Christopher Pincher is Member of Parliament for Tamworth. Follow Chris on Twitter.
This week power outages swept across northern India as three grids covering 20 states and 600 million people failed to cope with demand. Transport and water systems ground to a halt. Hospitals were plunged in darkness. Miners were trapped below ground. India, in a word, endured havoc. With a flick of a switch everything went off. The disruption to life, leisure and national output of the world’s second largest nation is massive. It is a sobering reminder to all in Britain concerned with our strategy to deliver cheap, clean and secure energy of what can go wrong if we fail to get our investment decisions right.
Traversing the tightrope of investment in our energy mix, and the signals made to the industry and its investors, requires careful balance. For many years the darling of the renewable sector has been on-shore wind; it is a mature, tested product, is developed at scale and has an established supply chain. In the past it has received clear support from the Treasury which must make difficult choices about the use of tax-payers’ money. Yet recently a more detailed critique (such as that provided by Dutch physicist Fred Udo) of on-shore wind has raised serious questions about its ability to generate the power we need when we need it, its green credentials and its value to the tax payer and to the consumer. This closer look has given the Treasury and many in the Department for Energy and Climate Change cause for pause.
Wind, naturally, is unpredictable. When it fails to blow other generator capacity, largely gas, must step into the gap left by the windmills and dial up to meet demand. The duplication of capacity is a known downside of wind. What is less understood is the impact this duplication has on our gas power stations. Gas fired generators are at their most efficient when they hum along at a constant, high rate of output, like a car on a motorway. Yet keeping them on standby to dial up then dial down at the caprice of the elements is akin to thraping your engine from a cold start. It is more inefficient and more wearing as it uses more fuel and reduces significantly the life-span of the gas generator. The overall impact of wind power in reducing CO2 emissions is much less striking than some would have us believe.