THIS follows my previous TCW article, ‘White elephant energy projects that are tomorrow’s HS2’ in which I examined the slow-motion train crash which is the building of the Sizewell C and Hinkley C European Pressurised Reactors.
The pursuit of Net Zero is already under way, destabilising the National Grid and undermining our industrial competitiveness. It is easy in these times of climate hysteria to lose sight of other things that matter. Like cost. Like fairness. Like personal political risk.
First, some context:
From Energy Live News, July 2019: ‘The UK’s largest solar farm could cover an area equivalent to 900 football pitches.
‘The Sunnica Energy Farm, which is a joint venture between Tribus Energy and PS Renewables, has been proposed for construction on land close to the villages of Worlington, Chippenham and Snailwell, on the border between West Suffolk and Cambridgeshire.
‘The 500MW facility potential would be made up of solar panels spread across an area of 1,500 hectares [Note: since trimmed to 1,011 hectares or 2,500 acres of panels] and is expected to be able to supply around 100,000 homes with electricity. Due to its generating capacity, it is classified as a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project, meaning no planning permission is needed from local councils – instead the decision will be made by the Planning Inspectorate, on behalf of the Secretary of State.
‘If approved, construction work could begin in 2022, with completion of the site scheduled for 2025. Luke Murray, Director of Tribus Energy, said: “We agree with the government that there is an overwhelming need for the UK to increase its use of renewable and clean energy to combat climate change. If built, Sunnica would allow for the generation, storage, import and export of up to 500MW”.’
There is some sense in providing our electricity from nuclear plants: if we choose an appropriate technology we can expect a solid, reliable supply of electricity for decades. Not so with solar panels or wind turbines. I sometimes wonder if our political and civil service ruling classes live underground, because they do not seem to have noticed that sometimes the winds don’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. There is a move afoot on the internet to rename ‘renewables’ as ‘unreliables’, a designation that would at least be honest and would reflect the fact that when you most need them they let you down.
The ‘capacity factor’ of solar panels is roughly 10 per cent at our latitude which seems small until we remind ourselves that clouds, winter, night, dust etc reduce output. For most of the time a solar farm, no matter how huge, generates very little for the money. Worse, its output is at a maximum when the UK National Grid needs it least, during sunny days in summer when our demand for energy is at a minimum. On a cold winter’s night solar contributes nothing. At a 10 per cent capacity factor this huge 500MW scheme is actually the equivalent of a 50MW gas or coal generator when measured over a year, maybe a little more. At best we are looking at 65MW.
The Sunnica Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project (NSIP) will, if approved, deliver that average 65MW to a National Grid which runs at about 30,000MW and peaks at more than 42,000MW. This is some meaning of the word ‘significant’ that I haven’t encountered before. Even that paltry figure is an exaggeration: on December 16, 2021, renewables showed their true worth. A high pressure system settled over Europe from southern Norway to Morocco. The wind dropped almost to zero so turbines ceased to turn, or at least most of them did. Some of them turned even when there was not the least gust of wind, powered by mains electricity to make sure the bearings didn’t distort, so not only did the 24GW wind turbine fleet produce very little electricity it was actually using some generated by gas/oil/coal. These winter ‘blocking highs’ sometimes last a day or two, sometimes a week or two. They come with fog which during the day lifts into low stratus or cumulo-stratus, thick enough to bring nightfall early and to reduce the output of our 14GW solar fleet to very little even at midday. In the RAF we used to call them ‘black flag days’ and instead of flying – you could never be sure you’d get back in anywhere if you got airborne – we’d do ground training, catch up on admin, tidy the in-trays. After a week we’d be bored silly and we’d go to the pub.
A persistent blocking high will, if the PM’s wish to make the UK the ‘Saudi Arabia of wind and the Qatar of solar’ comes true, have exactly that effect on British industry. The big energy consumers, proper industry which makes things, will be paid to stay idle. First week, the factories will cope. Second week they will struggle. Third week and the desperate government will have to begin handouts (thank you, taxpayers) to keep the weaker ones alive. German industry, with its lignite-powered electricity grid and gas from Russia, will rejoice.
So how did ‘unreliables’ cope during those days of fog and low cloud just before Christmas? Not well. At lunchtime on the first day of the blocking high the score for all the UK was: wind 0.77GW; solar 1.22GW; coal 2.0GW. The Grid managers found some extant coal generation plants after years of closing down and demolishing them. There could be no clearer illustration of the stupidity of the Net Zero plans that we are being forced to accept. By December 19 it was wind 1.35GW, solar 0.23GW, hardly enough to fire up the lights on our Christmas trees. But there is a saving grace with this type of weather pattern: the meagre supply of solar electrons is vanishingly unimportant and thus is not able to destabilise the National Grid. While the Grid managers had to scratch around for any energy supply they would find that the supply was steady. If renewable electricity input is high but winds are gusty while scudding clouds alternately reveal and veil the sun, the Grid struggles to cope with the abrupt changes. That is probably what will eventually cause the crash that will end the Green energy illusion.
Mention of the Green illusion brings us back to the proposed Sunnica solar ‘farm’, the largest solar blight in England.
‘Farm’ is very much not le mot juste: curse, desecration, plague would be better. Reject the PR smooch of the developers and choose your epithet. Make no mistake, this would be an industrial factory floor of 2,500 acres together with associated battery compounds, a million panels imported from China, villages marooned in a sea of glass. Where once real farms grew the food that England needs, potatoes, carrots, onions, waving wheat and tall maize, this scheme will deliver higher energy prices, an insecure and feeble supply of electricity and devastated property prices for residents. What it will not deliver, as the fog settles in for another week or two and the huge UK wind turbine fleet struggles to produce a feeble couple of GWs, is the secure power supply our Grid needs to make our society work. It cannot reliably keep the lights on, the sewage pumped, the water delivered to our taps, cannot keep the wheels of industry turning, the operating theatres lit and the communication networks online. So why do it? Well, it’s a lot easier and more profitable for everyone than growing wheat or maize or sheep, if by ‘everyone’ you don’t include the householders who will end up paying for it, the taxpayers who will be lumbered with clearing up the mess when the renewables lunacy comes crashing down, and the residents of West Suffolk and East Cambridgeshire whose house values will collapse as heavy lorries rumble through their quiet villages for two years.
Not having been closely involved in monitoring the scheme from the beginning there are some aspects of it I find puzzling. In order to obtain planning permission to blight land with a solar ‘park’, the developer must jump through a series of hoops.
First there is the restriction on the grade of land: the UK is very dependent on food imports and good farming land should not be taken out of production casually. Grades 1, 2 and 3a, are referred to as ‘Best and Most Versatile’ land, and enjoy significant protection from development for anything but farming. Grade 4 and 5 are described as poor and very poor quality agricultural land (Natural England/Defra). One would expect the grading of land to be the responsibility of a government department but apparently not. The developer pays a consultant to assess the grade, which is in these days of privatisation is fair enough, but one would expect some openness about the procedure. ‘Trust but verify’ is a good watchword when immense sums of money are concerned, and in a case like the West Suffolk/East Cambridgeshire development, when millions are involved, it should be uppermost in the minds of any politicians involved in the decision-making process. Those opposed to the development must, obviously, be given the right to check that classification with their own experts. To the best of my knowledge that has not been the case up to now as no permission for access for testing has been given. This alone should be grounds for delaying the planning process.
The push for renewable energy should have changed the UK’s priorities in farming, particularly now that biogas is big business. Light soils, land that requires irrigation, is ideally suited to maize, a crop that has become hugely important in the biofuel business. Fermented and converted into biogas, it can be stored and used to generate heat and electricity when sunlight and wind fail. Over-generation by ‘unreliables’ means producers are already being paid not to provide electricity to the Grid at certain times, and each new development means that this Alice in Wonderland situation can only get worse. Maize grown for biogas would avoid this impost on the consumer’s energy bill. On a breezy, sunny summer’s day the renewables will be bursting with electricity and every other type of generation will be squeezed down to the minimum, but sometimes even that won’t be enough. Wind turbines will feather their blades, the solar panels will . . . do what? What happens to solar-generated electricity when there’s too much of it for the Grid to cope with? You can hardly cover all the panels with duvets. Perhaps that’s the idea behind the battery storage, when the solar farm is being paid not to send its electricity to the Grid then it could be used to charge the batteries. When the sun goes down will they then have priority access to sell what’s in the batteries in the same way that renewables currently elbow aside other forms of generation? If so that will further exacerbate the costs that conventional generation suffers as it ramps up and down to bail out the renewables.
The amount of land allocated by this scheme to Battery Energy Storage Sites (BESS) points towards a considerable battery deployment, but oddly there is no mention of their capacity or even what batteries are involved. No meaningful decisions can be made without knowing the battery technology and scale, and on this point alone the consultation process should be declared null and void.
Batteries store energy. Some batteries do this safely, others don’t and can release their stored energy in a single blast, see here.
Battery technology has developed in a less than optimum way. The big battery providers, particularly Tesla, have gone all out for lithium ion and the rest of the industry is following suit, leaving other storage systems undeveloped at scale, so lithium ion is the most likely to be chosen. It’s what we use in our cars, computers, mobile phones and garden tools, something we are at home with and find reassuring. Reassuring, that is, until we view these videos.
(Please remember that the Sunnica solar farm BESS will contain millions of cells like the one shown flaring in the third video. Millions!)
And from the Daily Mail report: ‘Prof Allison and the co-authors of his report, Dr Edmund Fordham, a fellow of the Institute of Physics, and Professor Sir David Melville, former vice-chancellor of the University of Kent, wrote to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) last year about their concerns. But they were told the batteries were considered “articles” – everyday objects not covered by the Control of Major Accident Hazards regulations. It means these plants, or battery energy storage systems, as they are known, are unregulated under UK law. “This throws the entire responsibility on to the fire service,” Prof Allison says. “I wouldn’t want to live within a mile of one”.’
It gets worse. A lithium ion battery fire is extremely difficult to put out, reigniting even in the absence of oxygen. It emits clouds of hydrogen fluoride gas which combine with water in the air to form hydrofluoric acid aerosols, one of the nastiest chemical hazards in the book, so while the fire keeps burning there will be clouds of this extremely dangerous chemical drifting downwind. Within a mile of one of the BESS on fire? I wouldn’t like to drive past one on the A14 – these clouds could drift for miles which should worry the Newmarket stud farms. And if I were the Chief Fire Officer for Suffolk I’d be very unhappy indeed.
In the end it will come down to politics and political risk. By defining this as a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project, the Secretary of State has taken the risk on himself.
The Health and Safety Executive (someone remind me what it does) has washed its hands of the safety problem, leaving it to the two local councils, West Suffolk and East Cambridgeshire District Council, to address a dangerous situation far above their pay grade, one which should be handled by the HSE and its responsible Secretary of State. None of the residents of Isleham, Red Lodge, Worlington, Freckenham, Barton Mills, Snailwell, Fordham, Burwell, Tuddenham, the Mildenhall USAF airfield, Chippenham, Kentford, north Newmarket and Landwade will feel sure that they are safe from another Grenfell until the responsible politician is personally engaged and is seen to be so.
Step forward the Rt Hon Kwasi Kwarteng MP, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Since the entire political class has been enthusiastically embracing every edict from Parliament’s Climate Change Committee, and as such are all equally culpable for the energy crunch (high prices, unreliable delivery and strategic dependency on an increasingly imperialistic Russia, a flaky US and a Middle East which is once more becoming a risk to world stability), the Secretary of State may find himself short of allies in his bid to become the next Prime Minister but one. All politicians look for a scapegoat when things turn nasty, and when the lights flicker they most certainly will be demanding blood. Mr Kwarteng is naively offering himself as a hostage to fortune even though he can hardly claim he wasn’t warned. Sir Humphrey would describe his decision to let this application proceed with minimum supervision as ‘courageous’. Others will be less polite.
Mr Kwarteng should apply the lessons from his PhD in economic history which may alert him to what happens to economies that ignore reality and pursue ideological goals regardless of practicality and cost. Hint: it’s the same thing that happened this autumn to UK energy suppliers when our government constrained their ability to respond to economic pressures. They went bust. Solar power in the UK is an ideology which will never provide the solution to our energy needs. If HMG continues to back it then there will be an inevitable political cost, and anyone who ignores the risks of further antagonising voters in a constituency which already fosters doubts about an errant MP deserves a visit from the men in grey suits. But all is not lost for the Secretary of State. There is a political way out even though he has been cornered by HMG’s STEM-illiterate climate virtue-signalling. Tin-can football.
Restart the whole planning process.
The excuses are there: the public consultation was flawed because a major feature of the initial application, the chosen battery technology, was not specified and so no risk assessment has been placed before the public; consultation was carried out while Covid restrictions made it almost impossible for the residents affected to fully engage with the procedure; the risks of Grid destabilisation by solar input has not been rigorously examined; representatives of local residents have not been given access to check the agricultural classification of affected land; there is no assessment of BESS risks by an independent body not affiliated to the Planning Inspectorate or the Health and Safety Executive; Fire Service responsibility has not been properly defined and its readiness assessed; the scheme’s very low energy output does not meet the criteria for a NSIP.
That’s the political solution – a hefty boot into the long grass, a strong speech about Grid stability or food imports and the problem recedes to beyond the next general election.
So, Mr Kwarteng, do you feel lucky?
With invaluable assistance from the Say No to Sunnica action group which is coordinating residents’ response to the solar farm’.