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« Culture and Media Committee on 28gate | Main | Bitter for some - Josh 219 »

Between the lines of the energy market

Professor Jonathan Stern has written a letter to the Guardian about the possibility of the lights going out. Apparently it's not going to happen, a view that tallies with the view from the markets I reported last week. While I'm not entirely convinced that price spikes will be enough to prevent blackouts, I think it's fair to say that forcing people to switch the lights off through pricing and having their lights switched off for them when the grid can't deliver amounts to the same thing anyway, so it's probably not worth arguing about.

There is, however, plenty in Stern's letter that raises eyebrows:

It's quite correct that a great deal of old coal and nuclear capacity will be retired over the next few years. For the rest of this decade, that will be replaced by as much renewables as can be built (mostly wind) and gas. Most of the gas-fired power generation which is needed has already been built; around 4GW is currently not in operation because it is unprofitable and most of the rest is running at far lower load factors than in previous years. If "the lights threaten to go out", existing gas-fired generation will run at higher load factors and more can quickly be built.

I wasn't aware that any gas fired power stations were not in operation because it was unprofitable to run them, although I know this is happening in Germany. I guess this is the double whammy of low coal prices and subsidised wind power. Presumably the plan is that once the coal fired stations are shut down then gas will pick up again. The idea that we have built all the gas-fired capacity we need strikes me as highly suspect, given that wind power needs 1:1 backup for when conditions are still.

Stern's thoughts on shales are little more than wishful thinking though:

Towards the end of the decade, the UK may produce some shale gas if drilling and fracking prove to be environmentally acceptable; the volumes will not be great and are unlikely to be "cheap" in comparison to imports.

Given the likely size of the resource and the thickness of the shales, it is most likely that the volumes will be large, if the country chooses to exploit them.

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Reader Comments (39)

As of today we are running:

15GW coal, 9.3 GW Gas and 2.5 GW wind


So if you remove the coal you need an extra 15GW of gas to cover and today is just a normal day. If the wind dies down as if did yesterday you would need 17.5GW of gas to cover the load and this is a warmish Spring day. You would need another 10GW to cover the winter peak.

Correct me if I am wrong but I don't believe that there is 27.5 GW of Gas power standing idle or in the process of being built.

So we need to keep the coal fires burning!

May 8, 2013 at 9:11 AM | Unregistered CommenterEdwin Crockford

If you drill deep enough into DECC you will find the current BGS estimate of shale gas; if the environmental movement deems it acceptable for you to do so

May 8, 2013 at 9:21 AM | Unregistered Commenterssat

First reaction: the monstrous anti-carbon empire built upon the artificial alarm about CO2 is under attack on many fronts, and therefore has to be defended on many fronts. Do the lords of this empire need to be told to man the barricades? I think not. They did not get to where they are today by being either naive or insensitive to what moves public opinion. The empire has taken heavy hits on bio-fuels, on electric cars, on subsidy scandals for solar and suchlike companies (esp. in the States, but also in Germany and Spain as well I think), and the public detestation of windfarms seems to be growing. Combine that with the long spell in which global mean temperatures have refused to rise in line with the CO2 (well fancy that!), hurricanes have failed to increase, sea level rise has failed to accelerate, children in the UK still knowing what snow is, BBQ summers remaining rare, polar ice doing nothing extraordinary, and a vigorous flow of strong and well-evidenced criticism of GCMs, of the IPCC, of alarmists, of shoddy science, feeble journalism, and of educational initiatives designed to indoctrinate rather than inform.

As for the good professor, I must confess to never having heard of him nor his institute before. This does not surprise me since I seem to stumble across the like just about every month, and that's without really trying to find them. I did once try to get an idea of the number and nature of new, or rapidly modified, consultancies, institutes, and professorships that had sprung up as the empire grew but I gave up on the task as being too big to handle. His institute began, according to the website, in 1982, and does look like one it would be sensible to have despite the empire. But his talk of carbon capture as if it were sensible or even feasible, his down-playing of shale in the UK, and his failure to take the opportunity to expose windfarms as absurd, and his complacency about the reliability of energy supply given the actual or projected closure of so many stations, make me suspect he may appear to defend the barricades again before too long.

May 8, 2013 at 10:09 AM | Registered CommenterJohn Shade

He just slips "carbon capture and storage" in to normal speech as though it's a mature technology and we just need to choose how much and what colour.

It would be just as realistic to assume time travel and base your policy on that. Of course it's inevitable that we will eventually crack time travel one day and when we do we can travel back in time and back-date the invention. So we can assume we already have it. Can I be a professor too?

May 8, 2013 at 10:09 AM | Unregistered CommenterJack Hughes

As him where his investments are placed.

May 8, 2013 at 10:13 AM | Unregistered Commenterconfused

"Towards the end of the decade, the UK may produce some shale gas if drilling and fracking prove to be environmentally acceptable".

The first economic shale gas extraction using fracking in the US was in 1998 (thanks Wikipedia).
So with a bit of luck, if the EU don't ban it, if the incoming administration in 2015 don't stop it, and if the tree-huggers give their gracious consent (unlikely) we may end up only 20 years behind the U.S.

May 8, 2013 at 10:47 AM | Unregistered CommenterAlex

His dismissal of shale in fascinating - particularly since natural gas trading and pricing seems to be his specialisation:-

I wonder if his role as "Speaker of the EU - Russia Gas Advisory Council" has any bearing on it.

May 8, 2013 at 10:57 AM | Registered CommenterFoxgoose

Yes - Jonathan's main interest in life seems to be promoting Russian gas exports.

From one of his papers:-

The Importance of Russia and CIS countries as Gas and Energy Partners

In the context of increasing demand and declining supply, the importance of Russia as a partner in
European gas becomes abundantly clear. The opportunity for a much closer natural gas partnership
between Russia and Europe is based on firm foundations


Natural Gas and Oil in Europe: the current and future importance of Russian supply
Gas demand has grown rapidly across Europe over the past 30 years and power generation – shaped
by environmental and commercial advantages enjoyed by gas−is the key to continued growth over
the next several decades. Imports of gas will be needed increasingly as Europe’s indigenous supply
declines and Russia is in a very good position to expand its market share due to its resource endowment, established infrastructure and markets, and track record as a secure supplier.
These advantages have been recognised and reinforced politically by an energy partnership between
the EU and Russia which recognises Russia’s growing role as a source of energy and its contribution
particularly in terms of gas and oil supplies. In summary, the Russian contribution to European energy
balances – both oil and gas – is substantial and likely to grow significantly in the future to the benefit of
both exporter and importers over the next several decades.

A man with an axe to grind methinks.

May 8, 2013 at 11:08 AM | Registered CommenterFoxgoose

Even supposing that there is enough gas generating capacity to substitute for the closing power stations and wind on a calm frosty night, we came very close to running out of gas stocks last winter- is anything in the pipeline to ensure an adequate supply of gas to fuel extra gas generation?

May 8, 2013 at 11:22 AM | Unregistered CommenterPat

Simple question for Stern: please provide a list of current UK gas-fired power stations that have been built but are not being used.

Thank you.

May 8, 2013 at 11:37 AM | Unregistered CommenterStuck-Record

This interview with Richard Smith, “head of energy strategy” at the National Grid, provides evidence of how the Government (and Professor Stern) may be convinced that the risk of power failure is small. A quotation: “We've managed these things in the past, and managed them quite well.” Apparently he thinks building new gas plant is a waste of money - and could even increase the cost to consumers as windfarm operators are paid to turn their turbines off.

Regarding those mothballed gas plants, the article provides a link to this NG report (Winter Outlook 2012/13). See paras 191 and 192 on page 52, referring to 4.2GW of CCGT generation that's currently unavailable "for a variety of reasons", noting that "some of this generation may become available to the market". What "reasons" I wonder? How much is "some" - 60%, 20%, 10%? Hardly support for Stern's simple "currently not in operation because it is unprofitable" assertion. (Stuck-Record: it seems the list includes Keadby, Medway, Peterborough, Roosecote, Teeside and Shoreham.)

May 8, 2013 at 12:04 PM | Registered CommenterRobin Guenier

This issue came up recently in one of those government committee reports which included a similar passing reference to reserves of gas-fired capacity which are either idled or under construction. It named a few which led me to the websites of some of the generators.
It is not easy (at least for this techno-numpty) to get the full picture but I did find the following stations which have closed or are due to do so soon or have cut back capacity: Keadby; Peterhead; Roosecote; Kilyn; Teesside. They total approx 5 GW.
The reasons for closure were not often given but "adverse economics" was mentioned a couple of times. I was particularly struck by the Peterhead case where a state-of-the-art CCGT plant of 1800 MW has been throttled back dramatically - to 400 MW if memory serves - because of the exorbitant cost of grid connection. It appears that capacity restrictions on the Scottish systems and the prioritisation of wind farms have forced this cut-back.
There were comments that at least some of these have been "deep moth-balled" meaning that it will take at least a year to bring them back into service. There has not been any mention of moth-balling the coal closures so that capacity will disappear for good.
So it looks to me as if we will be woefully short of any sort of back-up capacity, especially for any short-term problems.
Lastly there is another aspect to the debate on the impact of renewables which has not had much visibility. Quite apart from the intermittency and capacity issues, frequency control is not being properly addressed as the output of renewables increases. If I understood Derek Birkett's book correctly, the dispersed nature of wind and - possibly - the lack of technical compliance of the kit is likely to lead to loss of control. It happened in Germany a few years ago despite the much greater resilience of the continental system due to the massive interconnections. His main problem scenario for this was not periods of high demand but relatively low ones being met by nuclear and wind.
Someone with a much better understanding of grid dynamics and power engineering may be able to shed a bit more light on this.

May 8, 2013 at 12:04 PM | Unregistered CommenterMikeH

Stern's warnings fall on deaf ears to me. He produced a useless report based on economics that is his specialty even though he fails to understand it. He should retire gracefully.

May 8, 2013 at 12:29 PM | Unregistered CommenterJohn Marshall

The interview with Richard Smith (see my post above) contains some other interesting stuff. For example, he dismisses as one of the "flakier arguments" in the renewables debate the claim that using gas fired power to backup wind could mean more emissions than relying solely on gas. On the contrary, he says, this analysis shows that wind power's CO2 savings are reduced by a mere 0.1% as a result of gas backup. Can this be correct?

May 8, 2013 at 12:32 PM | Registered CommenterRobin Guenier

Robin, its worse than you thought ;)

It pea thimble time, the 0.081% rounded up to 0.1% refers to

Analysis of the indirect effects on system carbon intensity due to over
forecasting wind output


Energy provided by Short Term Operating Reserve in GB which is
estimated to be due to wind output being lower than forecast and consequent
estimated additional CO2 emissions

So its only the extra gas that needed to be used because the forecast was wrong, so if the forecast was zero and all the gas fired stations were going full tilt to fill the gap then there is no extra co2 being produced on that measure.

Absolute rubbish !!!!!!!

May 8, 2013 at 12:48 PM | Registered CommenterBreath of Fresh Air

It is interesting that the laws of physics and geology are different in the UK. In the rest of the world fracking is a well established, proven and safe way to produce natural gas.
I hope the physics discontinuity in the UK is resolved soon and that the people of Great Britain can benefit from natural gas like the rest of the world.
Perhaps this discontinuity has to do with the existence of corrupted science organizations like the CRU being so well accepted....?

May 8, 2013 at 1:08 PM | Unregistered Commenterlurker, passing through laughing

But at least we are saving the world. That report shows that the wind farms have saved nearly 8 million tones from being pumped into the atmosphere in 2011-2012. Thats a whopping 0.02% of global carbon emissions. Should make the Chinese stand up and take notice! /sarc

May 8, 2013 at 1:14 PM | Unregistered CommenterJohn Davis

Well, I never - fancy someone whose primary function is promoting the use of Russian gas in the EU, sniffily dismissing the impact which shale gas in the UK could have on our energy supplies and security..

Quel surpris.....

Talk about: 'Follow the money..!'

May 8, 2013 at 1:34 PM | Unregistered Commentersherlock1


I gave evidence at a wind farm public inquiry last week, showing calcs of wind turbines plus backup from gas could increase CO2 emissions more than just using gas without wind. The paper you link to by NG was put before me under x-exam. I pointed out it only looked at emissions due to short term forecast wind error on STOR, not on backup. The QC backed off at that point.

May 8, 2013 at 1:46 PM | Registered CommenterPhillip Bratby

"For the rest of this decade, that will be replaced by as much renewables as can be built (mostly wind) and gas."

Mostly wind. Yes, most apropos for UK policy, which is mostly wind, itself.

May 8, 2013 at 2:06 PM | Unregistered Commenterjorgekafkazar

In M&S today (trailing after She-who-must-shop-till-she-drops) - huge sign stating that they (M&S) aim to be 'Carbon neutral'....
Can someone explain to me in words of one syllable how the hell THAT is supposed to work..?

May 8, 2013 at 2:21 PM | Unregistered Commentersherlock1

Big respect to Phillip Bratby, for batting on our behalf at so many wind farm public enquiries...
Trouble is, of course, even if (as we all hope and pray) he's successful at getting the wind farm thrown out at local level, the developers go to appeal, and a Planning Inspector sitting in his office in London overturns the decision.
Its called 'Localism'. Eric Pickles will tell you how its supposed to work...

May 8, 2013 at 2:27 PM | Unregistered Commentersherlock1

Public inquiries are the result of a appeal against the local decisions to refuse planning permission. If an Inspector ever gave any credence to my evidence, it would end the wind industry, so it's not likely to happen any time soon. Ditto the setback distances needed to protect the health of residents; if that evidence were ever accepted, it would seriously curtail the onshore wind industry.

May 8, 2013 at 2:58 PM | Registered CommenterPhillip Bratby

I've got news for Professor Stern. Blackouts are already here on many streets in my town. I guess it's a fair bet that local authorities won't be planning on switching street lights back on again any time soon.

Nor, I expect, will Rio Tinto Alcan be resuming Aluminium production at Lynemouth. If enough remaining industry can be driven elsewhere (Germany, China, etc), then extra power may become "available" to the market.

(EM is late today....)

May 8, 2013 at 3:12 PM | Unregistered Commentermichael hart

BoFA and Phillip Bratby:

Thanks for the explanation. Presumably that's why Richard Smith goes on to observe that the NG's "phenomenally good" new wind forecasting system "is crucial to this argument". But his link refers to a trial system and does not include any evidence supporting his "getting it right 95 per cent of the time" claim. Does such evidence exist?

In any case, as BoFA has pointed out, even if a wind speed of zero was forecast with 100% accuracy, that wouldn't mean the CO2 emitted as a result of the then necessary ramping up of backup plant would become somehow irrelevant.

However, the paper I referred to above (12:32 PM) attempts (I think) to explain (see para 2) why overall CO2 emissions are not increased by wind's intermittency:

2. Analysis of the effects on carbon intensity on the remaining generation fleet due to the intermittent nature of wind

Half-hourly or Daily Data on the efficiency of thermal generation stations is not readily available. Therefore, for this analysis an approximation of the efficiency of gas fired plant has been made by analysing the amount of electricity generated by gas fired power stations and comparing it to the volume of gas consumed by the same stations.. There are two key findings:

 At a total gas fired power station fleet level, there was no correlation between the overall efficiency of the gas fired power station fleet and the amount of electricity generated by wind

 The analysis showed that there continues to be variations in the efficiency of gas fired power stations, but this could not be linked directly to wind intermittency

Variations in power station efficiency may be due to a range of reasons, including, but not limited to, the age of the plant, temperature, maintenance schedules and operating strategy and whether the plant is generating at or near its Maximum Export Limit or its Stable Export Limit. The method used for calculating gas fired power station efficiency, namely using gas delivered from National Grid’s National Transmission System as a proxy for gas consumed by the power station can only provide an approximate indicator of power station efficiency, as it ignores the effect of gas linepack variations in the power station operator’s system.

Sounds like waffle to me. Is it? And can anyone explain what it's trying to say?

May 8, 2013 at 3:57 PM | Registered CommenterRobin Guenier

EU bureaucrats make constant references to 'National Competencies'.

I believe Stern demonstrates a classic case of 'National Incompetency'.

May 8, 2013 at 4:13 PM | Unregistered CommenterYertizz

Posted this in unthreaded but its relevant here too

Look at this (delete website cookies if you are over 20 articles)

It has a graph showing the wholesale cost of dual energy vs bills May 06 to May13

Wholesale cost has increased from £590 to (wait for it) £620

Bills have gone from £870 to £1400.

Green taxes are hidden in other costs.

There are graphs for both gas and electricity and these show virtually no increase in wholesale costs so where the small £30 wholesale increase comes from ?

In short all the recent increases come from increased margins and other costs which include Green Taxes.

May 8, 2013 at 4:17 PM | Registered CommenterBreath of Fresh Air

Robin, he is again trying to hide the pea by saying its only the extra inefficiency that needs to be considered, he again forgets that if you install 30GW of wind that has an efficiency of 20% and so produces on average 6GW then as there are days it never produces you need 6GW of gas to be consumed as well and that emitts CO2. The 6GW of gas has to be on stand by even if 12GW of wind power is being produced.

May 8, 2013 at 4:22 PM | Registered CommenterBreath of Fresh Air


The best empirical evidence for the impact of wind generation on the emissions of despatchable plant (mainly gas) can be seen in the analysis of the Irish grid at

Basically there is a strong correlation between wind penetration and CO2 emissions. In other words, the more the wind blows and the more wind generation there is, the more CO2 per unit of gas generation there is, reducing considerably the claimed CO2 savings.

May 8, 2013 at 4:56 PM | Unregistered Commenterb

Further to: May 8, 2013 at 4:17 PM | Breath of Fresh Air

"...Wholesale cost has increased from £590 to (wait for it) £620

Bills have gone from £870 to £1400.

Green taxes are hidden in other costs......"


I consider that you are correct that the full implications of green costs already being paid by the UK consumer is masked and it is not apparent from the bill.

I have a house in Spain. The elctricity bill is more transaparent. It lists the costs of supply as about 48% of the bill total, and taxes and green subsidies as 52% of the total bill. I am unsure whether VAT (in Spain IVA) is charged at a reduced rate, but even ignoring that issue, it follows that about 30% of the bill costs relate to green taxes and subsidies. If there was political will to cut out all this green madness, energy prices in Spain could be reduced by about 40% which would very much help the hard pressed Spanish families.

My experience of UK energy prices is similar to your (save that my costs exceeeded £2000 pa), namely that they doubled in a periodf of aboyt 7 years. I suspect that the UK consumer is already paying about 30% of the bill on green related taxes/subsidies. One reason for this may be that if electricity came from coal powered generation rather than from some mix of green, coal, gas, and nuclear, the per Kwh unit price could well be a lot lower than the rate being charged by the energy firms.

Finally, WUWT is carrying an encouraging article, see

Perhaps the present financial problems and the desire to inject some growth into EU economies is making the politicians come to ther senses. The goal of any government should be to pusue policies that result in as cheap a price as possible for a secure and plentiful energy supply.

Germany, is concerned about energy costs on its industries and is building 20 or perhaps 23 new coal powered generators. These do not use carbon capture. In the EU the carbon credit price is about £2.50 per tonne and falling. Perhaps they will scrap it all together. That would give Germany some cheap energy, especially if they simply mothball the wind turbines and solar panels.

In the UK, we have a carbon credit floor price of £16 per tonne and increasing. This needs to be scrapped if UK industry is to remain competitive. We also need without any further delay to get on with shale.


May 8, 2013 at 9:22 PM | Unregistered Commenterrichard verney

Perhaps the reluctance to proceed with developing UK shale gas resources can be connected with an idea of LPG gas exports from the USA? That is, of future UK energy shortfalls to be serviced by the USA. But neither of which is in a hurry.

Stranger things have happened. For example, converting a UK coal-fired power station built adjacent to huge coal reserves so that it can, with considerably less efficiency, burn wood imported from the far side of continental North America.

May 8, 2013 at 9:30 PM | Unregistered CommenterLuther Bl't

The fact that some supposedly intelligent people give Lord Stern any kind of credence makes me wonder if some of the more expensive restaurants these people dine at are serving magic mushrooms.
The fact that he is 'fronting' Russian gas should produce a storm of negative publicity in the UK and that only 'evil deniers' mention this salient fact tells us much about the MSM's role in this shameful scam.

May 8, 2013 at 9:37 PM | Unregistered CommenterAlexander K


You are confusing Lord Stern with Prof Stern. However, they are two Sterns (what an apt name) the country would be much better (off) without.

May 8, 2013 at 10:00 PM | Registered CommenterPhillip Bratby

For two years Tamboran Resources has held exploration licences for shale gas in Fermanagh, Northern Ireland. They have carried out geophysical surveys and have some gas data from earlier boreholes. Actual drilling and fracking has been delayed by Assembly and local politics, and by local protests. Even given permission to proceed Tamboran do not expect commercial production to begin until 2019.

I see no reason why mainland shale gas extraction should proceed any faster. Lord Stern's assessment that no significant shale gas will be produced this decade matches Tamboran's experience in my own local area.

I also doubt the widely held conviction on this forum that shale gas will be cheap. The US gas price is low because shale gas overproduction is being dumped into a limited market. The resulting glut of gas has depressed the price. I have seen no evidence that the same thing will happen here.

May 9, 2013 at 1:39 AM | Unregistered CommenterEntropic Man

Entropy generally does not rely on perpetual motion circular arguments, but apparently Entropic people do.
Blocking fracking delays it, and if it is delayed it not useful. But if it does get produced, it is not helpful because it will not be cheaper.
Why? Because more gas in the UK, unlike commodity pricing in the rest of the world, do not seem to follow economic laws.
Entropy is now magical and circular.

May 9, 2013 at 5:10 AM | Unregistered Commenterlurker, passing through laughing

Thanks, Phillip. I stand corrected and will be careful to keep the two Sterns apart in my mind in future.
They sound like evil twins from a Batman opus!

May 9, 2013 at 6:30 AM | Unregistered CommenterAlexander K

lurker, passing through laughing

Such weak attempts at wit do not help the discussion. Nor do the simplistic assumptions from so many here that all you have to do is drill a hole.

Philip Bratby might be willing to enlighten you on the planning processes which must be complied with before exploration and then commercial fracking can take place. He would also be able to give you realistic estimates of the timescale required.He should also be able to give you details of the Environment Agency's requirements for impact assessments and its regulations regarding injection of materials into the ground.

This has to be done for each well pad, for the associated gas processing facility and any pipelines before actual drilling can begin, plus the time it takes to drill, frack, test and install the final extraction infrastructure. The whole process would be repeated in each shale gas play, in many counties across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Since devolution each country has its own processes and requirements.

I trust you are not suggesting that the normal planning process is to be short circuited to speed things up. Such denial of the normal rights of citizens would surely not be acceptable on a site which has proposed a Bill of Rights.

May 9, 2013 at 7:49 PM | Unregistered CommenterEntropic Man

What a bizarre conception you have of the purpose of a bill of rights.

May 9, 2013 at 7:53 PM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill

Entropic Man,
Having just returned from the Offshore Technology Conference and a multi-day discussion of fracking and the issues involved, I thank you for your comedy relief. It was a long week, transacting business in Spanish, Chinese and of course English.
If windmills were held to the enviro standards you assert are approriate for fracking, there would be no wind power.
You falsely imply that each drilling site is some sort of incredibly delicate enviro-site. You are typing out of your nether regions. Your extremists create nonsensical burdens for the industries you like, and then when your victims falter, you feign outrage at their alleged failure.
The fact isyou are stuck with lies. Natural gas has worked well for over a century. Fracking has been used- and improved- for over 60 years. you pathetic climate/enviro twits have only your misanthroic clinging to your ignorance, and the imposition of the political power you have immorally seized to hang on.You have no facts to sustain your pathetic and anti-human position.

May 9, 2013 at 8:05 PM | Unregistered Commenterhunter

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