The present energy crisis has seen massive increases in the costs of electricity and gas and petrol. If there is a silver lining in this particular cloud it is that it has focussed the public’s attention on the need for the country to have a sensible energy policy. Unfortunately, we do not have that. Following his conversion to eco-zealotry, Boris Johnson set out the U.K.’s Energy Strategy earlier this year. This committed us to generating the majority of our electricity from renewables by 2030 but, as everyone knows, renewables are unreliable. So if they become the main source of our energy then what will happen on days when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine? The answer is either we will have frequent and widespread power cuts or electricity bills will have to rise to pay for expensive back-up measures.
National Grid statistics for last year showed that on average renewables produced 22% of our energy, but this varied greatly, some days it was as high as 40% and other days as low as 5%. At the moment the grid can cope with these large swings in output because at 22% renewables are still only a relatively small part of the energy mix. As the contribution from renewables goes up or down then the contribution from gas-fired power stations is scaled down or up and this keeps everything balanced. But if, as foreseen in the Energy Strategy, renewables increase to 70% and gas-fired power stations are closed, then there is simply no way to compensate for the large variations in renewable output.
To appreciate the scale of the problem, the National Grid statistics show that in 2021 there were two periods when there was a prolonged and very large shortfall in the output from renewables, the nine days between February 27th and March 7th and the five days between December 17th and 21st. These dates corresponded to periods of low wind speed and because they occurred in the winter then solar made little contribution because most of the time in the winter in the U.K. there is no sun; it is dark. If in 2021 we had been relying on renewables for 70% of our electricity and our gas-fired power stations had been closed, then the energy shortfall during each of these periods would have been enormous, 2,000-3,000 gigawatt-hours (GWh). This is equivalent to the whole of the U.K. being without electricity for several days. Power cuts of this magnitude would have a devastating impact on people’s lives. Homes would be without lights and refrigerators and in many cases heating and hot water. Businesses and national infrastructure, such as transport and communications, would all be seriously affected.
Read more: Time to Hit Pause on Net Zero