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« Numbskull or nefarious? | Main | Lew fan gong »

Wheels coming off

As if we needed a reminder, it seems that National Grid have confirmed what we at BH have been saying for a while now, namely that the UK is facing an energy crisis this winter. As Emily Gosden reports in the Telegraph:

Britain's spare power capacity will fall this winter to a seven-year low, forcing emergency measures to prevent blackouts, a report on Tuesday is expected to say.

A series of power plant breakdowns and closures in recent months have eroded the safety buffer between maximum supply and peak demand, the report from National Grid is likely to show.

I gather that ministers have been grilled on the subject on the Today programme this morning and I'll try to post some audio when this becomes available.

Today on power cuts

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Reader Comments (67)

As you would expect Forum for the Future is a charity set up by the ex-Greens Jonathon Porritt and Sara Parkin so it wil have all the right connections.

Oct 28, 2014 at 2:12 PM | Unregistered CommenterPaul - Nottingham

Re: jamesp

> I make that 5.5GW

The list is incomplete. Altogether 7 out of 16 of British Energy's nuclear reactors were offline (some for scheduled maintenance).
It is also likely some of the gas and coal power stations were offline (or partly offline) for maintenance.

Oct 28, 2014 at 2:21 PM | Unregistered CommenterTerryS

"Putting a few small wind turbines on the roof of the building would be a much greener thing to do."

They will have to have these. It has been a requirement for all new builds for Govt/Govt Agencies for at least 5 years now. I kid you not!

Oct 28, 2014 at 2:45 PM | Registered CommenterSalopian

> Seven years ago they discovered problems in some of the Advanced Gas-Cooled Reactors

Thanks for that TerryS, so I guess that was just a fairly temporary situation?

I know Russell Brand has figured out we don't need graphs anymore, but what I'd love to see is a monthly graph of the total capacity potentially available for the UK, the actual capacity (so the potential capacity minus what's temporarily off-line) and our usage.

Without that I think it's tricky to put into perspective how close we're getting to disaster. If we got blackouts and it's just because of freakish bad luck then I could forgive the politicians, but if it's because the total potential capacity was run down and the blackouts were just a matter of time we should call for their heads.

Oct 28, 2014 at 3:18 PM | Unregistered CommenterSean OConnor

That Sally Uren sure is a dangerous dimwit.

Oct 28, 2014 at 4:06 PM | Registered CommenterPhillip Bratby

Paul of Nottingham - thanks for the transcript.

That BBC "interviewer" is as dim as SU. Why didn't he ask her about her absurd claims about storing energy "in the grid"? How do these people get a (no doubt well paid) gig at the BBC?


Oct 28, 2014 at 6:51 PM | Registered Commenterjohanna

@johanna: "That BBC "interviewer" is as dim as SU".

He's an ex-Radio 1 DJ - enough said.

Oct 28, 2014 at 7:02 PM | Registered CommenterSalopian

It will be VERY interesting to see if this disaster makes the headlines (or at all) at Prime Minister's Questions tomorrow. I am very doubtful, given that Millipede's energy/climate change apologist (Caroline Flint) has already given an interview on the BBC news channel, along the lines of crisis?, what crisis?

Oct 28, 2014 at 8:16 PM | Registered CommenterSalopian

It seems that the answer is demand reduction i.e. shutdown demand from factories and industrial users who will use their own generators.

So the rush to renewables results in a transfer from coal power to oil power ?

Oct 28, 2014 at 10:24 PM | Unregistered CommenterOwen

@ Paul - Nottingham

Thank you for that transcript

Reading it is akin to Stepping Through the Looking Glass with Alice. Politically Correct engineering - and if you disagree with herself, you are being "negative", that most politically incorrect of all mindsets

Only a few years ago, I genuinely believed that such a situation could simply not happen in a democracy

I was very, very wrong. One can only hope that the UK is not polar-vortexed this NH winter

Oct 28, 2014 at 11:31 PM | Unregistered Commenterianl8888

Old Goat wrote: "We are ruled by nincompoops."

Don't blame me. I didn't vote for them, but millions did and millions will vote for them again next May. The political class in this country is insulated from reality by the inertia of the voters -- the 'I've always voted for [insert name of pillocks here] and that's how I'll vote again' people.

We've got Patrick O'Flynn talking to the Haverhill UKIP branch tonight and I'm trying to think of a quick three minute speech to rally the troops before the long haul to the next election. In my flying days we would have called our local MP's situation a target rich environment. He's an Oxford PPE -- there are more of them in government than Old Etonians -- and I bet he did the soft social science option. When he enthused about solar power -- in retrospect he must have just heard that he was going to be Minister for Power --I told him that there would have to be a way of storing the power. Oh, yes, we'll have to store the power he said and bustled off. No concept of the engineering problems, no idea that the Grid is teetering on the edge.

His solution to the lights going off is to turn off industry, but if the report I've just read is correct that's just a few hundred megawatts.

I have a nightmare. It is winter. A big low settles over Europe from Ireland to the Urals, Anticyclonic gloom descends. Solar fails and the windmills stop turning. Putin sees his chance and turns off the taps. gas turbines fall silent. Germany begins to export power to its neighbours and calls for help. The French switch off the UK interconnector and we are suddenly 2GW short on our energy budget. Holland does likewise. 3GW down. We are now at crisis levels.

All the STOR is fired up and we are still below the minimum. Industry turns off as agreed and it makes no difference. A group of ex-Greenpeace activists, Old Etonions, Oxford PPEs and 'environmentalist' fellow-travellers meet and decide to panic. Rolling blackouts -- aka power rationing - are introduced but too late to prevent random failures.

The old, the sick and the poor lose their heating systems. Hospitals begin to fill with pneumonia cases. People die, lots of people die.

'We've always voted [insert pillocks here].' Then if the nightmare happens it will be our fault.

We can't go on like this.

Oct 29, 2014 at 7:02 AM | Unregistered CommenterJulian Flood

Richard North assures us that it's extremely unlikely that we will see any power cuts this winter:

... despite the media stressing that the mid-winter peak demand could hit 55GW, with a capacity available of 58.2GW – hence bringing the margin down to its slender level – [these] figures are based on a series of assumptions which make the declared margin an impossibly pessimistic worst case scenario.
It seems everyone's getting too excited.

Oct 29, 2014 at 8:07 AM | Registered CommenterRobin Guenier

Oct 29, 2014 at 8:07 AM | Registered CommenterRobin Guenier

North may be right, on the other hand, he might be wrong.

North's expertise lies in nit-picking DM articles, not power generation.

The good news is that Didcot B Unit 5 is on-line at 359MW - RWE report at 08:45 GMT today.

However, it only needs Sod to get up one cold morning and look around for something to FU at an on-line power.station.

Fingers crossed.

Oct 29, 2014 at 9:16 AM | Unregistered CommenterBrownedoff

It's certainly quite easy to get worried by looking at the current Gridwatch figures (NETA doesn't work for me anymore, does anyone else have the problem) adding a few Gigawatts onto the demand for a cold winter's day, taking out the interconnectors because demand is high across Europe, taking out solar because it is cloudy and wind power because the weather is still (which also adds to the demand). Even without more capacity going down it doesn't look too good.

Personally I'm hoping for a few powercuts hitting London. Sorry London, but if you are affected the media are far more interested than if it happens in Bradford or Bristol. Only if this happens might MPs start to look at what their policies have done.

Oct 29, 2014 at 9:42 AM | Unregistered CommenterPaul - Nottingham

I'd be interested to hear peoples views on Richard North's claim that there will be no blackouts.He points out that the Operational Generation Capacity Forecast for the Winter Peak 2014/15 is 71.2 GW but takes no account of the fact that wind is in there at 7.6 GW (currently 0.69 GW), that it also includes 2.7 GW of pumped storage (which is very short term), 3.7 GW interconnectors (which is dependent on what happens elsewhere) and doesn't seem to take any account of a possible restriction of the gas supply. But what about the other elements. Do people think that it is reasonable to include them at their current values?

I think that he's being shockingly over optimistic but as I'm no expert I'd like to hear from others.

Oct 29, 2014 at 11:09 AM | Unregistered CommenterPaul - Nottingham

Just watched PMQs on the BBC - as predicted not a single word about this subject. It seems that there is all-party support to bury the problem and hope it just goes away.

Oct 29, 2014 at 12:38 PM | Registered CommenterSalopian

Oct 29, 2014 at 11:09 AM Paul - Nottingham

If you go back to first principles, the most secure generation is that which has fuel stored on-site, such as coal, nuclear and oil.

At the moment there is the following old fashioned plant in use:

Coal - about 20GW - available all year.

Nuclear - about 10GW - available all year.

Oil - about 2GW but only runs for a few hours a year.

There is now some wood chip burning which could be regarded as secure because they store fuel on site:

Wood - about 1GW.

In days of yore this was called "FIRM" capacity - dependable, always available and can be turned-up fairly quickly if needed to cover an unexpected shortfall.

There is also Gas, about 27GW but it has an "inconvenient truth", (never mentioned in front of the horses) that is, it is not "FIRM" - it is not feasible to store the fuel on site - think huge refrigerated spheres a la Milford Haven gas importing facility, at every CCGT power station. Really it should be classed as "IFFY".

To date, the CCGTs have never been shut down for want of gas coming down the pipe, but, there is a risk, albeit small, that the gas could be turned off somewhere and then someone has to choose where to send the UK's pitiful reserves - homes or power stations - not nice.

So, there is about 33GW of FIRM and 27GW IFFY and much of the latter is ancient or mothballed or both.

If you look at Gridwatch this gives an realistic indication of current combination of FIRM and IFFY capacity:

Coal - sometimes 15GW, Nuclear -sometimes 8GW, CCGT sometimes 15GW = 38GW. Base load is about 30GW average.

In order to satisfy 56GW of demand the UK depends on Wind, Hydro and Interconnectors to fill the gap. Ooops.

No-one in their right minds would include Interconnectors in their Margin Calculations - you can not turn it up - the juice belongs to foreigners who may not be willing to send it over.

Wind is self-excluding from serious consideration - it has been known to got to zero and when it does run it is largely ineffective for prolonged periods, and it can not be turned up. It serves only to deny revenue from proper power stations, leading to mothballing.

Hydro (pumped storage) fulfills a very useful short term peaking facility - but, prudently, should be excluded from Margin Calculations because of its limited running time..

What else - a handful of ancient gas oil burning OCGTs peaking palnt - these are being taken out of service anyway as the adjacent proper power station is demolished..

Life as you know it in the UK will depend increasingly on a population of Arthur Daleys with their rent seeking 20MW mini power station projects of second hand 500kw diesel generators with a limited supply of fuel on site - hours not even weeks of reserve. Eventually there will be thousands of these 500kW diesel generators scattered across the land.

Fingers crossed.

Oct 30, 2014 at 3:07 PM | Unregistered CommenterBrownedoff

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