Well, no-one is going to believe me but I was going to write a piece about renewable energy and its dangers. Honestly, I really was. But having recently written about a sensible response to the non-emergency uncrisis of climate change I left it on the back burner; recent events on the National Grid, that creaking remnant of the days when the UK had politicians who had at least a nodding acquaintance with physics and who heeded the warning of competent engineers, means I can put it off no longer.

By playing fast and loose with energy security, our politicians and civil servants are risking the lives of hundreds or, in the worst case, thousands of her Majesty’s subjects. This is not hyperbole, not doom-mongering. It is cold, hard fact.

There is a word which is going to be much in the news for the next few days – until Celebrity Bake-off Island starts at least – which describes the most desirable attribute of the systems that power our lights, our railways, our factories, our civilisation. That word is ‘despatchability’.

When you flick a light switch you expect a lot. You expect the demand for energy to be met cheaply, you expect the generating widgets to meet the demand and you expect civilisation to continue. It ain’t necessarily so, not anymore. You have decided, or other people have decided for you, that the energy must be clean of the taint of fossil fuel and will have been generated as far as is practical by hydro, solar or wind. Increasingly, that last demand is beyond the realms of practicability, but we’re not allowed to quibble, at least not until people start to die

Let’s look at hydro.

This is the UK. Hydro relies on rugged terrain, big drops down which the water from an elevated lake can pour into a turbine.  Guess how many such places meet the configuration requirements for hydro. That’s right, damn few. Of course you could always build dams across upland valleys in the Lake District, Scotland and Wales. Good luck with that, and even then the energy delivered would be nowhere enough to satisfy a population of 65 million. Dinorwig, the pumped storage hydro plant in Wales, cost billions and would, if pressed into service, only keep the UK running for a few minutes. The risk of a cascade failure of the Grid means that Dinorwig has another role – it’s there to reboot the whole caboodle if the entire country goes dark.

OK, solar then.

This is the UK. It gets dark at night, it gets dark when it’s winter, it gets dark when it’s cloudy. A solar panel in our country has a capacity factor – that’s what percentage of its full rated value it could actually deliver in the real world – of 11%. Call it a tenth. A solar ‘farm’ rated as serving 100,000 dwellings will, on average, serve 10,000. On average. Sometimes more, sometimes less, sometimes none at all when the big shiny thing in the sky goes to bed. Then there’s the major difficulty that we need light when it’s dark, heat when it’s cold, power at any time of the day or night. Anyone with a curious mind and a sense of humour will find it instructive to work out how many rechargeable AA batteries it would take to store enough energy for 10,000 houses. The approved units are number of times round the equator or if the numbers get really enormous, what fraction of the distance to the moon they would reach when placed end to end.

So, that leaves wind.

Wind blows day and night most of the time, but when a continental high forms in the winter the wind drops and all of Europe sits under leaden skies with gentle freezing breezes barely stirring the subsidy-milkers’… sorry, wind turbines’ sails. The UK uses the most energy in the winter, energy in all its forms. Cars are driven more, central heating is on, lights are needed at four in the afternoon, everything conspires to drive up demand. And for weeks at a time, the proud offshore and onshore ranks of wind turbines provide four-fifths of five eights of very little. Never mind, feel the warmth of those carbon taxes as the fossil fuel plants which keep the UK working are flat out and never mind the CO2. The old, the poor and the sick will pay the Carbon Emissions Tax, they’ve no choice… OK, maybe one other choice. They say hypothermia is a painless way to go.

Which brings us back to the word ‘despatchable’. This is a silly word for something more understandable. The understandable word is ‘reliable’.

There will be an inquiry into the blackout  which tripped thousands of people off the Grid and trapped them in trains when the door and windows didn’t open,  caused chaos when traffic lights failed, when load-shedding revealed the weakness in our emergency provisions in hospitals. Let’s pretend this will be a genuine inquiry, not one of those ‘no-one to blame, lessons will be learned’ exercises in arse-covering so beloved by the civil service and their docile ministers. What should it say? Here’s one scenario, not the only possible one and maybe not the true one, but it’s plausible.

  1. The blackout was [allegedly] caused by ramping up wind energy and ramping down conventional generation in order to set new renewable energy records.
  2. By leaving the Grid exposed to in inherently frequency-aberrant wind power, its resilience was degraded to failure. [Allegedly] asynchronous input from the offshore wind farm meant it had to be closed down. The consequent surge in demand [allegedly] caused a conventional power station to trip offline. The conventional power stations remaining had enough inertia to take up the slack: without that inertia a major cascade failure would have resulted in even more widespread and longer-lasting power cuts. The alternative explanation seems less plausible – a gas plant went offline and tripped the wind farm – but what do I know, I’m not the Secretary of State.
  3. The engineers who designed the Grid deserve high praise. In particular, Dinorwig’s emergency backup generation saved the country from a major emergency.
  4. The plans to de-carbonise the UK power base is criminally reckless. Politicians have a duty of care and, if they’re not careful, they’ll find themselves up in front of the beak.

There is a simple solution.

  1. Tax the wind and solar farms at the same rate as the carbon tax faced by conventional generation. Gordon Brown’s tax raid on fossil fuel companies will lend this impost a fig-leaf of respectability.
  2. Renegotiate the contracts under which the renewable energy firms are allowed to export power to the Grid. At present they are privileged, given priority when the wind blows and the sun shines and with no responsibility beyond that. Make them guarantee supplies day and night, wind or calm, sun or cloud. Only grant them Grid access if they agree to provide ‘reliable’ energy.
  3. Frack. You’ll need the gas for when the “renewable” energy firms go bust.
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