In 2011, the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) published a review of the generation costs of renewable electricity technologies. Onshore wind was one of the cheapest @ £90/MWh, well on par with fossil based power stations or new nuclear. This technology would have looked a good match to DECC’s post-election pronouncement to ‘keep the lights on and carbon emissions down, whilst saving consumers money on their energy bills’.
Sadly, for the fledgling UK wind turbine industry, the victorious Conservative party declared a ‘halt the spread of onshore wind farms’, a decision that will most surely put up the average of UK’s indigenous clean energy costs. With many insiders predicting that the proposed new 3.2GW nuclear at Hinkley C will either never be built, or spectacularly fail to meet its budget, it rather looks like DECC’s contractual energy promises are starting to rest upon a rather paltry 1.4GW undersea inter-connector from Norway due in 2021. I say ‘paltry’ because we are about to shut 7GW of coal-fired stations whereas the UK demand for electricity averages nearer 36GW. Actually, more like 60GW is needed to guarantee keeping the light on during peak demand. The supply and demand limits are getting unnervingly close to each other.
Cue a National Grid initiative called the Short Term Operating Reserve (STOR). Generally put out to lowest tender, this has funded a series of private sub-50MW mini power stations throughout the country. All well and good, you might think, as these appear to lie at the heart of DECC’s desire to keep the lights on. However, many of these mini-power stations have now been revealed as effectively subsidised diesel ‘farms’. Albeit for short-term use for a few hours per year, these are not quite in keeping with the stated intentions with CO2 emissions. Nor is their magnitude sufficient to plug the demand gaps of GW proportions.
Hope is at hand with the recent announcements on home battery energy storage by the USA-based, Tesla Motors, giving an insight into a future scenario. Previously known for their sleek electric cars, they have re-branded their purpose to be global saviours by enhancing the ability to smooth the fluctuations of supply from renewable sources like wind and solar photovoltaics (PV). As useful and appealing as the concept of home-owned energy storage is, it effectively undermines the purpose of having a national grid, plus any accompanying national storage. Early USA adopters, often individualistic in approach, won’t worry too much about that, but I doubt the UK can rely on just a few wealthy individuals to provide answers to national problems.