2020: Will the lights go out when the wind stops blowing?
It struck me early last week how little wind there had been. Of course this will come as no surprise to many of you with an interest in weather, as a large anticyclone dominated our weather.
When I came to work last Monday, I discovered that Humberside Airport had recorded its coldest temperature of the whole winter, at minus 7C. Of course this was not only down to clear skies, but to the lack of wind too. These weather conditions weren't unique to Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. In fact I estimated that approximately 90% of the UK, land and coastal, had calm winds last Sunday night and into Monday morning.
Last week I received an e-mail from one of Look North's viewers. They live at the top of the Pennines and have been thinking about investing in a large wind turbine on their land, which would cost £30,000. But they are nervous, because this winter has been less windy than normal. I re-assured them that winters like these are the exception to the rule and that on average winters in their part of the world are such that they needn't worry about a lack of wind.
But it got me thinking. What are the implications for our future power needs during weather conditions like this winter's, when electricity demand is high? It's not so much a problem now, as only 6% of electricity currently comes from renewable sources. If the wind doesn't blow, our coal and gas fired power stations can take the strain.
But in only 10 years, legally binding targets mean that almost a third of our electricity will need to come from renewables, which when other sources of renewable power like solar and biomass are taken into consideration, means that around a quarter of all our electricity will have to come from onshore and offshore wind turbines.
So in 2020, when we have the same weather conditions as we had on Monday morning, with 90% of all turbines inactive, where would the electricity come from? Nuclear power gives a constant level of electricity and can't respond to extra demand. The only power plants that can respond to extra demand are coal, gas and biomass.
And it's not just during cold weather in winter when there will be problems with a lack of wind power. Anticyclonic conditions in summer often go hand in hand with warm temperatures which sometimes turn into heatwaves.
And let's not forget that if climate predictions are correct, the summer heatwave that much of Europe experienced in 2003, will be an average event by 2050. We will regularly have our air conditioning units on full, and electricity demand will be high - again at a time when many wind farms may not be able to supply any electricity at all.
So could we find ourselves without enough electricity when the wind doesn't blow?
According to Renewable UK (formally the British Wind Energy Association - BWEA) that just won't happen. They told me yesterday that there is currently a capacity of around 80GW, but the maximum demand on record was only 63GW, and although the mix of power generation will be different in 2020, there will always be back up available from other plants should wind power fall to very low levels.
There will also be a new transmission line linking the UK with the Netherlands, which, together with a French line means if necessary more power could be imported. And, they said, it's important not to forget the bigger picture - that wind power will substantially reduce the UK's carbon footprint.
But the fact remains that there will have to be power plants which simply exist to come on line when wind farms aren't producing enough electricity. This will mean that electricity prices will have to rise over and above the rises that are already in the pipeline to pay for a heavily subsidised renewable sector.
This is because it is very expensive to produce electricity from a power station that is on stand-by, simply because the plant needs to be maintained when it isn't at work, and so on average the cost per unit of electricity from plants standing idle for periods of time will be much higher.
The bottom line is that going green and de-carbonising power generation will not be cheap and all of us can expect electricity bills to rise substantially in the years ahead.