SOMEWHERE on your electric kettle or fan heater there is a small plate which tells you how powerful it is, and therefore how much electricity it uses. It will say something like 1,000 or 2,000W. 1 kW (kilowatt) = 1,000 watts, for which we are paying something around 30p/hour or ½p/minute.
Watts are too small a unit for measuring the whole of the UK’s consumption. For instance, as I’m writing this we are all (domestic, industrial and everything else) asking the electricity engineers for about 35.5 gigawatts (GW) to keep us going. One gigawatt = 1,000,000,000 watts.
At 6.30 pm on a dull October evening these 35.5GW are coming from (all in GW): wind turbines 13, solar panels 0 (it’s dark), gas 12, coal 1 (yes!), hydroelectric 0.5, nuclear 4, biomass 1. The remaining 4 from Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium and France.
The National Grid says that the highest demand of the year is 61GW at peak times on a cold day, and it forecasts a need for a 50 per cent increase by 2030. This must be assuming that quite a lot of us will have heat pumps and are running electric cars by then.
The highest demand is usually early evening as everybody gets home and switches everything on. The UK therefore will need the ability to produce possibly 90GW on a bitterly cold dark winter’s evening. But the government has set a target for our power system to have no more coal, oil or gas by 2035.
Our electricity will then have to come from: nuclear, wind, solar, biomass, hydroelectric (water power), and transfers from other European countries. Biomass means generating electricity by burning plant-based fuels. I will now explain how the energy plans for 2035 of the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties are nonsense.
The Tories’ plan is that by 2030 we will have an offshore wind turbine capacity of 50GW, 70GW of solar, plus nuclear.
The UK has five nuclear power stations. Two (Hartlepool 1 and Heysham 1) are to close by 2026. Two more (Heysham 2 and Torness) will shut down by 2028, and the last, Sizewell B, is scheduled to close by 2035. The most recent forecast for Hinkley Point C to come onstream is 2027, providing around 3GW. Sizewell C will take around ten years to build but is nowhere near starting yet. Tories 2035 then: wind 50GW, solar 70GW, nuclear 3GW.
Labour: offshore wind 55GW, onshore wind 35GW, solar 50GW, and presumably the same nuclear (3GW).
Lib Dem: double solar and wind power by 2030.
As you can see, all three rely heavily on the right weather conditions. A recent Royal Society report said: ‘Infrequent but extreme weather can have a major impact on systems that rely heavily on wind and solar power . . . Winter wind droughts, which occur when wind speeds over the North Sea are low, pose the biggest challenge to very high renewable systems because they coincide with cold air over many parts of Central and Northern Europe.’
Oxford University has claimed that ‘Britain’s energy needs could be met entirely by wind and solar’. This showed a dangerous ignorance of basic meteorology. The Royal Society was more cautious in its report: ‘The UK’s demand for electricity could be met by wind and solar energy supported by large-scale storage.’
It’s Monday morning, February 25, 2036. A large high-pressure system is centred over Denmark and has intensified and spread across a large part of north-west Europe over the last ten days. The resulting easterly drift from Europe, a continent well below freezing, has brought hard frost, a layer of grey cloud, very light winds over most of our wind farms and a forecast of snow. This meteorological situation has happened many times in the past.
There is no solar input because it’s dark. Wind farms on the fringe of this weather system are giving us around 3-5GW and nuclear (if Hinkley C has come onstream) 3GW. Our usual partners in Europe that we draw from at times of need can’t spare us anything in these conditions. The country has reached a peak demand of 90GW, as forecast 12 years before, so we need another 80GW or more from somewhere, urgently.
During the early 2020s there were reports of huge batteries being developed which would store all the surplus wind and solar electricity during the summer ready to feed it back to the grid through the winter. But no one imagined they might be needed either over the whole country or for more than a few hours. The back-up power in that future February lasted until the Wednesday morning.
By 8 am on February 27, 2036, the country’s entire electricity supply would have to be shut down, diesel (if there was any) would be fetching £50/litre for anyone lucky enough to have a generator, and those few people left in older houses with a fireplace would be burning their furniture to keep warm. The rest of us? You work it out.
Back in 2023 we have three possibilities. The UK continues to import costly liquefied natural gas (LNG) and would hope to find sufficient available in 2035 to keep our lights on for calm winter days. Or governments become aware of this problem, expand North Sea exploration, push hard on modular nuclear installations, and begin fracking in the late 2020s. Or maybe our leaders will just hope for the best.