Why advancing disaster in electricity supply goes unrecognised

Why advancing disaster in electricity supply goes unrecognised

by Paul Spare
article from Monday 26, February, 2018

WE ARE SOMETIMES told by our elders and betters that history repeats itself, but that later generations still fail to learn the lessons.  Perhaps so, but events never repeat with every detail unchanged.  Two episodes in the field of electricity supply illustrate this clearly and may explain why an advancing disaster is going unrecognised.  One occurred several decades ago, whilst the second is still unfolding.

In the mid-1960s, there was often rivalry between the National Coal Board (NCB) and the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB).  The NCB and coal mining unions that represented its employees, exemplified the essence of Labour beliefs in social and industrial progress.  Coal was the absolutely dominant fuel in industry, the key to future prosperity and trade unions generally endorsed its importance and pre-eminent position. 

The CEGB was, in contrast, at the forefront of Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s “white heat of the scientific revolution” – looking to a future that was chrome-plated with power being ‘all electric’ in some sectors.  They envisaged that coal power would be supplemented or in many scenes, replaced by atomic energy.  The Magnox power stations at Bradwell and Berkeley had been commissioned in 1962, followed by Hinkley Point A and Dungeness A. Work was well advanced, developing larger and more efficient designs.  New larger coal stations would still be built to exploit economies of scale, but nuclear stations would be the preferred choice away from the coalfields, and especially near the coast.   Nuclear stations do not need continuous fuel supplies, but can operate with small and infrequent fuel shipments.

The two competing power groups were convinced of their logic, with regular debates in the Left Wing periodicals.  Each conceded that with either outcome, the power stations would be successful and be able to satisfy the need for reliable electricity for many decades into the future.  There were two equally viable options. The CEGB could be said to have lost the early battles but win a final victory, since the AGRs and Sizewell ‘B’ PWR are going to outlive the coal stations.   It is a reflection of shallow political priorities that so many Labour MPs are now berating the government for delaying the total phase-out of coal in electricity generation.

In the 21st Century, a parallel piece of history is in the making.  Again, there are two well established groups but very different in composition and outlook.  On one side are the environmental pressure groups; renewable power lobbies and many centre ground politicians.  They are motivated by the arguments about global warming and are pressing for the end of all carbon-based fuels for power production and even transport and home heating. 

On the other side are many businesses / professional electrical engineers / academics and some consultancies. They have experience in the power generation sector and have calculated and reviewed the potential of a range of power sources both conventional thermal and renewables.

The contrast in attitudes is very marked.  The global warming pressure groups / renewables bodies have one over-riding concern – namely the elimination of all  power generation that uses fossil fuels (and hence releases CO2).  They have no obligation to ensure that replacement power supplies are adequate… only that they are carbon-free.

The power companies, academics and professional engineers have no particular favoured power source nor do they demonise any system.   They have however identified from extensive monitoring of the contributions made by the available power sources that renewable sources alone are not capable of delivering the power security required by our post-industrial society.

We have a contest between an ideology resembling a moral crusade on the one hand and a practical assessment by a coalition of groups who place the performance of the power generation sector above any attachment to an environmental policy.  The latter group have no objection generally to a contribution being made by renewable sources, but envisage a catastrophe if the gas, coal and nuclear plants are not available to backup renewable technologies. 

They point out that renewable power output is essentially weather-driven and hence highly variable and unpredictable.  Wind power can contribute 25-30 per cent of our electricity in a quiet period but decrease to only 1 per cent within 24 hours, whilst demand is increasing.  These indisputable qualities cannot be overcome by any available technology.  Our electrical supplies must be maintained to support our advanced way of life.  Communications, railways, food processing and storage, health services, financial transactions and diverse other sectors require power with almost 100 per cent security. 

Throughout the time that renewables have been increasing their contribution, there have been coal and gas-fired power stations to backup and compensate for any short fall in wind or solar power.  Before any measures are taken to eliminate the remaining, controllable, centralised power systems, it must be incumbent upon the proponents of renewables to provide comprehensive calculations illustrating how power supplies will be maintained when wind and solar output is only a few percent of demand – such as 21st February when wind power fell to less than 1 per cent of demand.    Adverse weather conditions such as freezing anticyclones and long periods of foggy weather are not rare events.

It is a most grievous deficiency in the political system that our elected leaders can execute legislation concerning electricity – our most important manmade commodity – based on profound ignorance whilst having no obligation to consult those most knowledgeable and experienced.  They should be compelled to check the Gridwatch or MyGrid sites every week.

Paul Spare CEng, FEI FIMechE  © 26 February 2018

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