It might not seem important right now, as shockwaves from the Brexit earthquake continue to reverberate, but falling surface sea temperatures in the eastern Pacific Ocean may be about to unleash some unwelcome trouble for Theresa May’s new government. If meteorologists are to be believed, the La Nina weather pattern this year is likely to lead to an unusually cold and windless winter across northern Europe. Why does this matter? Because since the last La Nina cycle hit in 2010-11, Britain, Germany and other western European countries have become increasingly dependent on intermittent wind power for their electricity supplies. Back in 2010, Britain produced only 6.5 per cent of its electricity from wind and other renewables, such as solar. Last year, that figure had risen to 24.7 per cent, not far behind Germany, Europe’s green energy leader, with 33 per cent. Three big coal plants have closed this year. In addition, the nation’s main gas storage facility at Rough, a depleted gasfield 30 miles off the Yorkshire coast, is also largely out of action. And across the Channel, problems with the French nuclear fleet are adding to the squeeze on the Continent’s electr icity supplies. More than 20 of 58 France’s nuclear reactors, which generate 75 per cent of French electricity, are shut for maintenance. Another is producing at reduced capacity. Together, these outages represent about 36 per cent of nuclear capacity. Most of those reactors are supposed to resume production by the end of the year, but there are no guarantees. Ample supplies of French nuclear electricity may simply not be available to help to fill any shortfalls in the UK electricity system this winter. Last week, National Grid insisted that Britain could muddle through what it called a “tight but manageable” situation. It may be right, but preventing the risk of blackouts is likely to prove expensive. With coal-fired capacity reduced to a handful of plants, the buffer of surplus generation may fall to zero at times, most likely in mid-January, when demand hits an annual peak. That will force National Grid to draw on emergency back-up supplies, an option used only when wholesale power prices spiral to £3,000 per megawatt hour, or nearly 100 times present levels. National Grid has also awarded contracts to businesses and factories agreeing to cut demand at short notice. Milder temperatures means lower demand and the forecasters may turn out to be wrong. On the other hand, a prolonged spell of cold, windless weather could cause real problems. While blackouts for domestic users are unlikely, it is very likely that industrial users on interruptible contracts will be forced to cut electricity use. The squeeze is also likely to trigger price spikes, which ultimately will be paid for by consumers through their bills. Without new investment in extra power plants, these problems are unlikely to disappear soon. Mrs May may be up to her eyeballs in negotiations over Brexit, but her job doesn’t end there. Without swift action to resolve them, she may find some urgent and unwanted new problems clogging up the Downing Street in-tray.
Times 17th Oct 2016 read more »