In a report released today, Ofgem (the UK regulators for the energy industry) forecasters are warning that the spare energy capacity in the UK is likely to fall to just 4% in three years.
What does this mean?
The UK currently, at any given time, has a headroom/margin of around 14% on its energy creation/delivery capability. To simplify what this means, if we imagine all of the energy being consumed in the UK right now (gas and electricity) as a figure of 100 energy units, we could cater for another 14 energy units worth of demand right now.
Another way to think of this, if your weekly food shop budget is £100, and you need to buy something extra one day, you only have an extra £14 available to spend in your bank account.
So what? Why should I care?
Our operating headroom as it currently stands, 14%, isn’t great!
This leaves us in a precarious position as a nation, should we need more energy. Especially as this margin decreases to just 4%.
We already have a complex system in place to bolster our electrical grid with power from our French neighbors, this can be turned on and off as required. The national grid utilises this relationship almost daily, the older soap watching generation are the main reason for this arrangement being in place. Historically the grid could never cope with the demand for power caused during a Coronation Street ad break for example.
We don’t need to rely on this “power bridging” for our usual/ongoing demand, and in principle its a brilliant safety net (think of it as an overdraft, nice to have it there for those little emergencies).
However getting electricity delivered in this way is very very very (keep saying very till you get tired) costly. This cost is passed on to consumers in the form of our utility bills. However if we only need the boost in power from time to time, its not such a big deal.
What we are starting to see now (and have been for a while), is that this power bridging is starting to happen on an-ongoing basis. Think of this as living in your overdraft. Your outgoings a month are now outstripping your income, and you are having to constantly use your overdraft (which is costly money). In this same way this energy is costly, and we shouldn’t rely on it. The bank can withdraw/cancel your overdraft facility at anytime, what happens if this energy capacity is withdrawn?
As we start to run out of capacity, we will fully utilise the power available to us via this bridge, to cater for our normal demand levels… What then?
I haven’t talked about how we manage our gas reserves, there’s a similar arrangement in place to import gas, and one of the reasons our gas prices are so high is that we import most of the gas that we use as a nation.
Our national energy stability is at risk. As we are no longer generating the majority of the energy we consume, our prices will be determined by external parties/suppliers, our demand will outstrip supply (in a more noticeable way).
- Energy reliability will start to waiver – we’ll see an increase in power spikes
- Energy costs will increase (a lot more than the mainstream media are reporting)
- Businesses will find it harder to obtain new power allocations (it was impossible for datacenters to get more power in London pre-olympics!)
What can I do about this?
For the most part, there isn’t a lot we can do as consumers, contrary to what energy action groups and the mainstream media would have you believe. Voting with your feet and moving your utility supply to another company WHEN your prices increase, is pointless, its not the solution.
Power generation and supply in the UK is a centrally controlled monopoly, by design (and it used to be a sensible way of operating). This means that the energy “supplier X” is selling you, is the same as “supplier Y“, longer term you’ll end up paying the same price everywhere (just like petrol).
The only thing you can do is reduce your power consumption. If every household (and business) in the UK became more energy efficient we would buy ourselves more time to solve this problem. The utility providers need to use this time to build new power plants and energy distribution capacity.
I would also recommend protecting your sensitive appliances with surge protectors.
So we need more power stations?
Yes and no. Traditional power stations are not the solution. We need smaller, decentralized, NUCLEAR power stations. I know nuclear power is still a “hot topic” and that people (wrongly) believe it to be unsafe. The main problem with nuclear power is the waste products cannot be disposed of readily with our available technology level.
However, smaller, distributed, region specific nuclear power plants are a viable solution. A small scale facility providing power to 2 or 3 towns will last hundreds of years, before we have to tackle the nuclear bi/waste-products issue. In comparison, a single large scale facility catering for the whole of the south, would only last tens of years. The extra time would allow technology the time it needs to evolve, and people will find solutions to the “energy crisis”.
Renewable energy is not the solution either (not yet). I haven’t seen any proof (gathered in the UK) to show that renewable energy sources can consistently deliver for our level of demand. Its pointless looking at the electrical output of a solar farm in Dubai for example. We need to invest more time and resources in developing renewable energy sources, but they are not the solution to this problem, short or mid term.
If we carry on the way we are going, as a nation of “broken thinkers“, we won’t have sufficient electricity to light, and gas to warm, our homes within the next 10-20 years.
Only the wealthy will be able to afford stable energy, and this disparity will lead to civil unrest and chaos… Some of you will read this and think I’m being overly dramatic, however, if you think about the problem totally unemotionally, and keeping the big picture in mind, you’ll see the sense of this line of reasoning.
If we continue to look at renewable energy as the solution, we will run out of time.
Small scale, distributed, nuclear power stations are the only viable short to mid term solution!
I would love to hear your views on this.