Various recent reports have highlighted one aspect of what, within a few years, will be the most serious crisis confronting this country. Few people realise just how precarious the supply of power upon which our society depends will become ““ even before 2014, by which time we will have closed down the nuclear and coal-fired power stations that now generate 47 per cent of our electricity.
Two reports by the Renewable Energy Foundation (REF) spell out the extraordinary risk we run through our Government’s obsessive desire to make us, within a few years, more than 15 per cent reliant on wind power. But their real import has generally been missed. It is shocking that it should be left to a small charity to reveal for the first time, using official Ofgen figures, the details of how much each of the 1,950 wind turbines in Britain actually generates.
These confirm a point familiar to readers of this column: not a single onshore turbine in mainland Britain would be economically viable without the vast hidden subsidy we all pay through our electricity bills (in effect doubling its cost). Because wind is intermittent, turbines only generate, on average, 28 per cent of their capacity. (One built by Renewable Energy Systems on the M25 at Kings Langley produces barely 8 per cent).
The real message of the REF reports, however, is, first, that wind is so unreliable that we would have to build up to a dozen new conventional power stations just to provide backup for all the intended turbines when the wind is not blowing; and, second, that the more we depend on the unpredictable wind, the more this will destabilise the grid, threatening its breakdown.
This was confirmed by another recent report, from UCTE, Europe’s principal grid authority, on the power failure that blacked out much of western Europe on November 4. A significant factor in that collapse of the grid was the growing difficulty of accommodating Germany’s dependence on 18,000 turbines for 6 per cent of its power.
Yet our own Government (supported by the EU) is locked into the idea that, by 2015, 15 per cent of our electricity must come from renewable sources, mostly windfarms (which currently supply only 0.5 per cent). No proper planning has been done to take into account the problems this will create for the national grid. For example, much of the electricity will be generated by nearly 7,000 turbines in Scotland ““ without any system in place to transfer the surplus to England where it would be needed.
All this is only part of the much wider crisis looming as we face the prospect of losing, by 2015, that 47 per cent of our current supply provided by nuclear and coal. According to Alistair Darling, who has assumed prime responsibility for energy policy, we shall then be 80 per cent dependent on gas, half of it imported from Norway. This will make us, supposedly, less dependent than most of our fellow Europeans on politically sensitive supplies from Russia. But if Mr Darling enquired of the Norwegians, he would learn that they are not so foolish as to wish to sell off their own reserves. In fact most of what they sell us will be piped into Norway from Russia anyway.
So dilatory has our Government been in its belated conversion to nuclear that, even if we were to order new reactors from France (which derives 80 per cent of its electricity from nuclear), they would not be ready in time to fill the huge gap that will open up from 2010 onwards. Senior power industry figures are already warning privately that, from that time on, Britain’s power supplies cannot be guaranteed.
And now, to make our cup run over, we have the European Commission, in the guise of energy commissioner Andris Piebalgs, calling for Brussels to assume control over all the EU’s energy supplies. In the Lords last Wednesday, a junior minister, Baroness Royall, appeared to be giving our Government’s support to this idea. Stand by, in short, for the day not far off when our computers, supermarkets and much else get regularly blacked out by the shutting off of power. Not a happy prospect.
By Christopher Booker
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