by Philip Pilkington
Wednesday, 3
August 2022
Analysis
16:30

Britain’s lights will go off this winter

Our dependence on renewable energy is a major problem
by Philip Pilkington
What will happen when the wind doesn’t blow? (photo by Barry Lewis/In Pictures via Getty Images)

As the lights start going off around Europe this summer, there is every chance the same could happen here. Last month parts of London came very close to a blackout. As temperatures soared, electricity demand surged, and the National Grid experienced bottlenecks. The blackout was only avoided by paying a record-breaking £9,724.54 per megawatt hour to persuade Belgium to send more energy via interconnectors. This was 5,000% higher than the typical price paid. While the causes of this particular incident were idiosyncratic, it raises issues that could prove important this coming winter as Europe faces down an energy crisis.

Britain’s reliance on interconnectors — that is, high-voltage cables that connect our energy grid to those of other countries — is the result of the move away from fossil fuels. Fossil fuels, whatever their faults, are extremely reliable. So long as there is oil or gas in the tank, it is easy to fire up the heat at the flick of a switch. Renewables, on the other hand, rely on contingent sources of power: they only work when the sun shines or the wind blows. Interconnectors provide a stopgap solution for when the renewable sources are dormant.

Green advocates laud the complex, market-driven solution of interconnectors. But last month’s price hike shows the downside: if there are shortages across Europe, prices paid may rise exponentially. And this could become a problem if Europe is experiencing an energy crisis. If Europe lacks the natural gas needed to power the generators this winter, then what does Britain do when the weather changes in a way that impacts our renewable energy generation? The likely answer is that Britain will sit in the dark.

It is not just the new ‘complexified’ electricity grid that is under threat, however. Britain’s overall energy mix has changed a great deal since we last faced an energy crisis in the 1970s. As the chart below shows, coal has gone from well over 50% of British energy production to almost zero. Natural gas has stepped in to fill the gap.

Credit: Our World in Data

Some of this gas comes from Britain’s North Sea gas fields. But not all of it. In 2019, almost half of this gas was imported. Add to this the fact that around 35% of the oil we use is imported and it starts to show how dependent the country is on energy imports.

The oil mainly comes from Norway and the United States while the gas comes mainly from Norway and Qatar. Clearly the weak link here if there were a European energy crisis would be Norway which, unlike Britain, is in the European Economic Area. Since the invasion, Britain has scrambled to secure Norwegian gas and has managed to cut deals with Norwegian suppliers, hoping to guarantee Britain energy security this winter.

But there are still two ways that Britain could experience a general energy crisis — as opposed to just an electricity crisis driven by reliance on interconnectors. One is that the situation in Europe becomes so bad that the EU declares a state of emergency and demands that gas supplies are rationed on a country-by-country basis. The other is simply that energy prices rise so high that the British people are forced into de facto rationing. Either scenario is a recipe for very high inflation and economic chaos.

In the past few decades, Britain has changed its energy consumption habits dramatically. The system that it has produced is certainly greener and cleaner, but it is also far more vulnerable to shocks. This winter will provide a serious stress-test for the new system. Let us all hope that it performs well. If it doesn’t, you may need to keep the firewood and candles close at hand.

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J Bryant
J Bryant
8 days ago

If it doesn’t, you may need to keep the firewood and candles close at hand.
Since no one knows how well the UK energy supply will hold up this winter, everyone in the UK would be well advised to have the firewood and candles close at hand just in case. Pity the poor apartment dwellers who don’t have a fireplace to burn the wood.
I wish I could draw because I have in my mind the image of a cartoon: an environmentalist, wearing Birkenstocks and a tie-dyed t-shirt, eyes closed, smug grin on their face, marching confidently toward what they believe is a green future. In fact, they’re marching toward a buzz saw called Reality.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
8 days ago
Reply to  J Bryant

I can only imagine the word salads that will appear when people begin to die of starvation or freeze to death in order to save the planet. Perhaps they will simply blame Trump….again.

Jim Jam
Jim Jam
8 days ago
Reply to  Warren Trees

I can only imagine the word salads that will appear when people begin to die of starvation or freeze to death

Already happening mate. Head over to The Guardian – they’re churning out daily ‘Heat or Eat Diaries’ articles which document the on-the-ground effects of policies they not just cheered on, but at every single point wanted to be more extreme. Of course, this fact is concealed, and within the heartbreaking accounts are attempts to either push more of the same and/or twist the narrative to suit whichever their latest political hobbyhorse might be.

Needless to say, the clueless hacks working at that publication wont be in any danger whatsoever this winter.

Arkadian X
Arkadian X
8 days ago
Reply to  J Bryant

To be on the safe side tomorrow I am getting delivered a pallet of coal. We also have some wood to burn.
Might buy some emergency candles… You never know.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
7 days ago
Reply to  Arkadian X

and you can burn the pallet..?

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
7 days ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Another reality is the environmentalist in your would-be cartoon is singular, not plural, and therefore is either a he or a she.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
7 days ago
Reply to  J Bryant

oooh please can I operate the buzz saw?

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
8 days ago

As is clear from the graph, it is not wind power that has replaced coal, but gas.
Furthermore, it is not just gas’s reliability (as you mention) that makes it better than wind and other intermittent sources, but its dispatchability , which means it can respond to demand quickly, which wind simply cannot do.
There are also the matters of energy density, which means it will always be cheaper at source than wind, and portability which means that power stations can be best situated to minimise transmission losses .
But the killer app remains dispatchability, which is why more wind input will always mean more gas generation required in countries like UK that lack significant hydroelectric potential.

Last edited 8 days ago by Brendan O'Leary
Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
7 days ago

Wind power? perhaps harnessed from inside The House of Commons and from whining, droning eco sandaloids?

Malcolm Knott
Malcolm Knott
8 days ago

Power cuts: utterly predictable from the moment we hitched our wagon to windmills.

Ian McKinney
Ian McKinney
8 days ago

I’d be interested to see the EU enforce energy rationing on non-member Norway as seems to be suggested here.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
8 days ago
Reply to  Ian McKinney

Not much they can do really. Norway is mostly sufficient in electricity, thanks to 900+ high-altitude dams and other small hydro plants.
Of course, like (e.g.) Iceland, they have greenies who want to not only halt any new dam-building but destroy existing ones and block oil & gas projects.

Alan Hawkes
Alan Hawkes
7 days ago

Time to get fracking.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
8 days ago

Or they may stay on?
How i despise headlines that purport to give a definitive outcome to something that is unknowable.

Arkadian X
Arkadian X
8 days ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Indeed, “might” would have been more accurate.

Matthew Powell
Matthew Powell
8 days ago

The sweet spot for Putin is not for the lights to go out but for them to stay on, at an absorbent price to European consumers, filling his coffers, whilst building resentment for their own governments. A full energy blockade, for any sustained period, could actually signify significant difficulties on the battlefield or at home politically, as it is likely to be only used to rapidly try force the West to the negotiating table.

polidori redux
polidori redux
8 days ago

Last month parts of London came very close to a blackout.”
Rest assured that enough energy would have have been rustled up from somewhere to keep our MPs supplied with gin and tonic and ice cubes.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
7 days ago
Reply to  polidori redux

Brixton?

D Glover
D Glover
8 days ago

I remember the power cuts of the seventies. At that time almost nothing depended on computers, today almost everything does.
With power out there will be no control of transport, medical services, banking, communications, retailing……..just nothing.
In the seventies the lights and the TV went off. We lit a candle and went to bed. Now we wou

Last edited 8 days ago by D Glover
Graham Willis
Graham Willis
8 days ago

Might focus a few minds.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
7 days ago

Although the sentiment is correct, this article misses a couple of key points. First, when Europe is struggling for power this winter – and 50% of France’s nuclear fleet is currently out of action – the high prices achievable will see the UK exporting electricy through the interconnectors. Good for our balance of payments, less good for keeping the home fires burning.

Second, Norway is not the safe bet the author imagines. A very dry season has left hydro reserves at historic lows and politicians are already talking about restricting exports. Unlike gas, oil or coal, which will always be available at a price, once hydro resources are expended only an extended period of rainfall/snowmelt can replenish them.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
7 days ago

The air quality in the English countryside is superb… and always has been: I have noticed no change whatsoever?

Of course landowners will put up windmills and those ghastly rows of sun thingys, because they are paid substantial amounts so to do?

The advance in automated narrow seam coal mining since the Thatcher genocide of the mines means that hugely profitable Yorks, Notts and Derby ultra high calorific narrow seam ‘ black’ coal mines can and must be reopened, and the product sold as well as used domestically- We are an island have have estuary/tidal water power.. still unused and untapped, plus fracking and North Sea oil and gas.

Ignore the carboNazi sandaloids and just DO IT!!!

Andrew Wise
Andrew Wise
7 days ago

The blackout was only avoided by paying a record-breaking £9,724.54 per megawatt hour to persuade Belgium to send more energy via interconnectors. This was 5,000% higher than the typical price paid.

presumably we will have the opportunity to sell them power at exhorbitant prices when they need it.
the interconnectors work both ways, and I suspect Europe will need support as much as we do at some time

Justin Clark
Justin Clark
7 days ago

Headline grabber says “will go out”, first paragraph says “could”…

Doug Pingel
Doug Pingel
8 days ago

Onesies will be back in fashion this year – or perhaps twosies. I’ve still got my generator that I used in the 70s and added another to keep up with the house load (except for hot water but as an ex submariner I’ll be happy on one bucket bath per week.) I’m sure its not quite legal but if I shut my Gas off at the Main I can inject ‘Calor’ via a redundant cooker point. I just have to be extra vigilant with the Nr 9 bus!

polidori redux
polidori redux
8 days ago
Reply to  Doug Pingel

smother yourself in goose fat and sow yourself into your onesie. As an added benefit you will get the number 9 bus to yourself

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
7 days ago
Reply to  Doug Pingel

hidemoney from a submariner? fold the notes under a bar of soap.. sorry to bore you with that for the millionth time?!!

Ukunda Vill
Ukunda Vill
8 days ago

There are down sides to joining the US proxy war on the Russian border. Check out the US report titled “Unbalancing and Overexending Russia 2019”. Effectively we shot ourselves in the foot to please the USA. Meanwhile, Russia has recovered and is on the rise again. Should have concentrated effort on China who are the real threat.

Last edited 7 days ago by Ukunda Vill
Julian Pellatt
Julian Pellatt
7 days ago

Why has Britain invested sufficiently in nuclear power?

Mark Denman
Mark Denman
7 days ago

Unfortunately no mention of fracking our shale gas fields, or of increasing our North Sea oil and gas production. Disappointingly superficial journalism!

Andrew Martin
Andrew Martin
7 days ago
Reply to  Mark Denman

Politicians have been led up the Garden path by the Green Brigade. We have shut down our fossil fuel supply too quickly. Renewables was never going to take their place not now or in the foreseeable future. Shame on the Tories for allowing the Green lobbyists for dictating policy.

rod tofino
rod tofino
7 days ago

aa

Spencer O'byrne
Spencer O'byrne
5 days ago

Coal candles? Live in green Cornwall whats new?