Our weather defines us - and defines our potential powerlessness

Our weather defines us - and defines our potential powerlessness

by Paul Spare
article from Tuesday 26, June, 2018

THERE USED TO BE regular criticisms of the British that they were obsessed with the weather in their conversations, even whilst abroad.  Certainly, some of my earliest memories are of older family members recalling how tough life was in the very cold winters after the end of the Second World War. These events were followed by the floods of 1953 and heavy rainfall in the 1950s and 1960s that destroyed railway lines to Scotland and the Kent coast.  At the other end of the spectrum, there was the drought in the summer 1976 that lasted many weeks that saw the appointment of a government minister to organise counter-measures.  Our climate has certainly been varied and unpredictable.

Currently there is a period of settled warm weather – expected to last another week, closely repeating ten similar days at the start of June. Whether the weather is damp and miserable or unseasonably warm, society continues to demand a continuous supply of goods and services. Uninterrupted supplies of food, water, gas, oil and electricity are required to support the population.  All of these commodities, except electricity can be built up and stored.  Mains electrical power has to be generated at the instant it is required.  That imposes a tremendous responsibility on National Grid and the power companies to keep us supplied with electricity during storms, frosts and blizzards.

Pronouncements from environmental pressure groups warn us that ever-increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere will bring more dramatic weather extremes.  They may be correct, but so far, no conclusive evidence has been discovered above our existing erratic variations in the weather.  Perhaps these long summer anticyclones rather than instability, will dominate our future weather?

What is not widely appreciated is that long periods of stable weather also bring serious challenges that will become evermore insuperable with present energy policies.  Warm, becalmed weather has little effect on most power plants but it is a catastrophe for wind turbines and has now revealed twice in the same month the absurdity of an energy policy that is evermore reliant on renewable power. 

Peak electricity demand is about one third less than the winter maximum, but is still around 37,000 MW.  Our society is accustomed to electricity supply security of at least 99.9 per cent, ie a power loss of only about one hour per annum. An infrastructure that is dependent upon electronic information, robotics and electrical power for evermore transport is totally incompatible with an unreliable electrical generation network that depends upon the vagaries of the weather.  It is the weather that controls the quantity of renewable energy and perusing the generation statistics, as I do regularly,  reveals the problem with frightening clarity.

Wind generation started a steady decline on Friday 22 June.  Sunday, Monday and today has seen wind generation from the ten thousand turbines hover around 1 per cent of demand.  Noon today it is 150MW representing 0.4 per cent of consumer demand. To put this into context, we are currently importing 1000 MW, seven times this amount, via the cross-Channel cable from Holland and a similar amount from France. 

The preceding episode of wind power failure commenced on Wednesday 30th May and lasted ten days with aggregate wind turbine output even declining below 50MW for a time on 3rd June  – less than 0.2 per cent of electricity demand.  During this period, when the ten thousand wind turbines were almost all stationary, we were reliant on imports of almost 2,000 MW continuously from the French nuclear stations to prevent power cuts.

When conditions were favourable earlier in the year, the wind contribution reached 30 per cent and this performance was claimed as a success in newspapers and the BBC.  It is a gross dereliction of the BBC’s responsibility to present impartial news, for its news departments to ignore completely the failure of an industrial sector that they laud with such sycophantic approval when wind conditions are favourable.  What other sector would receive such favourable treatment… not the water supply or gas, nor the railways, nor the banks.  This failure is especially inexcusable because it has now happened twice within a period of a few weeks.

The BBC has found airtime to report the relatively mild consequences of the loss of CO2 gas supplies on the soft drinks industry. It should be reporting the increase in carbon emissions that are a consequence of the failure of wind power and the inevitable increase in electricity generation from gas-fired and coal plants to prevent blackouts.  Had it examined the issue with any degree of scientific impartiality, it would have concluded the planned closure of our coal and gas-fired power plants would be an irrational and ruinous gesture that will bring blackouts and hardship to millions in the United Kingdom. 

Paul Spare CEng, FEI FIMechE

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