Earlier this week National Grid said that it was asking coal-fired power stations to be put on standby to ensure security of supply. At the same time, the grid also announced that consumers would be paid to reduce their power consumption in the early evening this week.
This was followed by two phenomena the world could do without. First, hyperbolical articles in the Guardian and the BBC about what reducing consumption for an hour or two actually entails (Shock! Horror! The kids couldn’t use their PS4s…) and second, suggestions from commentators who want to attack Net Zero that the National Grid was about to collapse. It turns out that the energy from coal wasn’t required in the end and, in fact, National Grid was more concerned about demand from France than about demand from the UK and it’s this that it was responding to. So, hyperbole nil; sensible power management one.
There’s little doubt that the UK and Europe have been lucky this winter with far milder temperatures than we could have expected. But it also turns out that luck has manifested itself in terms of costs, not in terms of power capacity. To say that the National Grid is about to collapse requires the writer to explain why the National Grid didn’t collapse in the very cold, low-wind two weeks before Christmas. If the system was going to collapse, surely two weeks of high demand is enough of a test and, with demand regularly topping 40GWs, the National Grid was easily able to cope through gas, nuclear and coal and with whatever renewables could provide. Of course, this reality – and it is political commentators that make these assertions, not energy correspondents – doesn’t suit the anti-Net Zero lobby who happily ignore the amazing performance of renewables in the second half of December and first half of January and talk instead about how poor people are being paid to sit in the dark.
It’s hard to know why they hate Net Zero so much. It seems to have something to do with climate change scepticism as well as opposing state action in an area where they think private enterprise should be making the choices for us. This glides over the reality that energy, as a vital human need, is always going to have significant state supervision and direction. But also, surely, recent events make it clear that something is changing with our climate and it’s worth doing anything that we can do to ameliorate that impact? Did anyone look at epic floods in Germany in 2021 and 40 degrees plus in London in 2022 and think this is fine? Even then, if you don’t believe in global warming, surely improving air quality is a noble aim in itself? Perhaps more importantly, when it comes to Net Zero and UK and European politics, you’ve missed the boat: the one thing we can be sure of, as I laid out in my energy predictions for 2023, is that Net Zero will be staying at the very top of the agenda this year.
But this doesn’t mean that Net Zero is right for everyone. African nations have been very clear that they expect to be “allowed” to use their natural resources for much longer than the developed world and they expect to be compensated for what they have not contributed to the world’s climate crisis. In some respects, this point of view is accepted. Mozambique has just started exporting LNG from its gigantic finds made at the back end of the 2000s. It’s why their economic prospects for the year ahead are much rosier than some of their neighbours. Tanzania too has enormous gas finds that they would like to commercialise and we know that there are willing buyers of LNG in Europe and Asia which are desperate to secure supplies as the Ukraine-Russia war drags on.
It is remarkable, however, how this attitude to LNG is not replicated in access to power where developed countries consistently dictate energy policy to developing countries. The unlamented Johnson government took the view that oil and gas were so evil that oil and gas companies, some of Africa’s biggest investors, could only get the most limited support from local High Commissions and Embassies anywhere. Similar restrictions have been placed on development aid where the UK cannot invest in fossil fuel extraction projects which, as will happen in Mozambique, could lead to massive economic and social development. UK government policy also prioritises renewable energy and hydro-projects in Africa over gas-to-power projects despite the fact that they are emissions-reducing in their own right as they replace the burning of wood and the use of diesel-run generators.
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Critically, this policy – which, in fairness, is not restricted to the UK government – means that renewable energy projects are prioritised over access to energy which gas-to-power projects are well-placed to provide. Worst of all, these edicts around the use of natural gas come at a time when Western governments are burning huge quantities of their own and imported gas. At time of writing, the UK is burning around 21 GWs of gas (around 50% of demand right now). That’s huge: Zambia’s total grid capacity is 2.8 GWs. Clearly, then, less hypocrisy on the part of the Northern Hemisphere would be appreciated.
However, that 21 GWs of power provided by gas in the UK today is important. It’s too much and it’s why the UK government wants to remove gas from the UK’s energy mix by 2035 – an ambitious target to be sure. Whether it’s a wise target is a different question but, to be fair, it is a natural corollary to the phasing out of oil and (almost) coal-fired power stations that we have already seen. The key is what is known as base load power: power that you can always rely on even when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining. Wind generation in the UK is such that it’s almost, but not quite, baseload power and we have a reasonable amount of power supply from British and French nuclear power stations. This gets us to around 35% of demand so the government, both current and future, are going to need to find another 65% of baseload power.
The obvious answer is nuclear power but it’s expensive, controversial, takes ages to build and is seemingly impossible to get through our sclerotic planning system. We should do much more of nuclear but it’s very hard to see how the Tories or Labour get it through in a political system based on Red Walls and Blue Walls: someone is alway going to be very unhappy. The answer then – and we’ve got 12 years to get there – is electricity storage.This is the capo di tutti capi of Black Swans. A lot of progress has been made here but not on a scale yet that could be game-changing, but, be in no doubt, once you solve the problem of storing power at scale, Net Zero will be a piece of cake and that will be good for all of us.
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