As a result of privatisation, the EU "green" policies and generally incompetent governments (both Labour and Conservative) we are quite likely to be faced with electricity power cuts this winter. We have what I understand is the most expensive electricity in Europe, and yet it seems that the authorities are unable to offer us a guaranteed supply, with the National Grid advising us that they will only have about 5% reserve generating capacity as we enter the winter.
How has this come about? Firstly, the EU decided all coal fired power stations should be closed as they produce greenhouse gasses, and that they should be replaced with renewable sources. As we have already exploited all the likely hydro-electric possibilities, the only other non-polluting sources remaining in the short term were nuclear and wind. Both have their problems; there is a vocal anti-nuclear lobby which has become louder since the Japanese disaster, whilst wind generation, apart from its visual pollution, is inefficient and unreliable.
Secondly, privatisation hasn't helped. With privatised generators competing with each other, there is no incentive to provide spare capacity; only generators that are producing electricity earn money and no-one in their right minds is going to provide something like 20% spare capacity for it to sit their idle "just in case".
Thirdly, government incompetence. Our governments have been slow off the mark with nuclear energy as
there is still a perception amongst many people that it is unsafe, although the French now use it as their main source of electricity. So in order that it appears that they are doing something, they have used subsidies to encourage the development of wind power without any consideration as to whether we are getting value for money. The figures provided for total capacity are many times the proven generated capacity simply because the wind rarely blows at the "right" speed for very long at a time. There also has to be equal stand-by capacity for the times when the wind is not blowing and the wind farm owners are not supplying this and instead are relying on the major generators to fill the gap. But why should they? What's in it for them?
The net result of all this is that the country will have at the most 5% spare capacity during the coming winter, assuming an "average" British winter. If we have one that is worse than average, or we have a significant breakdown at any of the generators we could be in for a difficult time. It is also worth noting that a significant part of the electricity supply now comes from gas powered generators, and at one point last year the country's gas stores were down to about 36 hours demand.
Contacts in the industry tell me that we were lucky to get though the last two winters without an outage and they feel that the National Grid's estimate of 5% reserve is generous in view of the ageing equipment and the possibility of gas shortages.
I trust all those organisations, such as hospitals and other essential services, which have stand-by generators, will ensure that they are in good working order and test them out during the coming month, although I must admit my experience with diesel-powered stand-by sets was that they always started on their monthly test, but invariably failed to start in an emergency!
In the meanwhile I'm considering getting myself a small generator with sufficient capacity to drive the central heating pump, the freezer and some lights. I'd prefer it to be diesel powered as storing sufficient petrol is both unsafe and illegal.
Let's hope that we have some global warming resulting in a mild winter!
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