Brian Monteith: We must act now to keep the lights on or it might be too late
Actions have consequences, so it is no surprise that in response to the UK ordering the departure of 23 Russian diplomats following the Salisbury poisoning that Russia has responded in kind by ordering 23 UK diplomats to leave Russia and the British Council and our St Petersburg consular offices cease operations.
In addition there shall also be unintended consequences, and the need for Britain to have greater security of energy or be blackmailed by Russia must become one of them. For the last year or so my friends in the Scientific Alliance have been publishing articles to try and draw attention to the threat of what the public would call electricity black-outs. The facts about us relying upon unreliable generation and the importation of foreign-sourced fuels are there for all to see, but ministers and politicians, of any colour and in any parliament have studiously turned a blind eye to the challenge facing them.
Now, with British-Russian relationships deteriorating it might just be appreciated that we need greater energy self-sufficiency and that to do this means we must face up to some hard choices, such as encouraging fracking throughout the UK, committing to more nuclear power stations and maintaining our use of coal as a back-up.
I do not intend to repeat the arguments for and against wind turbines, solar power or other forms of so-called sustainable generation, subsidised or not. My concern is simply about solving an engineering problem; when the right type of wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine how are we to ensure that we have sufficient electrical power available to put our lights on, run our hospitals, schools and industries – and boil our kettles? That’s before we even begin to consider providing power to charge up the batteries of millions of electric cars.
As I write, wind is providing 23 per cent of UK power generation, solar 0 per cent, biomass 4.7 per cent and hydro 1.1 per cent. To meet our needs we are therefore drawing upon 15.8 per cent nuclear, 17.4 per cent coal, 30.5 per cent gas and import 5.3 per cent power generation. I am not concerned here about the economics of different sources of electricity. Nor does it matter that we are now able to generate record levels of renewable power, what matters is that there is security of supply; that when the renewables are not able to produce the juice that we have the back-up available – and can call upon it quickly.
Engineer Paul Spare has pointed out to me that back on 10-11 January this year the combined efforts of all our wind turbines were producing between 1.0 -1.5 per cent of the power the country required. Worse still, during the peak demand at 9.30am on 11 January the wind contribution had dropped to only 0.6 per cent. These are not unusual circumstances. Back in mid-December at 10.50am on 12 December total power demand was 46,000MW but wind power was providing about only 3.0 per cent of that. With gas generation working flat-out, were it not for the coal station output being able to increase to 10,000MW, some 20.7 per cent of demand, we would have witnessed a breakdown in our power supplies.
Five years ago in the winter of 2013, for a period of five continuous days between 13 and 17 December, wind power generated between only 0.5 -3.0 per cent and coal came to our rescue then too. Indeed using data from non-partisan Gridwatch we can see that in a typical year wind output falls to less than 2.0 per cent of demand for about 25 days, yet we are constantly being lobbied to phase out coal-powered generation by 2025.
To supplement our supply of gas this year we have had to import it by tanker and 50 per cent of that has come from Russia. Supplying gas is a lucrative trade for Putin’s practically bankrupt state and it is in his interests that we buy gas from Russia and become reliant upon it as a source. Putin’s government does not rely upon standard practices of commercial marketing and competitive pricing to gain sales, but instead employs a clandestine social media campaign and the funding of opposition groups who demonise alternatives to Russian energy supplies to influence the market.
On 1 March a report by the US House of Representatives Science, Space and Technology Committee stated: “US presidential candidates, European officials, and the US intelligence community have all publicly noted that Russia and its government corporations agree funding a covert anti-fracking campaign to suppress the widespread adoption of fracking in Europe and the US, all in an effort to protect the influence of the Russian oil and gas sector.” Recognition of Russia’s attempts to skew the energy markets in its favour is non-partisan, with support for the findings from both Republicans and Democrats and including both Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of state and now President Trump.
A similar study by Brussels-based Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies reported the Russian government had invested €77 million (£68M) in NGOs that seek to persuade EU governments to end shale gas exploration, while a voluminous report by US Senator Ben Cardin stated that “according to Nato officials, Russian intelligence agencies also reportedly provide covert support to European environmental groups to campaign against fracking for natural gas, thereby keeping the EU more dependent on Russian supplies”.
Back in January last year the office of the US director of national intelligence released a report that found the Russian-sponsored news agency RT (formerly Russian Today) ran “anti-fracking programing, highlighting environmental issues and the impacts on public health” that “is likely reflective of the Russian government’s concern about the impact of fracking and the US natural gas production on the global energy market and the potential challenges to [Russian energy companies’] profitability” – such as the state-controlled Russian energy giant Gazprom. It’s not a subject Alex Salmond is likely to raise on his RT show.
Now reports are emerging of Russian cyber attacks on Western power supplies, aiming to cause power failures, that make social media and flat-earth campaigns look minor.
No longer should we rely on foreign imports of gas, which means we need to look towards fracking to access our own indigenous supplies. We also need to have greater reserves of gas and we should not phase out coal power generation completely until such time as we have created greater availability of nuclear power. Otherwise we shall be dictated to by Putin or others.
It’s not just the economy stupid, its defence too.
Brian Monteith is editor of ThinkScotland.org