As the UK struggles through the smoke of the political bonfire that was the 2016 referendum on exiting the European Union, its eyes are fixed firmly on the exit sign, with no idea whether it is the doorway to the economic torture room of leaving without a transition deal or to political perdition that must arise, on one or more sides, for a transition agreement to be concluded.
The Brexit focus has taken up most of the oxygen of policy debate and action for the past three years, until the last few weeks of fervent policy soundbites at a gallop. Bang on cue, the creaking and archaic national grid suffered a stroke as two generators, one gas and one wind, went offline within minutes of one another.
Despite the addition of hundreds of sticking plaster battery storage plants firing up to shore the ailing grid, the effects of the frequency clot would be felt by hundreds of thousands of people as trainlines became paralysed, communications networks failed and the lights went out.
It has been widely discussed, within the energy industries, that the lack of coherent, long term energy policy, incorporating generation, de-carbonisation, distribution and use, was and is pushing the UK towards a power problem (a disaster in today’s parlance).
Headline grabbing showboat ideas such as giant, and seemingly un-fundable, new nuclear plants have been used as a shield to deflect reasonable questions over integrated policy and genuine fears over how changing use and changing generation can be matched when they are connected by aging infrastructure.
On the use side of the equation, electricity consumption has been falling (slightly) over the past three years and is 7% lower than its peak in 2008. This may be as a result of distributed microgeneration, lower economic output, better energy efficiency, climate and many other influences, but it has certainly given some political cover to kick the policy can down the street.
However, the recent power outage highlights that whilst our electricity demand may have fallen, our dependence has increased significantly. In 2008, smartphones were a fairly new thing, the vast level of connectivity and data demand has grown from almost nothing between then and now and it is expected to grow by 7 times by 2021. Add to that the interconnectivity of things to other things and our future reliance on electricity becomes clear. I suspect that many were angry about trains being cancelled, but many more were angrier that they had no mobile signal or couldn’t access information on why their train was cancelled.
Crossing the policy bridge to transport for a moment, shows us that the direction of travel is toward electric vehicles, requiring a network of ever faster roadside charging points as well as home and work charging points, all of which adds to demand and changes the profile of electricity use.
The generation side has been a visual affair, there is no escaping wind turbines on the horizon and solar farms alongside motorways. There has been a 5-fold increase in renewable generation capacity in the past ten years, and a 4.5-fold increase in electricity generation from renewables to 33% of total generation in 2018.
63% of renewable electricity in 2018 came from wind and solar, which brings us to the, much commented upon, issue of intermittence. If we see a future world where demand is being driven by transport and data, increasing both day and night baseload and requiring some sizeable supply points to make fast charging work in non-urban roadside settings, and a move to renewable generation that is weighted to intermittent production, how do we overcome the inevitable gaps between demand and supply and protect ourselves from the increasingly negative downsides of power outages?
Apart from the ignis fatuus that has become the UK nuclear policy, there has been a quiet revolution occurring to bridge the gap and bolster the UK energy stability. At present there is 4GW of interconnector capacity linking the UK and the EU, allowing us to import from and, theoretically, export to our erstwhile trading bloc partners. In 2018 we imported 19.1 TWh (net), approximately 5.7% of our total consumption and up from 11TWh a decade earlier (when we only had 2.5GW interconnector capacity installed)
Whilst we have been engaged in the complexities of extracting ourselves, gently or otherwise, from the EU, work has been ramped up to increase the number of interconnectors to a capacity of 11.7GW by 2022 and maybe more beyond that.
The interconnected GW Capacity at 2022 are:
The British Isles are literally being stitched to the fabric of the EU under the sea whilst we tear ourselves apart on the surface.
Having this capacity link with France, allows us to claim low carbon power from Nuclear, whilst avoiding the costly and politically dangerous territory of home grown, or at least hosted, new nuclear. However, we are not alone in wanting a piece of the French generation capacity, as Belgium, Germany, Italy, Switzerland and Spain together imported 5 times more from France in 2018 than the UK did. I wonder who will get preference in a post Brexit world?
For the time being there are agreements in place to allow the continuing flow of electrical power between the EU and UK for 12 months, whatever type of Brexit prevails, in the hope that something more permanent can be constructed in this period.
10 years on from when I first took an interest in long term energy policy, it seems that there has been no real conversation, merely some knee jerk reactions, mainly to comply, or deal, with the consequences of other policy objectives.
This lack of willingness to take on big critical infrastructure issues that take longer than a fixed term parliament to deal with has led to a lost decade of in-country generating asset development, just at a time when the world is becoming more protectionist, we are leaving our closest allies and demand is changing and increasing.
A fine example of this is the planned closure of 90% 0f the large coal and nuclear plants in the next decade. Only 12% is being replaced, in the form of Hinkley Point C 1 & 2 in 2025 and 2027 respectively, hardly a poster child for well thought out generation asset policy.
Planning policy, national grid infrastructure, land, finance, emissions, energy security and end use patterns make this a very challenging area, that takes time and political will to manage effectively. Sadly, we seem to have very little of either and the only fix we have been able to come up with is to import more of our energy from our friendly (for the time being) neighbours. But let’s not forget, their demand is increasing and changing also.
The only way to ensure proper energy security for the UK is to invest in both generation and distribution infrastructure. A good start would be to support those asset operating businesses, that are being squeezed out of the market by higher environmental standards, to convert to lower carbon fuels, thus prolonging the life of existing assets and creating a buffer within which the long overdue integrated policy conversation can take place.
Frank Harris is the CEO of Helvellyn Group and has been active in the energy, waste and renewables industries since 2006.