Security or insecurity of energy supply

Renewable generation in Scotland exceeded nuclear for the first time according to the latest government statistics. But this may not be as significant as some claim.

Wind and hydro power produced 10.3 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity in the first six months of this year. National Grid figures showed nuclear power stations generated 7.8TWh over the same period. In addition, 5.6TWh of electricity came from coal-fired power stations with a further 1.4TWh from gas-fired stations. Environmental campaigners described this as a “significant landmark”.

However, Paul Younger, professor of Energy Engineering at the University of Glasgow, said it was important to keep a sense of perspective. “It’s true that we’ve seen an increase in both the installed capacity and output of wind generation over the last year or so, but the 2013 closure of the coal-fired power station at Cockenzie and the downgrading of the gas-fired power station at Peterhead have had a much more dramatic effect on the percentage balance of generation sources. What we are seeing is a loss of capability in Scotland to generate on demand. Basically, nuclear generates steadily, 24/7 and we can increase generation from coal and gas as and when we need it. We desperately need not to lose sight of that. Otherwise, we will be relying on importing power from England, or else facing blackouts. That would bring a backlash against renewables which I do not want to see.”

Iain Macleod from Scientific Alliance Scotland makes similar points about the need for a balanced energy policy in his Scotsman article. He also makes the case for adequate control systems rather than relying on the market. He said:

“The negative effect of renewable energy on the risk that supply will not meet demand has to be considered on a system basis. Reliable technology exists that can be used to keep this risk at an acceptable level. But in order to do this, a central authority is needed to do the calculations and take action to ensure that the necessary generation capacity is made available. Market forces cannot be relied on to deliver a secure supply of electricity.”

Michael Meacher MP makes a similar point about market failure to secure supply, “The government’s answer to these setbacks is to launch a new system of what it calls “capacity payment auctions” which are effectively bribes to get the energy companies to invest. It exposes how helpless the government is in a privatised system where the companies hold back, knowing they’re in the driving seat, till the government makes an offer they can’t refuse.”

Despite security of supply warnings, the UK is in the top 10 for its energy security, but not in the top 10 for either sustainability or affordability of supplies and it has been placed on “negative watch” by the World Energy Council along with Japan, Germany and Italy.

WET’s Joan MacNaughton, said: “One of the things that’s important is the trend. Over the last three years there has been a downward trend in the performance of the UK. In particular, its energy security is down, it’s still just in the top 10, but it’s come down quite a lot since 2012. Affordability has worsened significantly. Clearly there are issues that the UK would want to look at, but it is one of only three countries that get a AAA rating so it’s still doing very well.”

Caroline Kuzemko from LSE takes the debate in a different direction by arguing that we are over obsessing about domestic energy supply. She says, “The idea that the UK’s energy supply is at risk has once again gained currency with the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. While the narrative that energy supplies are of strategic importance is regularly trotted out by UK corporate energy interests for their own gain.”

I will leave the final word to Dieter Helm, professor of energy policy at the University of Oxford. He says that it does not make economic sense for Scotland to be reliant on renewable energy, “Salmond has talked about 100 per cent renewables for Scotland. Well, it’s nonsense. Wind is intermittent by definition. You have to ask a very simple question: even if you wanted to do this, what are you going to do when the wind doesn’t blow? The truth is Scotland relies on baseload nuclear power, coal and gas to balance its system and it will have to for a very long time to come. Full stop.”

If we can be certain of one thing, this debate isn’t going to reach a ‘full stop’ anytime soon!


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