BBC BLOGS - Douglas Fraser's Ledger
« Previous | Main | Next »

Turbo-charging the turbine revolution

Douglas Fraser | 22:17 UK time, Thursday, 23 September 2010

There's something big happening on a horizon near you. The renewable energy sector is beginning to pick up the pace with the equinox gales.

The announcement from Ofgem that it's opening the door to re-thinking grid connection charges is one factor behind the growing momentum.

It follows on changes to the regulator's statutory powers, requiring it to move beyond concern only for keeping prices down. Ofgem is now obliged to look after security of supply as well as the drive for low-carbon energy.

So it looks like an end to paying as much as £24 per kilowatt to connect to the grid in the north of Scotland, where that low-carbon energy is in abundance, while the south of England gets a £6 subsidy.

That follows on years of hard lobbying by the Scottish government and the energy industry in Scotland. They've successfully made it a national political issue.

But it's before the power sector in the south of England starts lobbying to protect the charging tariff that has encouraged it to put its gas-powered plants where they are, near centres of population.

That, after all, is what was intended when the charging regime was put in place more than 20 years ago. It helped decide where around 30 gigawatts of power generating capacity was located since then.

Targets aiming higher

It's part of a picture of developments in the renewable power sector that are crowding in. The world's biggest offshore wind farm opened today, off the coast of Kent.

Alex Salmond announced today he's upping the target for the share of Scotland's electricity needs from 50 to 80%. This is on the back of consultants' research for Scottish Renewables, the industry body, that suggests that new target is at the lower end of the possibilities.

With a fair wind, and ambitious cuts in demand, Scotland could produce 123% of its electricity needs from renewables.

What's less clear is how that fits with the drive to cut the emissions from transport and heating. The replacement for gas central heating is likely to be cleaner, greener electric. So too with your next car but one or two. The Garrad Hassan report for Scottish Renewables has quite modest assumptions about how much extra load that will put on the grid.

Meanwhile, the Crown Estate yesterday announced it's opening up new bits of seabed off the Scottish coast, extending the only commercial site it has so far licensed, off Orkney.

A jobs fair in Glasgow this week was purely aimed at highlighting the opportunities for skilled jobs in this sector.

Funding the new wave

Next week, the Scottish government convenes a significant gathering of financial fire-power to consider how to unlock the innovative skills of Britain's financial sector in the cause of the renewables revolution.

It's a tall order. The Ofgem estimate is of a £200bn investment programme to update Britain's generating capacity and links, including the renewables investment.

That will require clear pricing signals from government - on renewables (good), carbon (bad) and nuclear (who knows?) - but it may also require the taxpayer to dip a hand in a rather empty pocket as well to provide some of the risk capital. Financiers are unsure of offshore renewables, and they are even less convinced of the commercial viability of wind and wave technologies.

Yet those are the technologies that offer the potential for Britain, and Scotland in particular, to get the advantage of being first mover, as the Danish and Germans can show with wind turbines.

Keeping the lights on

Behind this new momentum lies a growing realisation - not least in Whitehall - that security of supply is an issue that needs urgent attention. The cliché of 'keeping the lights on' may not be such a cliché after around 2015, when dirty old power stations have to be closed down.

And it's not lost on the coalition government that 2015 is an election year. There will be a high price to pay if ministers take the blame for an energy crisis, with shortage of supply, brownouts, and the potential for soaring prices.

That's why Whitehall is moving towards some quite radical reforms in the way the energy market operates, with the plan expected next spring - just as Ofgem provides its initial findings on grid access charges, as it happens.

Among the big issues: how to provide a floor price for carbon that sends the right signals, and transfers sufficient resources to more desirable technologies?

And with so much being spent on wind power, what to do when the lights go out? Is there a case for building gas power stations purely for use when the wind drops, and how do you make that economically attractive to generating companies?


  • Comment number 1.

    You still don’t get it do you, in your third paragraph you state that OFGEN is now charged with the security of supply, then you end up with should we not build a gas power station for when the wind does not blow.
    Did you not notice that there is a planning application in process to turn Cockenzie Power Station from a coal burner into a gas burner?
    Now having burnt off all the Gas in the North Sea because Great Britain had no storage capacity, so we are now a net importer of gas and now struggling to build storage(too late) where pray tell is the security of supply when we have to import gas a once only use product?
    As things stand should there be a gas fired power station built on the London Olympic site when the games are over and the white elephants that are being built at a cost of some £30 billion that would improve the security of supply for London who at this time are importing from France, Northern Ireland, the North of England and Scotland the grand total of 7496 Mw, now that is security of supply but of course these suppliers are paying £24.00 per Mw simply to supply to the National Grid so that the South of England can be paid a subsidy of £6.oo per Mw that they consume.

  • Comment number 2.

    An 80% level is absolutely ludicrous, since salter's ducks were conceived no wave or tidal schemes have produced 1mw of power in a commercial manner! Wind power provides nothing if it can not be stored, back up power will always be necessary. With both spain and Danemark both re-evaluating their commitment to re-newables why do we have the BBC gullibly swallowing a press release from a vested interest? If we have more energy price hikes to cover this nonsense, people in fuel poverty will die! whatever happened to investigative journalism. This is nothing short of appalling..

  • Comment number 3.

    Why is so much money being squandered on windmills and wave machines which are inefficient and short lived ? One nuclear power station would provide all the electricity the next twenty years building of renewables is capable of providing , with some left over. Scotland also , is sitting on a mountain of coal, and surely it is not beyond the wit of our much vaunted scientific community to find a way of reducing the "harmful " output from coal fired power stations. It seems the "green " or fashionable lobby has convinced those in authority that only their way can be adopted, however idiotic it is. The theory seems to be that whatever it costs and however useless the system is, the consumer will have no option but to foot the bill whether they like it or not.

  • Comment number 4.

    The impact on the trade deficit is huge because almost none of this kit is being manufactured in the UK let alone Scotland. R&D funding for renewables technology is lower here than amongst any of our main competitors and our glorious financial institutions are failing to invest and develop the industry.

    As a consequence the predictions of the numbers of jobs this industry will create are absolute nonsense.

  • Comment number 5.

    The move to renewable electricity is dictated be necessity. There is growing evidence that the production of all conventional fossil fuels are hitting hard constraints.

    In oil production - this is termed peak oil - where production peaks and enters decline once about half the resource has been used. There have been numerous reports about an imminent peak in world oil production (UK Energy Research Centre, University of Kuwait and the Kuwait Oil Company - peak in 2014, UK Industry Task Force on Peak Oil and Energy Security, US military - potential large oil shortfall by 2015, University of Oxford paper by Sir David King et al, Lloyds of London and Chatham House, German military etc).

    In coal production the situation is similar. A number of reports are predicting a decline in coal production in the first half of this century (e.g. the Energy Watch Group). The peak in UK production was 1913 - nearly a century ago. A paper by Patzek and Croft in the journal Energy last month put the peak of world coal production in 2011. Professor David Rutledge from Caltech gave a talk in Edinburgh this week about coal resources and climate change (see for presentation, video and raw data). Rutledge maintains that the IPCC scenarios for climate change are overdone because we don't have the economically recoverable fossil fuels (he concentrates on coal) that the IPCC assume and implies a near term peak in world coal production.

    The situation is similar for conventional natural gas. And there are 40 years supply of uranium left at the current rates of usage. Fewer years if the world nuclear electricity generating capacity is expanded.

    Of course, this is rather inconvenient from a business as usual perspective. We have no alternative than to transition to renewable resources which tend to be diffuse and intermittent. So we have to be a lot more efficient in how we use energy. And there are some tremendous things we can do to be more efficient - we just need to get on with it.

    That's the real news.


BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.