UK households and businesses face electricity blackouts in just a few years say two of the country’s leading energy experts. Peter McCusker reports.
“The situation is really quite serious. We will have to keep our coal-fired power stations open and get fined by the EU,” says Prof Ian Fells, one of the UK’s leading energy experts.
He continued: “By 2015 we will be vulnerable. For the last four years the Government has been sitting on its hands doing nothing, and this is really unacceptable.”
Back in 2004 Prof Fells warned of the UK’s looming energy crisis and he followed this up in 2008 with a 50-page paper elaborating on his views.
Its publication was picked-up by various media outlets and he recounts: “I appeared on Radio Four with Lord Hutton (Government minister with responsibility for energy security issues) where I was accused of being an alarmist.
“But now it’s not just me who’s saying it. It’s Ofgem and many others,” explains the emeritus professor of energy at Newcastle University.
In February this year Alistair Buchanan outgoing chief executive of energy watchdog Ofgem said the UK was facing an uncomfortable squeeze in energy reserves over the next three years as ageing coal-power plants closed to meet environmental targets, and the country was forced to import gas at a time of tightening worldwide supply.
Buchanan said that within three years, the reserve margin of UK power generation will fall from around 15% to below 5%.
Last year coal-fired power generation accounted for 43% of the nation’s electricity mix. It was a record year for coal and well above the 30% recorded in 2011.
Coal’s global price had plummeted due to competition from US shale gas and UK operators subsequently opted to burn this cheaper, imported coal.
In doing so operators reached their maximum permitted operating hours under the EU Large Combustion Plant Directive, more quickly than previously thought. The coal spurt also allowed the generators to avoid the Carbon Floor Price which came into effect on April 1.
Almost 10GW - 10% of the UK’s total capacity - will close this year. To date Kingsnorth in Kent, Didcot A in Oxfordshire and Cockenzie in East Lothian have ceased operations.
That leaves around 20GW of coal-fired power from around 15 UK stations, but over half of these face closure by 2015, and possibly all by 2020.
Prof Fells, who helped establish the Blyth-based National Renewable Energy Centre (Narec), said: “As things stand we have little renewable power and it is too expensive.
“So, we will have to build new gas-fired power stations and get permission from Europe to keep these coal-fired power stations operating and risk being fined, or we may see the lights go out.”
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Janusz Bialek is professor of electrical power and control at Durham University and a world-leading expert in energy infrastructure.
He has advised the UK Government, the International Energy Agency and European Commission on energy supply issues.
He said: “EMR aims to prevent the lights going out, but it may cause them to go out.
“We have been waiting two years for clarity, but the main issue at the moment is that the EMR process is creating uncertainty in the system.
“It’s very dangerous from the suppliers’ point of view as it can take three to five years to build a power station.
“We have lost two years already and it will be another one before it is approved, then the Government proposals may fall foul of EU state aid regulations, and if that is so the consequences will be disastrous.
“Renewables won’t deliver in time because the costs are too high. The Government is caught between a rock and a hard place and we may run out of power.”
Prof Bialek fears that 2017 may be the tipping point and if the UK has not secured additional generating capacity by then we could be in ‘deep trouble’.
“Will the lights go out? No one really knows, but I don’t think they will. However it’s an unsymmetrical risk.
“Say the risk is only 10% that is still quite high, because if the lights do go out the bill will run into billions of pounds and will cause huge disruption to society.
“If the economy picks up, and we start to grow like China, or if we have a spell of bad winter weather with temperatures of minus 20 degrees then we might be in deep trouble.
“This could lead to rolling blackouts. They will be done in a controlled manner but people will die. It will be very serious.
“The Government is acutely aware that if that does happen they will be judged incompetent and will be done for generations.
“Electricity is our most important infrastructure. If the lights go out then life as we know it will stop.”
The Energy Bill which is currently passing through Parliament aims to address UK power generation issues though the Electricity Market Reform (EMR) process.
The EMR aims to encourage low-carbon and renewable energy development with the aim of decarbonising the UK’s energy supply by 2050.
To take us to this low-carbon Promised Land the Government is banking on gas power stations and it says the UK might need 37GW of additional gas-fired generation by 2030.
Gas at around 350g per kWh emits less than half the carbon dioxide of coal and is within the Government limits of 400g per kWh.
However a recent report from London consultancy AT Kearney highlights how nine gas-fired power stations, with the capability to produce around 20GW of power, are currently on hold due to uncertainty caused by the EMR.
The UK now imports over half of its gas supplies and one of Europe’s largest gas–fired power stations on Teesside is currently lying idle due to the high price of gas.
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Prof Fells, CBE, a well-known figure on radio and television with more than 600 programmes to his credit, has worked in the energy sector for many years and believes the current answer to the UK’s current energy dilemma lies not in renewables, but in nuclear power.
“Renewable energy is very expensive and it has to be heavily subsidised. The wind farms would not be built without the huge subsidies.
“It costs us all something like £100 a year to subsidise wind power and that will rise to £300 to £400 over the coming years.
“Then there are issues around the intermittent nature of supply, the lack of storage capacity when the wind is blowing, and the costs of connecting supplies to the grid.
“People are still ignorant about the energy business. I feel many are being deliberately misled by the greens who should know better. The engineering fraternity have not stood up and explained the issues involved.
“The single issue groups have held sway and the politicians and are being led by them. They have fallen for the renewable propaganda. The solution must be nuclear power.”
In an effort to drive forward the UK nuclear power industry Prof Fells has assembled a consortium of British engineering firms to form Penultimate Power UK.
This is based in the North East and is the vehicle for putting together the British Nuclear Consortium which aims to build nuclear power stations and strengthen the UK nuclear supply base.
Germany opted to switch off its nuclear power plants in the wake of the Fukushima disaster in Japan and to help fill its energy shortfall is constructing several new coal-fired power plants.
In Holland the picture is similar, with the profile of coal set to rise from 15% to almost a quarter following the construction of new coal-fired plants.
Both nations are keen to add carbon dioxide capture and storage (CCS) facilities to their new coal capacity, although no European country has yet managed to develop cost-effective, large-scale, CCS technology.
Prof Fells says the potential exists for CCS to be retro-fitted to old, and incorporated in new, fossil fuel plants.
“But at the moment CCS can add 60 to 100% in additional costs. It’s a very complicated piece of chemical engineering.”
He added: “The price of energy is a political hot potato. The price has risen by 30% in three years and will continue to rise as the country follows this renewable path.
“The Government is somehow saying we will miraculously be able to manage without fossil fuel by 2050.
“There is a terrible sense of unreality attached to Government energy policy.
“Energy is the lifeblood of growing civilisations, without it we slide into anarchy.”
By. Peter McCusker