Britain in The Grip of a Big Chill as the Lights go Out

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Environment, Green, Macroeconomics

Anyone reading the international press may have been amused to read stories of the UK struggling under blankets of snow and freezing temperatures. It’s not that the Brits are wimps its just they get so few days each year of snow that it’s not worth investing large sums of taxpayer money in snow plows, mountains of gritting salt, insulation of homes and adaptations to trains, buses etc that allow them to operate as normal. Consequently, the first fall of snow brings the closure of schools, businesses and panic buying in food stores for those able to get to the stores!

But one unexpected closure of an industry that is never more crucially needed than when the weather turns to snow, temperatures drop to 17 degrees F (as it did last week in the southern part of the UK), lakes, rivers and even the sea in places freezes over namely power generation. As a prolonged period of high pressure set in over the UK, temperatures dropped and so did the wind. For the last two weeks the UK’s wind turbines were operating at 60% below the level they had been operating for the two weeks prior to the cold snap and on some days didn’t generate anything at all. From a potential capacity of 5% of the UK’s generating capacity wind contributed just 0.2% during that period.

According to the Telegraph Newspaper, as gas was diverted to power stations, the National Grid (managers of the UK gas network) asked 95 high gas consuming companies in industries like steel, chemicals, paper, cement, glass, aluminum and ceramics to turn off their pipeline. With gas reserves in the North Sea dwindling, the UK imports a rising portion of its gas supplies from Norway, the Netherlands and even Qatar as LNG (liquified natural gas). But Europe as a whole (and this will include the UK as part of the European gas grid) will be heavily dependent on Russia and on the transport network running through the Ukraine in the years ahead.

Highlighting the unpredictable nature of wind power, generating companies had to switch to firing up coal fired power stations and drawing on additional gas reserves from Norway and Europe to keep the lights on. Unfortunately under the EU’s directive, these same coal fired power stations, many of them approaching 40 years old, will have to be phased out from 2015 to meet carbon emission targets. New nuclear stations cannot be ready before 2018 and, in some cases, 2025 according to this article. In the meantime, the UK is planning to move from 5% of electricity generated (in capacity terms anyway) from renewables to 25% by 2020 by building 6,400 turbines. The question on many Brits lips is what do we do in a high pressure cold snap when 25% of our power is supposed to be coming from wind turbines? The UK may have no alternative other than to keep some 30 GW (that is the planned installed capacity of wind power by 2020) of gas fired power stations standing idle ready to be fired up if required. And where will the gas come from by 2020 – you guessed it Russia. Out of the frying pan into the fire.

–Stuart Burns

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