Tuesday, June 18, 2024
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One energy breakthrough (only another 280 to go)


SOME good news on the energy front. The supplier SSE has announced that it hopes to build a new pumped hydro-electric scheme at Coire Glas in Scotland. 

Pumped hydro is an energy storage process. In times of low demand and high supply (i.e. when the wind blows) it uses the electricity to pump water to a high-level reservoir. In times of low supply and high demand the water is released to flow back downhill, the pumps become generators and electricity is produced. It’s a proven, well-used technology and is about the only sensible way to balance the gaps between the intermittent supply of wind and solar with the more predictable demand.

That’s the end of the good news.

The UK’s political leadership has been embracing wind power since before David Cameron first hugged a hoodie (in 2006). Despite the obvious problems of intermittency – which at the moment can be solved at scale only by pumped hydro – the UK’s pumped hydro capacity has not increased since 1996, during which time the generating capacity of wind has gone from zero to about 10GW with plans to increase that to 50GW. How and why anyone allowed this without demanding storage development in parallel is a further demonstration of the abject failure of government. (Yes, there are some grid scale batteries. In total they could power the UK for about ten minutes.)

This is not a quick solution either – unsurprising since it requires lots of tunnelling through granite. SSE hopes to have it running by 2030. Given the complexities of tunnelling and geology there’s a fair amount of technical risk too.

But the real problem is scale. The article referenced above says the scheme is forecast to be able to power three million homes for a day. This all-too-common PR-speak masks the reality that the UK has some 25million homes, which obtain just 20 per cent of their energy from electricity. It also ignores industrial electricity demand (which is about 50 per cent more than domestic demand). I’ve done the maths and it comes out that Coire Glas could power the whole UK for about a day.

Of course, that’s today’s UK – the one that gets more than 75 per cent of its energy from fossil fuels. Replacing all that, electrifying transport and the rest of the net zero transformation trebles the average UK energy demand to 90GW, which means that Coire Glas could run the UK for about eight hours. While that’s a huge advance on the ten minutes that the UK’s current battery storage delivers, it’s not enough to cope with a shortage of wind which, as we’ve just seen, can last more than a week.

Boris Johnson’s ambition was 50GW of wind power. To cover one week’s calm would therefore require 8,400 GWh of storage. That’s 280 times Coire Glas at £1billion or so each. That’s a capital cost of (another) £300billion (or, in Mr Johnson’s terms, three HS2s). That may well be very good value, but that cash has to come from somewhere. The spend does not end there. Clearly an awful lot of electricity transmission lines need building. They’re not cheap either.

Perhaps more challengingly, 280 sites need to be found. The combination of a suitable height difference and the geological requirements is rare; it’s entirely possible that there are insufficient sites in the UK. Which in turn means that the crucial energy storage component of harnessing wind power can be found only from the newer technologies such as hydrogen. To rephrase, we’ve been launched on an energy policy with absolutely no guarantee that it can work affordably.

We’re currently enduring a demonstration of the effect of unaffordable energy, and it’s not pretty. Successive governments have set us on a path to economic devastation through pandering to Greta, Extinction Rebellion and their addiction to net zero. This winter and the subsequent few years are about to demonstrate the human and economic costs. For all their promises, Sunak and Truss  were part of the catastrophic decision-making that got us here and they are now powerless to prevent the consequences. The only party to have appreciated this is Reform. 

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Patrick Benham-Crosswell
Patrick Benham-Crosswell
Patrick Benham-Crosswell is a former Army officer who has spent the last 30 years in commerce. He is the author of Net Zero: The Challenges, Costs and Consequences of the UK's Zero Emission Ambition. He has a substack here. He is the Reform Parliamentary Candidate for Swansea West.

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