BLOG

UK electricity concerns through the energy transition

Hinkley Point C Nuclear Power Station, Photo by Pixabay.

Guest blog by David B Watson BSc C.Eng FIES MIET.

Significant and therefore serious dips in renewables output are not uncommon and can last both briefly and for several days. Since the beginning of this year the UK including Scotland, via England, have on several occasions heavily imported electricity from Europe to keep the lights on and infrastructure running.

One pertinent example was around breakfast on 18 January (at 08.20) when gas generation was required to provide the UK with 25 GW which was 57% of demand at the time, equivalent to the previous output of 10 Longannet power stations (Longannet, a 2400 MW coal-fired power plant in Scotland was decommissioned in 2016). At other intervals this year gas has provided more than 60% of British electricity needs.

On 18 January, wind generation had dipped significantly providing only 13.8%, from an installed capacity equivalent to 75% of that morning’s demand, with Europe’s entire offshore generation, including the UK wind fleet, only meeting 2.5% of European demand. Solar was producing 0% as it is a late riser and generally unable through much of the darker months of the year to support daily UK industry start-up.

Six of the ten ageing nuclear reactors in the UK are shutdown, four unplanned due to steam valve failure and related testing and they will not restart until the end of January or early February. We have been running coal 24/7 from the only remaining active plant in the UK, at Ratcliffe on Soar for most of the month.

Almost all UK gas generating stations are owned by overseas companies, with Uniper of Germany who own seven, plus the Ratcliffe on Soar coal plant, last year reporting a €40 billion net loss. This was the biggest loss in post war German corporate history.

14% of our gas comes from Qatar who coincidently on 18 January confirmed shipments will cease via the Suez Canal, implying that deliveries are likely to be delayed. The UK has the lowest gas storage capability of the major European countries at only a few days compared to Germany at 89 days, France at 103 and the Netherlands at 123.

That morning French nuclear was supporting much of Europe, supplying the UK with 3 GW which matched the loss from our six closed reactors, while also dispatching 3 GW to Germany, 2 GW to Switzerland and 3.3 GW to Italy.

Yes, on 11 January the UK Government issued the “Civil nuclear: roadmap to 2050 ” with the ambition of providing 25 GW of nuclear generation in support of Net Zero and to provide increased secure baseload while helping to stabilise the grid, progressively weakened by renewables. Bearing in mind that EDF will be retiring all of the present UK nuclear reactors, bar one, by 2030 and that the Chinese are believed to be withholding recent payments on their Hinckley Point C joint venture with them, this looks a very challenging road indeed.

In addition, the next generation of advanced nuclear stations are likely to include the adoption of high-assay low-enrichment uranium, Haleu, as it will achieve smaller designs and higher efficiency. However, it is not yet available at commercial scale outside Russia. Whilst the UK is addressing the building of its own Haleu manufacturing plant possibly near Chester, one wonders how long this might take and if it will ever materialise given the likely level of resistance.

As a chartered electrical engineer, I remain dismayed but unsurprised to find a prominent website bearing the word “green” today advising the general public: “The UK government has set a goal to quadruple offshore wind to produce 40,000 MW by 2030 from 2020 production levels. This would sufficiently power every UK home with offshore wind in 2030”. What absolute nonsense, as clearly demonstrated by this month’s figures: an example of a situation that occurs throughout the year.

The UK wind industry claim on the one hand that the UK dominates the offshore wind market, owning a quarter of the present total global portfolio. Yet, at the same time it appears to have successfully convinced our politicians to increase Contracts for Difference of renewables auction by up to 66% in the sixth round, following no bids being received in the fifth round.

The sixth round administrative strike price on the table for 2024 for floating offshore wind (FLOW) has risen to £176/MWh from £116/MWh. Hinkley Point C nuclear was contracted amidst a furore at £92.80 at 2012 prices and both are escalable in relation to UK inflation. Hinkley C as at 1 September 2023 was reckoned to be £128.09/MWh – considerably cheaper than future FLOW.

Last October the Energy Act 2023 was passed in the UK following industry consultation with Ofgem and the government. The Act established the new, independent, government owned Future System Operator (FSO) in 2024 with the remit to overview the entire energy system and related fuels whilst addressing net zero. The FSO replaces the existing Electricity System Operator (ESO) which was a limb of the publicly quoted National Grid.

Whilst the arguments continue as to whether we can afford the trillions of investment that achieving net zero may require, the capability of our grid to always sustain us and our infrastructure in the forthcoming years has to be closely analysed and protected. The FSO has to face this huge challenge throughout whatever form of transition evolves.

 

Lenin is quoted as saying “Every society is three meals away from chaos.”

MI5 are quoted as advising that society “is four meals away from anarchy”.

 

(The blog is based upon several of the author’s recent letters published by The Herald and The Scotsman newspapers.)

David B Watson is a Chartered electrical engineer who was in the energy business for 35 years 30 of which within Foster Wheeler Energy Ltd where before retirement he was Manager of Projects of their Glasgow Operations.

David is a Fellow of the Institution of Engineers in Scotland and a Corporate Member of the UK Institution of Engineering and Technology and has been widely published within the UK on power systems issues.