Anybody who looks with a critical eye at the madcap push toward increasing amounts of intermittent renewable electricity generation in the U.S. and Europe quickly realizes that eventually, this has to hit a wall.
But when will the crunch come? Theoretically, with 100% fossil-fuel backup, you can keep an electricity system of majority renewables functioning indefinitely, albeit with consumers bearing the unnecessary costs of two fully redundant generating systems.
But then politicians pledge to reduce and then eliminate the fossil fuel backup, and by dates that are rapidly approaching. Backup plants get closed and decommissioned. For how much longer can this really keep going?
I have written about this subject several times (for example here in June 2020, and here in July 2021); but, not wanting to sound like the boy who cried wolf, I don’t just keep harping on it every day. Better to wait for the inevitable crunch to actually hit somewhere.
In just the past few days, an early version of the crunch has begun to hit the UK. Unfortunately for the Brits, this is happening on the very eve of their big “climate summit,” sometimes going by the name COP26, set to kick off in Glasgow on November 1.
Likely, you have not read about the UK energy crunch, because the last thing that mainstream US news sources are going to devote their space to is information on how jurisdictions that have been the most enthusiastic in adopting intermittent electricity generation are starting to run into major problems.
To get real information, an excellent place to start is the several-times-weekly email from the (London-based) Global Warming Policy Foundation, which provides summaries and links to articles in the UK and other European press.
First, some background on how the UK got themselves to where they are. Like all the European countries, the UK has been in the thrall of climate hysteria for at least a couple of decades.
Some had hopes that Boris Johnson, who had previously made some skeptical noises, would bring a dose of sanity when he became prime minister in 2019; but instead, he has gone after the climate dragon with all the zeal of a new convert.
The UK’s statutory commitment to reach “net zero” carbon emissions by 2050 was enacted right at the time that Johnson was taking over the prime ministership from Theresa May.
According to Reuters here, peak electricity demand in Great Britain is about 30 GW in the summer and 50 GW in the winter. (Not much need for air conditioning over there!)
To see how well they cover that peak demand, we can look to the Digest of UK Energy Statistics, of which the 2020 version just came out on July 29, 2021. Here is their chart of available resources, which appeared on page 88 of that Report:
As you can see, as recently as 2010, they had a very comfortable 80+ GW of dispatchable generation capacity of various sorts — CCGT (i.e, natural gas), “conventional steam” (i.e., coal), nuclear, and hydro.
But in that year they started to reduce the amounts of all of those except the natural gas. Today they’re down to about 55 GW total of dispatchable capacity, with coal reduced from about 40 GW to about 15, and natural gas up somewhat from about 20 GW to about 30 GW.
So looking at this you would think at first glance that it is still too soon for the crunch to hit. But look a little closer.
You can also see from the chart that with the reduction in coal capacity, natural gas is now critical to the backup equation, and without the natural gas backup, the coal, nuclear and hydro by themselves are not going to be sufficient when the wind and sun go to zero, as they regularly do.
And in the UK, even though they are sitting on top of a perfectly good natural gas shale formation, they have managed effectively to ban fracking.
To get the full background on how that occurred, you can read Matt Ridley’s 2019 article here. (Basically, the ban arose from regulators accepting environmentalist claims that fracking would cause earthquakes. At this point, all frackers in the UK have given up.)
Meanwhile, gas output from the North Sea fields is in serious decline. So when the wind and sun don’t produce, the UK is now completely dependent on natural gas from other countries to provide the fossil fuel backup for its weather-dependent renewable generation.
And then, in the last few weeks, the wind in the supposedly-always-windy North Sea has suddenly gone quiet. From Fortune, September 16:
The exponential growth of offshore wind farms in the North Sea has been a testament to the combined efforts of European countries’ investing time, effort, and money in the decarbonization of their electricity grids. But just as Europe needs energy the most, the wind in the North Sea has stopped blowing…
So all of a sudden everybody in Europe needed to crank up their remaining natural gas capacity to 100%, all at the same time, and with essentially no domestic supplies.
Needless to say, prices spiked and supply shortages immediately emerged. Wholesale gas prices are up by about 70% over the past month, and again today, Bloomberg reported a 10% spike in gas prices in just one day, as “Russia [is keeping] a firm grip on supply.”
And the crunch is particularly acute in the UK. The Daily Mail reported today that as a result of the huge wholesale gas price increases, dozens of utilities suddenly face bankruptcy unless they can either raise consumer prices immediately or get a prompt bailout from the government:
Taxpayers could be hit with a multibillion-pound bill as energy bosses try to ease soaring fuel costs which is leaving suppliers on the brink of collapse. Ministers are in talks with energy companies over a bailout that could help the beleaguered sector – which has seen wholesale gas prices increase by 70 percent since last month.
Collateral consequences are rapidly spreading through the economy. From the Global Warming Policy Foundation, September 18:
As energy prices in Europe go through the roof, factories are beginning to shut down and food is disappearing from the shelves. . . . Acute food shortages were feared last night after high gas prices forced most of Britain’s commercial production of carbon dioxide to shut down. Emergency talks were being held between government officials and food producers, retailers and the energy industry with warnings of a “black swan event”, an extremely rare blow with unpredictable consequences.
The closure of two fertilizer plants in northern England and others in Europe has left the food and drink industry facing a shortage of carbon dioxide, which is a byproduct of fertilizer manufacturing. The gas is critical to the production and transport of a range of products, from meat to bread, beer and fizzy drinks.
And what will be the consequences as the wholesale price spikes work their way through to the consumer? From the Daily Mail, September 18:
A cost of living crisis will see average households’ bills soar by more than £1,500 a year, experts warn today. Families are now on the cusp of the biggest spending squeeze in nearly a decade as bills and prices rise relentlessly.
That would represent roughly a doubling of the annual average consumer electric bill.
And remember, as of today, they still have full fossil-fuel backup for their intermittent wind and solar electricity production.
What happens a few years from now when the full backup is gone, and the electricity goes out every time the wind and sun stop working at the same time?
I suspect that the current crisis in the UK will pass over the upcoming weeks or months, as the wind starts blowing again.
But the current crisis is just a small foretaste of what will inevitably happen as fossil fuel backup goes away and dependence on intermittent renewables increases. The best is yet to come.
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