British grid operator National Grid made history this week when it was forced to ask some of its largest electricity consumers to decrease their usage to help cope with a spate of power outages. The FT reports:
National Grid urged a group of heavy users, including businesses, factories and hospitals, to switch to back-up power or to reduce demand to meet the sudden lack of supply. Consumers responded by taking 40 megawatts of demand off the grid — partly by switching to back-up generators. […]
The measures highlighted the tightness of the margin between supply and demand in the UK, where old power plants have in the past decade been taken off the grid but not replaced quickly with alternatives. Coal-fired plants are being closed at a rapid pace, ahead of a 2023 deadline for compliance with new EU rules on air quality.
This is the sort of problem that will naturally arise in any country that tries to rush through a transition towards cleaner, greener energy sources. In the case of the UK, the shuttering of coal-fired power plants, a dirty but consistent source of baseload power, has decreased the country’s generating capacity enough that unforeseen outages can have wide-reaching, destabilizing effects on the grid.
If greens had their way, countries would follow the example of Germany’s energiewende and relentlessly pursue the deployment of renewables, regardless of the (considerable) cost. But leaving aside the higher power bills such a policy inevitably brings about, it can also undermine the stability of the grid delivering that power. Wind and solar producers can only contribute intermittently, which is a tough quality to square with the most important demand of any power grid: consistency.
There’s a real, tangible danger in being snookered by the policy advice of shallow-thinking greens. Britain can’t shutter its fleet of coal-fired power plants without bringing on baseload replacements capable of making a similar sort of round-the-clock supply contributions, and installing more wind turbines and solar panels isn’t the answer.