Saturday, 11 May 2013
Will the lights go out in the UK?
Quite recently Ofgem's outgoing CEO Mr Buchanan, warned us about electricity shortages and rising energy prices. For the limited attention span of busy media and public that may have come as a surprise. But it wasn't really one. Mr Buchanan, was in fact following up from Ofgem's earlier press release on the same issue. Ofgem reported that the electricity margin could fall from 14% in 2012 to the dangerously low 4% in 2015/16. But how did we arrive here?
In brief, the dirtiest UK coal-fired power plants are shutting down as a result of the Large Combustion Plant Directive (2001/80/EC). No, the EU is not to blame. The Directive was rightly agreed to control the very harmful SO2 and NOX emissions. Notice, it was agreed in 2001 and by the way it succeeded similar Directives of 1994 and 1988.There was plenty of time to prepare. Scottish Power's Cockenzie (1200MW), E.On's Kingsnorth (1940MW) and RWE's Didcot A (2000MW) are taken off the grid. That's a significant capacity loss but there are several other coal-fired power plants remaining in operation in the UK. Tighter environmental regulations will probably take them out of the market by or before reaching their lifespan. New coal-fired plants in the UK will have to be fitted with CCS systems which do not exist yet. Germany seems to have different views on that matter planning to open about 12GW of coal-fired capacity by 2020.
Germany has to do that to substitute the 23% capacity loss their will suffer after shutting down all their nuclear power plants by 2022. Which brings me to the next problem of the UK's power sector. That of underinvestment in nuclear power. In fact, there's no investment at all. After all nuclear players deserted the UK's "new nuclear scene" we're left with EDF demanding guaranteed prices for life. The Government tries to offer that in a politically correct way and in the meanwhile pushes back to 2030 (instead of 2025) its plan for 16GW of new reactors. EDF is probably less in a hurry than the Government should be. While any new capacity is being delayed the Government will have to choose between switching the lights out or extending the already extended lifespan of the existing nuclear fleet. Did I mention that nearly all of the UK's operating nuclear fleet belongs to EDF?
This stranglehold was identified in 2009 in a DECC's report "The UK Low Carbon Transition Path". The Analytical Annex, found low levels of capacity margin and significant expected energy unserved by 2025. It seems that in 2013, things only look worse.
Let me then return to the initial question. Will the lights go out? As someone who believes that power-cuts are entirely unacceptable at these times and part of the world I'll say that it won't happen. It is not my faith in existing policies that is responsible for this optimism. I just tend to believe that since the capacity exists (even if retired) it will be used for generation. We may also need to import as much electricity as possible from the continent. We may finally need to use more open cycle gas turbines than we planned.
Quite shamefully, we'll also have to bare the environmental and financial costs for these choices. The government promised to act over the looming energy gap but they don't seem to have a clear plan, let alone a plan B...
PS: Even though it certainly reads like it, I'm not frustrated only with the Coalition government. It doesn't look to me that the previous Governments treated this matter with the sense of urgency it deserves either.