Blackout panic misses the facts

In the last couple of days the right-wing press has been alive with fear-mongering misinformation about blackouts from looming energy shortages. Left Foot Forward shows how his claims on energy, like those in the Telegraph article, are equally illiterate, and to bust some of these myths once and for all.

In the last couple of days the right-wing press has been alive with fear-mongering misinformation about blackouts from looming energy shortages. The Telegraph warned on its front page, “Britain facing blackouts for the first time since the 1970s” arguing in its lead editorial, “When the power cuts start, blame Labour.”

Meanwhile, over in the Daily Mail Christopher Booker writes, “Green zealots and muddled ministers are leading Britain to blackouts.” Now Booker is no stranger to peddling misinformation, not least on the science of climate change. He is regularly berated by real climate scientists over at Realclimate.org. Left Foot Forward shows how his claims on energy, like those in the Telegraph article, are equally illiterate, and to bust some of these myths once and for all.

Booker trots out a neat summary of some of the central falsehoods being peddled by Big Carbon special interests opposed to the measures proposed in Ed Miliband’s Low Carbon Transition Plan. Booker argues,

“The tragedy is that for seven years, politicians of all parties have refused to face up to Britain’s fast-looming energy gap because they have all been bewitched by the great ‘green dream’, that we could somehow save the planet by generating much of our electricity from ‘renewables’, such as building thousands more wind turbines. In reality this is just make believe….first, there is not the remotest chance that we could build three turbines a day between now and 2020… And, second, even if there were, they would do virtually nothing to close our energy gap, not least because we would need to build a dozen or more conventional power stations just to provide back-up for when the wind is not blowing.”

With regard to his Booker’s first point on ability to deliver, Wind Power Monthly magazine wrote in February 2008, “Today about 56GW [gigawatt] of wind supplies 3-4% of Europe’s electricity. That will need to move to 165 GW over the next 12 years, or 13.75GW a year. The challenge is not that great; the industry is already putting up more than 10GW in Europe every 12 months.” Indeed, in 2007, the US installed 12 times more wind capacity than the UK. Spain 8 times, China 8 times, India 4 times, Germany 4 times and France – double. (Global Wind Energy Council, February 2008). Research from Europe’s leading independent energy experts, Poyry, found that if the UK was to meet its existing 2020 renewables targets, and existing efficiency targets, that would be sufficient to close the anticipated ‘energy gap.’ No new coal would be required to keep the lights on.

Booker’s second point, that intermittency will become a problem as reliance on wind power increases, was rebutted in a recent study – also from Poyry – which states, “We found that reserve and response do not appear to be critical issues for the British market.” (p.21) This supports previous expert opinion, for example, from National Grid Transco – responsible for operating Britain’s electricity network – who, in their May 2007 ‘Seven Year Statement’ found, “…based on recent analysis of the incidence and variation of wind speed, the expected intermittency of wind does not appear to pose major problems for stability…” and from an IEA study, that found “the extent to which the intermittency of natural resources will become a barrier to renewables is mainly a question of economics and market organization.”

The wind is blowing somewhere in Britain almost constantly. Research using meteorological records by the Oxford University Environmental Change unit showed that over a 5 year period there was no wind in Britain for only 1 hour in every 5 years, and there is a considerable variability in the demands on the power system which grid operators, like National Grid, are used to managing.

Most energy experts agree that intermittency is not likely to become an issue at all until you have more than 20% wind penetration on the grid, and even then there are numerous opportunities to provide so-called ‘baseload’ (like ‘back-up’) without needing to rely upon coal stations. For example, another report from Poyry shows there is enough Combined Heat and Power (CHP) station potential to generate more electricity at just nine existing industrial sites in the UK than ten nuclear power stations. This is untapped potential that could still be utilized. According to the government, there is the potential in the UK to generate 25% of all the UK’s electricity by 2015 using CHP, with greater capacity thereafter. (Cogeneration Directive Assessment, DEFRA, November 2007)

The Telegraph’s story was based on numbers in the Low Carbon Transition Plan and quoted the Conservative Party’s Shadow Secretary for Environment and Climate Change, Greg Clark MP, saying, “Britain faces blackouts because the Government has put its head in the sand about Britain’s energy policy for a decade,” which is sad given that on the 15th July, the day the plan was launched, Clark said, “I welcome his [Ed Miliband’s] remarks… For too long, public policy in this country has been a source of additional risk for investors. I am determined that instead of amplifying uncertainty, our policy, with its clarity, rigour and consistency, should be a haven from it. That means that on this issue we should not pursue narrow short-term partisanship; instead, the long-term interests of the country must come first.”

With worldwide investment in 2008 at $155bn (£95bn), more was invested in sustainable than conventional energy production. Britain needs to catch up and benefit from the soaring clean energy industry and all of the economic and environmental benefits that will bring.

6 Responses to “Blackout panic misses the facts”

  1. Will Straw

    Joss Garman for @leftfootfwd takes apart rightwing myths on wind power http://bit.ly/JlzJy

  2. Shamik Das

    Mail & Telegraph taken to task after over on @leftfootfwd – http://tinyurl.com/blackout-myths

  3. Peter Kyle

    Joss Garman for @leftfootfwd takes apart rightwing myths on wind power http://bit.ly/JlzJy (via @wdjstraw)

  4. Richard Angell

    RT @peterkyle: Joss Garman for @leftfootfwd takes apart rightwing myths on wind power http://bit.ly/JlzJy (via @wdjstraw)

  5. Richard Angell

    RT @peterkyle: Joss Garman for @leftfootfwd takes apart rightwing myths on wind power http://bit.ly/JlzJy (via @wdjstraw)

  6. rwendland

    Those that highlight the intermittency issue rarely seem to worry about the poorish availability of current generation HVDC links. I think the current 2GW France HVDC interconnect has an unanticipated outage rate of about 1% (plus another 1%-ish for scheduled maintenance) on one bipole (half the power). 1% is 3.5 days per year unexpected outage, with 1GW immediately dropping out. That sounds about as serious as wind intermittency, and at least with wind you would get at least several hours warning from weather forecasting to prepare backup plant.

    Next generation HVDC links may be a lot more reliable, with better conversion electronics, but not the current high-power ones.

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