Longer term energy security

A positive development of the last weeks and months is continuing discussion about security of electricity supplies.   It’s not got to panic levels yet, but it might if we don’t get action rather than talk.  The background is increasingly well-known;

  • our nuclear power stations – which supply about a fifth of our electricity – are getting old and will need to be shut down over the next 10 years or so.  New ones are being debated, not built (and I have my concerns about this, see Investment in Nuclear Technology for shipping… )
  • we need to reduce fossil fuel burning to reduce climate change 
  • we’re increasingly dependent on imports of fossil fuels for our electricity as well as other energy needs – prices are volatile and supplies can be disrupted.
  • Investment in renewables is slower here than in many other countries due to many factors including; planning objections, protracted land negotiations, and a lack of urgency and community involvement.

However amidst this discussion, there is a need for more understanding…  For example this week has seen the announcement that more gas-powered electricity generating stations are likely – amidst concern that this shows a weakening of government commitment to renewables.

I am strongly committed to renewables.  I believe that they are likely to be the only way that there can be enough energy for for people in 50-100 years time to have the opportunities that we have now.  But we have a major job to power up our renewables industry – and we are trailing woefully behind many other countries.

A major challenge for all countries is to provide a safety net for when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining.  The UK is in a stronger position than most, as we could have tidal turbines all around our coast, providing a predictable output.  Together with working out principles for shedding loads and putting in more inter-connectors to form a stronger international power grid we could be in a much more secure position.

We also need to explore ways to store electricity efficiently.  Batteries are ok – but we need many more of them.  The Centre for Alternative Technology thinks that a future fleet of electric vehicles could help serve this purpose.  Others have suggested smart use of laptop batteries could help smooth the demand and supply.  Other not directly electrical means include pumping water to higher reservoirs, to run back through hydro-electric turbines when power is needed and there are also ways to use spare power to make hydrogen which can be stored.

More ideas need to come forward.  If we could find something that can be as dense and as convenient as the energy contained within the chemical bonds in fossil fuels it woul dbe amazing…  Fundamental research may be needed!

All this will take time and money to develop and build.

Until that happens, we need to ensure we can provide the back-up by other means.  Part of this can be gas.  Gas turbines, at the centre of gas-powered power stations can power up and fill an electricity shortfall in less than a minute.  They don’t need to be used all the time – and when there is renewable electricity available this will be used first – it’s cheaper.  We don’t pay for the wind, the sun and the tides – but we do pay for gas!

As we diversify our power supplies, this backup gas power stations should be called on less and less – and therefore probably last for longer than their nominal 25 year life.  We should get to the point when we treat them like a diesel generator – as backup needed on fewer and fewer occasions.

Sadly it appears that despite this on-going concern, it’s not yet a big enough even for a day’s discussion for long-term thinkers and decision-makers.  The IET‘s Future Energy Forum founding event earlier this week was cancelled due to lack of delegates.  There are rumours that they’ll try a relaunch next year.  I hope that it is then successful.  If you’d support this, do let them know you’re interested!

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