Tuesday, July 23, 2024
HomeClimate WatchUnforgivable ignorance at the heart of Net Zero

Unforgivable ignorance at the heart of Net Zero


LABOUR’S GB Energy Plan for Net Zero by 2030 has met with severe and widespread criticism, sometimes for the wrong reasons and mostly without the kind of detail that even now our politicians do not seem to understand.

For instance, one of our more serious newspapers put up three objections: wind and solar are more expensive, not cheaper; insufficient cash is available for scaling up generation; and the record of nationalised industries is very poor. That has completely missed by far the most serious flaw, and is at the same time the unforgivable ignorance at the core of all Net Zero politics.

The author of the piece knows nothing of meteorology and is assuming that the wind will always blow and the sun will always shine. But 2030 will meteorologically be no different from other years, during which the sun will as usual set at night, contributing nothing in winter to the solar panels for the peak evening energy demands. The wind will blow sometimes as gales, other times as a gentle breeze, and occasionally not at all.

Claire Coutinho until very recently was the Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero (and there’s an oxymoron if ever I saw one). She has slated Starmer’s energy plans, pointing out that ‘sometimes the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine’. You have to give her ten out of ten for realising that no government minister has ever taken that into account when drafting all the nonsensical zero-carbon policies since the original Climate Change Act in 2008.

But there is more. Last winter the peak electricity demand (early evening) was hovering around 45 gigawatts (GW). That is a measure of what the UK needed to feed its hunger for electricity at around 6pm on weekdays. Keep that figure in mind. The maximum wind contribution when it was blowing hard was less than half that. There is no solar power available for that time in the evening during the whole of the three winter months as the sun goes to bed early.

Our current wind and sun zero-carbon electricity is backed up by UK nuclear (currently running at 4.6GW), a tiny amount from hydro-electricity, plus maximum transfers from European countries of 9.3GW, although this normally runs much lower. Nearly all the remainder is carbon-based.

Now look ahead to 2030. No gas. No oil. Four of the five nuclear power stations (Hartlepool 1, Heysham 1, Heysham 2 and Torness) will have closed down. The remaining one is Sizewell B which generates 1.2GW. There is a possibility that the first of two 1.6GW reactors at Sizewell C will come on stream in 2030, making the total available 2.8GW. Add 6GW from Europe and we now have about 9GW of zero-carbon electricity. Add (if you must and surely burning wood is not zero-carbon) around 2GW from biomass. Total: 11GW.

Remember we needed 45GW last winter and it was an unusually mild one. If winter 2030 is cold, and lots more people have electric cars and heat pumps, we could be asking wind, sun and nuclear to provide at least 55-60GW. The maximum wind contribution at any one time this last winter was 20GW. That leaves a huge gap of 35-40GW for the sunless evenings. Right! Build more turbines: onshore, off-shore, floating, anywhere. Got six years to do it. Simple. Problem solved. Lots of jobs. What’s wrong with that?

Quite a lot, and we’re back to meteorology. Our weather is variable, as you may have noticed, and this variability is caused by the constant stream of depressions (low pressure) and anticyclones (high pressure) passing over us. Or occasionally stopping. If a depression stays it rains and blows for days. If an anticyclone comes near us the wind dies away into a light breeze or even vanishes altogether. These things can be over one thousand miles across and (to quote our Met Office): ‘Sometimes they can persist for a month or more and completely change the character of the weather.’ This is not to be dismissed as ‘sometimes the wind doesn’t blow’.

If one should arrive in the summer then it brings a great deal of sun but not a lot of wind. Demand for electricity is well down, solar is generating throughout the longer days, so it doesn’t matter quite so much if the wind machines turn slowly or stay motionless. In winter 2030 those same conditions will cause blackouts if we’ve really gone for zero-carbon generation, and they won’t be just for the odd few hours but could go on for a month.

Will small modular reactors save the day, perhaps? Not they won’t, because the Government’s objective has been ‘to select technologies which offer the greatest confidence in being able to make a final investment decision in 2029 and be operational in the mid-2030s’. 

We can fill the seas around us with giant wind turbines but light winds mean low power and no wind means no power. Obvious, surely?

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Ivor Williams
Ivor Williams
Ivor Williams is a freelance writer and has been a fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society since 1984.

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