Richard North, 24/10/2021  

The Sunday Telegraph makes a reasonable point today, arguing that the technical input from the Climate Change Committee should be "challenged and scrutinised" more than any other regulator or advisory body, and particularly in relation to its data on the functioning of the power generation system in a "net zero" environment.

I think it's fair to say that, so far, the government is getting something of a free pass on Johnson's "net zero" plan. For instance, neither in the published plan nor elsewhere is there a detailed appraisal of the technical feasibility of its ambitions for electricity generation, bearing in mind that the aim is for complete decarbonisation of the system by 2035.

This singular feat has never before been achieved anywhere in the world, so the British government is launching a colossal experiment in power generation. This is taking us into unknown territory where there are multiple unresolved technical issues which raise questions as to whether the decarbonisation target is even feasible, much less in the time allotted.

I touched on this in my piece yesterday, when I also remarked on the difficulties facing any journalists who might take on the task. But, in reflection, something of this nature is not something that should be left to the media. Scrutinising a flagship policy of this nature is more correctly a duty of parliament and, in particular, the opposition.

One does not, in this context, have to rehearse the contentious issue of global warming – by whatever title is currently in fashion. On the table is a root-and-branch reorganisation of our electricity generation which a spokesperson for Renewable UK recently asserted: "changes everything we know about the energy system", calling it "a fundamental challenge".

That this is now a flagship policy, with such enormous implications, is itself sufficient justification for placing it at or very near the top of the political agenda, with every aspect of the policy subject to detailed challenge and scrutiny.

To be fair to Labour, back in October 2019 – two years ago to the very day, it published a lengthy report, making 30 recommendations on decarbonising UK energy by 2020, calling it an "Expert briefing for the Labour Party".

In the accompanying press release, Rebecca Long Bailey, the Labour's shadow business and energy secretary, made great play of Labour's plans "to kickstart a Green Industrial Revolution", arguing that her party had "among the most ambitious climate targets in the world" and was "the only party turning their targets into detailed, credible plans to tackle the climate and environmental crisis".

As to the detail of the report, foreshadowing precisely the point I have made in this piece, the authors remarked that the policy was "new territory", noting that there was "no working example of this system in an exactly comparable country, and so to an extent there will need to be experimentation and learning as we go".

Perhaps with that in mind, the authors went on to caution that a future heat strategy "must meet the unique nature of UK heat demand". The peak heat demand, they noted, was "several times larger than the current electricity grid capacity of the UK", and could be managed through diversifying heat sources, using a mixture of local heat sources and electrification.

Significantly, the report recommended "maintaining current heating infrastructure, where possible, and heat storage", limiting the electrification of heating to 25 percent by 2030. But the authors also added that detailed further work was needed "soon". The biggest challenge, they wrote, "will be meeting peak heat demand", adding:
This is why nonelectric heat sources were prioritized first, and why a portion of heat pumps were hybrid, reducing the peak electricity demand for heating. However, the peak heat demand will still change the UK electricity demand profile significantly… Detailed hourly modelling should be a top priority once Labour is in government, and will need to involve regulators, generators, academics, system operators and other experts.
There is a limit to how far one can go to commend this report, though, when the authors project an increase in total UK generation capacity from 77.9 GW (47.2 GW renewable) in 2019 to 177 GW in 2030, of which 120 would be intermittent (mainly wind and solar).

The Labour Party, therefore, was offering a plan which, in the space of what was then 11 years, was looking to the UK electricity generation capacity more than doubling.

Not only was this a staggering increase which, with a moment's reflection, would be recognised as impossible, but the report had already acknowledged that the transmission and distribution network capacity was insufficient. But not only was expansion needed – the system needed redesigning and reconfiguration, to cope with decentralised, intermittent generation, for which it had not been designed.

For all that, by comparison with Johnson's own "Green Industrial Revolution", the Labour proposals were relatively restrained. And that rather indicates quite how extreme and dangerous his plan actually is. Crucially, by aiming to decarbonise electricity generation by 2035, he is placing an impossible burden on the nation, which cannot be met at any price.

Furthermore, the situation is so tenuous that a partially successful attempt would be more dangerous than reaching the projected targets. In the latter event, the intermittent renewables and interconnectors would at least be balanced by a mixture of nuclear, gas coupled with carbon capture, and a small amount of biomass, with enough system inertia to maintain stability.

Interestingly, the Labour report does not see the loss of inertia as "one of the big issues surrounding renewables", which is probably the case where there is diversity in generation types. But diversity is likely to be the first casualty of a failed Johnson plan, as nuclear and gas coupled carbon capture fail to deliver.

As the proportion of solar, wind and electricity from interconnectors climbs, there will come a point where system stability can no longer be guaranteed. And while this problem may well be amenable to resolution, there are no technical solutions available for low-inertia scenario that might arise, not least because of inadequate grid architecture.

Thus, while at the Labour Party conference at the end of September, Starmer pledged to bring forward a "Green New Deal", he is behind the curve when it comes to Johnson's latest plan.

Labour's current response is to complain of Johnson's "sleight of hand", where "Build Back Greener" matches a binding legal commitment to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 with a range of "scenarios" and "ambitions" – but not commitments.

To open up clear "green water", between Labour and the Conservatives, the Party intends to spend £28 billion a year until 2030 – a £224 billion commitment – on moving towards "net zero", even while acknowledging that the "principled stance" will not be enough to achieve the objective by the mid-2030s.

Perhaps this lack of ambition might be our best safeguard, in the unlikely event that Labour takes the reins of power but, in the interim, what we're not seeing is any technical evaluation from the Party, along the lines of its 2019 effort.

Then – back in 2019 – Labour was keen to demonstrate that "the lights and heaters will stay on in 2030". Now, we cannot be so sure that this remains its priority if its main concern is to open up clear "green water". And if the opposition isn't up to the job, and it is too much of a task for the media, we will have to look elsewhere for a solution.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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