Thursday, May 23, 2024
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Net zero chance of coping with storms


THE recent power cuts in the North East of England in the wake of Storm Arwen were a timely reminder that much of our electricity system is rather fragile. While gas is delivered through a system that is safely buried underground, the wires that bring power to homes and businesses are – in rural areas at least – carried overhead. In a storm, therefore, we tend to get power cuts, but not gas cuts.

The robustness of the gas system meant that – mercifully – many of those cut off after Arwen swept through could at least still cook, provided they could lay their hands on a box of matches. A wood-burning stove might allow them to keep at least one room warm.

But for how much longer? As the lemming-like rush towards the abyss of decarbonisation proceeds, it is clear that electricity system vulnerability is going to become a serious issue – one that threatens lives.

Consider this: after days without an electricity supply, many in the North East were still able to charge mobile phones in their cars, enabling them to call friends or authorities for help. They could still get to the shops to buy food, or even move in with friends and relatives who still had power.

How will this work in a net zero world? Would your electric car battery have any charge when you woke up the morning after the storm? If the power cut was in the evening, then almost certainly not – most people will schedule EV charging for the middle of the night, when power is cheapest (and indeed off-peak charging may soon be compulsory). Moreover, ahead of a major storm, grid managers are likely to switch off all EV chargers remotely. If they didn’t, the demand from millions of people worried about the possibility of power cuts, and all trying to top up their batteries at the same time, would bring down the grid.

So, after a future Storm Arwen, tens of thousands of people would wake up to find themselves stuck: no getting food or medicine from the shops, no escape to friends and relatives, no visits to emergency relief centres. Through policy foolishness, an entirely natural winter storm could become a manmade disaster.

It’s not just the possibility of power cuts. Motorways regularly grind to a halt in snowstorms. This is highly inconvenient for those affected, but such events are rarely lethal. Cars fuelled by petrol and diesel can tick over for a long time, keeping passengers warm and safe until the road is cleared. Not so for electric cars – their battery capacity can be reduced by more than 10 per cent in cold weather, and that figure can increase to more than 40 per cent if heaters are used. Many of those stuck in drifts would soon be at risk of freezing to death. In a net zero world, snow on a motorway therefore becomes a life-threatening risk, and potentially for quite large numbers of people at the same time.

Then, when the road is finally open again, everyone will need to sit tight while the authorities bring in a fleet of generators – powered by chip oil, no doubt – to get all the dead batteries charged up. Who knows how many hours or days this might take?

Stay warm, folks.

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Andrew Montford
Andrew Montford
Andrew Montford is the Director of Net Zero Watch. He can be found on Twitter at @adissentient.

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