By Paul Homewood
We’re left with demand management to keep the lights on – rewarding the rich at the expense of the poor, and all using taxpayer funds
So near, and yet so far. A couple of weeks ago, when the air was mild and the wind was blowing strongly, it became fashionable to thumb your nose at Vladimir Putin. We made it through the winter of 2022/23 without the blackouts he tried to inflict on us. Russia can keep its filthy gas and oil – we can do without it thanks to our cheap and plentiful renewables.
Not so fast. Temperatures have plummeted again, Britain is becalmed by an anticyclone, and the National Grid is warning that supply is going to be tight this evening. Coal plants are being dusted down several months after they were supposed to have closed, and the National Grid is activating what it calls its Demand Flexibility Service. This means customers signed up to the scheme can earn up to £6 per kilowatt-hour saved if they agree to turn off their appliances between 5 and 6pm.
It is not hard to spot a slight issue with this offer: the more electricity you use on a normal Monday, the easier it will be for you to cash in today. As with so many green subsidies, it perversely rewards the well-off at the expense of the poor. If you own an 18 bedroom mansion you can easily claim your fee by switching off the lights in the east wing and delaying recharging your Tesla until 7pm. If you normally use only one electric light, there will be no savings for you. And needless to say, the free electricity for some households will ultimately be subsidised through higher bills for everyone else.
But there is a far bigger problem with trying to deal with the intermittency of wind and solar power through demand management. The gaps in supply are far too big to be filled in this way. Britain already has enough installed wind and solar capacity – 38 gigawatts of it – to theoretically meet 100 per cent of average electricity demand. On a good day, such as we had a fortnight ago, solar and wind generate more than 50 per cent of our energy needs. But this morning at 10 am it was down to 19 per cent, and at times in December it fell to less than two per cent. If you are going to try to build a grid based on wind and solar, and try to manage demand by paying people to switch their appliances off, you are going to have to chuck such enormous quantities of money at people that they are prepared to spend days on end shivering in the dark.
The trouble is that that is more or less what the Government is trying to do. For years it has incentivised the green energy industry to build more and more wind and solar farms. Energy storage, on the other hand, has followed way, way behind. A few token – and very expensive – battery installations have been built, but, together with pumped storage systems built between the 1960s and 1980s, they can only store enough energy to keep Britain powered-up for less than an hour. Meanwhile, the steady baseload provided by nuclear is shrinking as old reactors shut down and new ones fail to open; Hinckley C is still years away.
At the moment we fill the gaps with gas-generated power, but once that has been removed from the grid, as the Government intends to do by 2035, all we will have to save us from unplanned blackouts is demand management – which is really just blackouts through bribery.