, germany – or better certain federal states that were in the 1980s governed by Social Democrats (Labour) and Green Party coalitions – had invested in these industries & research for more than 30 years and is now reaping the rewards, while the UK can’t really be bothered to give it a real go now (rather than paying lip-service with the intention to see it fail).

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