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9 July 2018updated 04 Aug 2021 10:33am

What the hot weather teaches us about energy

A mix of fuel sources is crucial for sustaining the UK through energy supply peaks and troughs. 

By Tom Greatrex

The unusual weather of the first half of 2018 has had a well reported impact on the usual seasonal patterns of retail sales, fruit harvests and income from tourism. It has also had some noteworthy impact on the mix of sources of electricity which have caught the attention of more than just those of us who are habitual observers of National Grid’s real time twitter feed.

A cold snap at the end of winter, with snow, wind and ice, enabled offshore and onshore wind to contribute to our low carbon electricity just as the price signals which determine flows of power for interconnectors saw electricity leave the UK and feared gas shortages got the notice of headline writers. A couple of months later, and several weeks of very low wind speed saw minimal amounts of power generated by wind turbines wherever they are sited.

Now, three weeks or so into a prolonged dry, hot and sunny spell (which most English and Welsh parents will anticipate ending just as the school holidays begin), we have seen the surge in the number of solar panels on roofs and in fields contribute record levels of power to our mix. The two constants in each of these periods of unusual weather, which can be forecast but not controlled, is that most of our power has come from fossil fuels, mainly gas, and that nuclear has generated constantly available, low carbon power.

In each period of real weather, if we didn’t have nuclear then the reliance on fossil fuels would have been higher. This would have left the UK in a similarly absurd positon to Germany where huge investment and rollout of renewable power capacity has not reduced the carbon intensity of the power produced there, as fossil fuel generated power (and in that case, the dirtiest of all power fuels – lignite) is used to offset variability of output and intermittency of supply. Whatever other consequences there may have been, the weather patterns of the last six months have demonstrated precisely why a mix of sources offers us the best chance to continue the progress of recent years towards a reliable low carbon electricity supply.  

Against that backdrop, and the reality of an ageing and soon to be retired fleet of power stations, the support of the UK and Welsh governments for detailed discussion on the project for a new power station at Wylfa on Angelsey, and for a wide-ranging sector deal partnership between industry and government, is not just prudent, but necessary.

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With the distinction between energy and electricity diminishing as decarbonisation continues in power, and begins to be tackled in transport and heating, it becomes more important, not less, to use all of the available ways of responding to that challenge. The way in which we generate, use, conserve and distribute electricity has been changing for several years, and will continue to change into the future. Those shifts – aided by developments in technology, engineering and manufacturing – don’t undermine the need for that diversity of sources, but reinforce it.

The underlying issue is as decarbonisation targets get more ambitious, strains on the system and demands rise. With or without battery storage, more variable electricity generation will be added to the grid, and therefore the need for stable and constant supplies of power to ensure the integrity of the distribution system will only increase. Indeed, as fossil fuel generated electricity is used to meet peaks in demand, storage technology has the potential to smooth those spikes from all low carbon sources of electricity – both the variable and the constant.

Any future assessment of the future required power mix for the UK has to both attempt to take account of emerging trends and developments, and avoid the folly of making hard and fast comparisons based on snapshots in time without addressing the wider system requirements. If the energy infrastructure we need is also to provide economic value, employment and export potential to support an economy in anticipation of the likely disruption of leaving the European Union, then that assessment becomes more complex still.

The advocates for every energy technology will point to their contribution; in the case of civil nuclear power, as well as being the single largest source of low carbon electricity and providing one fifth of that electricity production, it also provides a £6.4bn contribution to GDP and more than 65,000 highly skilled, long term jobs in every part of the country. Each form of generating low carbon power has its advantages, and none of them are the answer in isolation.

The government’s Clean Growth Strategy is high on ambition – replacing petrol and diesel fuelled cars with all electric and hybrid models, the decarbonisation of heating and tackling industrial emissions. None of those are easy, and they are not necessarily as straightforward as some suggest. To make that ambition a reality is not just a matter of providing the right infrastructure, it is also a case of understanding the system as a whole, the implications decarbonisation will place on it and the impact of previously less significant factors, such as the last six months of atypical weather.

Decarbonisation is a huge, complex, multi-layered – and vital – challenge for government, industry and citizens alike. If we are serious about addressing that challenge, then not only do we need to make rapid progress, we need to use all of the tools in the box. Otherwise we will, at best, make it more complex, costly and time-consuming than it needs to be and – at worst – impossible to achieve.

Tom Greatrex is chief executive of the Nuclear Industry Association.