Wednesday, December 1, 2021
HomeNewsCoal (not wind) keeps the lights on at COP26

Coal (not wind) keeps the lights on at COP26

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THE UK’s failing renewable strategy is a national embarrassment. Critically low wind power for nearly the whole of Wednesday resulted in extremely high prices, with the two remaining coal units at Drax offering to save the day at £4,000/MWh, nearly 100 times the wholesale price normal before the current crisis started, with many other fossil fuel generators riding to the rescue at staggering prices.

Indeed, November 3 saw a record for the total daily cost of balancing the GB electricity grid. The previous record of £38million, 20 times the current daily average, was smashed by a margin of more than £6million to reach £44.7million.

The causes are easy to identify from the Balancing Mechanism Reporting Service’s chart of the Transmission System fuel mix. Wind power, represented by the dark blue bars, was extremely low for most of the day, with a minimum of only 1GW, under 5 per cent of its capacity.

Figure 1: Generation by Fuel Type on the GB Transmission System for 2 November 2021 to 3 November, by half hour settle period.
Source: BM Reports.

Minimum wind generation coincided neatly with peak demand, and as a result system prices reached stunning levels as can be seen in this BMRS chart:

Figure 2: System Prices on the GB Transmission System for 2 November 2021 to 3 November, by half hour settlement period.
Source: BM Reports.

These prices brought coal and gas back on to the system to save the day, but emergency measures are expensive, and the cost to consumers and the wider economy was little short of horrifying.

When these remaining fossil fuel generators are no longer on the system, the costs of securing supply will rise still further. In fact, batteries and hydrogen storage on the scale required are very unlikely to be built in the time required, and have severe environmental downsides that mean they may never be built at all. Even if actually built, the costs of balancing the system with these technologies will make Wednesday’s record look like a bargain. Grid balancing expenditures in the UK are already ten times their pre-wind and solar levels; in the future they will rise still further, consuming a significant fraction of national wealth.

The UK climate strategy is all but entirely committed to renewables and it isn’t working. With the best will in the world, and however much they care about climate change, neither individual households nor the wider economy can stand these costs. Such problems are well understood in other parts of the world, which is why neither China nor India is following us down the wind and solar route. The costs are economically destabilising.

Fortunately, there is an alternative: unwind the renewables failure and put the UK firmly back on an engineerable Gas to Nuclear strategy, as described by Dr Capell Aris and the present author in their paper, Realism or Utopianism? A proposal for the reform of the Net Zero Policy.

This first appeared in Net Zero Watch on November 3, 2021, and is republished by kind permission.

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John Constable
Dr John Constable directs the UK information charity, Renewable Energy Foundation, as well as writing for a wide range of other sources.

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