The only way to beat the blackouts is smart, clean, affordable energy

By   November 6, 2015

Caroline Lucas comments:


The National Grid’s urgent request for extra generation this week has been widely hyped as an emergency, with the country at risk from blackouts.

On closer examination, it turns out that the National Grid has been calmly explaining that a “notification of inadequate system margin” (NISM) is not a last resort. It’s simply part of the standard toolkit for balancing supply and demand, issued this time because of multiple breakdowns at some large power stations. Given that almost all the UK’s coal-fired power stations are over 40 years old, it’s not terribly clear why anyone would expect them to be particularly reliable in the first place. But even if, behind the hysteria, we didn’t come that close to an outage, this episode should nevertheless serve as a wake-up call to a government beset by short-term, last-century thinking on energy.

Experts are warning that incidents like this could be a sign of an energy system under increased pressure. Old coal-fired stations are finally shutting down, and the risk is that we don’t have the modern infrastructure in place to ensure a stable supply of the electricity needed to run our homes, offices and industries.

There’s certainly no shortage of ministerial hot air about investing in affordable, reliable sources of heat and power. Sometimes low carbon even gets a mention. But plans to build gas-fired power stations and outrageously expensive nuclear plants will fail to solve the systemic problems we face as a result of an energy system that is inefficient and deeply centralised.

One big myth exposed by the National Grid’s request for extra generation is about the role of baseload power – the more or less constant power generation currently provided by coal and nuclear power stations. The government has slashed support for renewables while condemning us to decades of higher energy bills to subsidise new nuclear power. This is justified on the basis that we need a constant, reliable source of electricity. Yet the National Grid’s issue of a NISM is about something else entirely – meeting peak demand, as it explained: “We are most likely to issue a NISM for … the half an hour period when families start to get home and cook dinner, but offices and factories are still open.” Indeed, Steve Holliday, the outgoing chief executive of National Grid, said recently that “the idea of large power stations for baseload is outdated”, and noted that “from a consumer’s point of view, the solar on the rooftop is going to be the baseload”.

Another myth is that building new power stations is the only way to meet the challenge of peak demand. One alternative – woefully underused in the UK – is energy efficiency and demand-side response: that is, looking to reduce and change demand rather than increasing supply. The UK’s capacity market – set up to ensure enough capacity exists to meet peak demand – allows 1.5% of the total for this type of solution, whereas in the US it’s more like 10%.

Smart meters, home and grid-scale batteries that store and release excess renewable power, and other modern solutions would be cheaper and more efficient than building new power stations to meet extra demand during relatively short periods. Moreover, they’re much less polluting and more climate-friendly.

The third big myth is that renewable energy is anything but a good thing if your objective is to improve energy security and reduce costs. Germany has more wind and solar but has lower bills for industry – the high level of renewables is actually leading to a reduction in the wholesale price of electricity. This was backed up by a UK study last month.

Progress has already been made on decentralising power production – even if the UK is lagging behind. According to the National Grid’s energy scenarios, by 2020 small-scale, distributed generation will represent a third of total capacity in the UK. But the government is now actively undermining progress. Beneath a layer of green spin, ministers are demolishing the UK’s renewable energy and energy-saving policies.

Cuts to solar subsidies have already forced firms to shut down – and risk thousands more jobs. Only this week we’ve caught sight of plans to grant hundreds of millions of pounds to highly polluting diesel generation over the next 15 years – running counter to the kind of smart, clean and affordable energy system we need for the 21st century.

Another energy future is possible, but it takes political will to make the changes needed to revolutionise the way we power our communities. A system where every household and business generates its own energy from solar panels or other clean power is within close reach. With smart grids and the increasingly sophisticated energy storage solutions available, the UK should be avoiding energy shortages in the future and leading the way in putting power in the hands of local people.

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