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Climate change: a fantasy world

2021-10-23 07:56:37

With so much going on, not least a resurgence of Covid-19 and fears of a winter flu epidemic, it is perhaps unsurprising that we're seeing little in the way of media focus on the technical aspects of Johnson's net zero plan.

At 368 pages, it is probably the case that very few journalists have read the whole document and most of the very few who have would doubtless be struggling with the practical implications.

For anyone to have difficulty with the document is not be entirely unreasonable. There are so many sweeping assertions, backed by so little detail, that a careful evaluation would take weeks (if not longer) of careful study, taking readers into multiple areas of uncertainty.

However, one thing that leaps out of the pages of the document is the aim to quadruple the UK's offshore wind capacity to 40 GW by 2030. This is to precede full decarbonisation of electrical generation, which is supposed to be completed by 2035.

The enormity of the offshore wind programme is hinted at – but only hinted – by the acknowledgement that capacity has to be quadrupled - the current offshore capacity is a mere 10.4 GW, spread over 2,297 turbines, clustered in 40 operational projects.

But this does not begin to convey the enormity of the enterprise. It was only 20 years ago, in December 2000, that the first offshore wind farm was installed, off the Northumberland coast. Now, in the space of a mere nine years – less than half the time - three times the capacity must be installed.

We actually shouldn't be too surprised by this, though. The intent was signalled in the Energy White Paper published in December last year, although with both Brexit and Covid-19 on the go, it hardly got the attention it merited.

Actually, there is something deeply dishonest in government "sneaking" out such a major proposal when attention was quite evidently elsewhere, and especially as the publication date was 18 December – just a week before Christmas.

Unsurprisingly, the event hardly registered in the national media, with even the eco-enthusiastic Independent merely telling us that the White Paper "also outlines a plan to develop 40 gigawatts of offshore wind energy by 2030".

Yet, with this target having slipped virtually unnoticed into the system, ten months later we are seeing it assuming the status of a settled plan, even if the scale of the ambition means that nothing quite like this has ever been tried before.

However, that ambition does not seem to have percolated into the consciousness of the offshore wind industry, which seems to be working to a target set by the Climate Change Committee of 35 GW by 2035 and refers to a government target to 30 GW of offshore wind by 2030.

Even here, it is not good news. A report from the industry trade body Renewable UK, dated yesterday, tells us that the total pipeline of offshore wind projects either operating, under construction, consented or being planned has grown to nearly 33 GW.

If every project in this current pipeline was to go ahead (suggesting that some may not), it is proudly claimed that the UK would reach 30 GW by 2030 –more than double the current operational capacity (this site says current capacity is 13.9GW).

But the trade body does warn that this is less than the capacity needed to meet the "net zero" target date (which it sees as 2035), noting that only 600 MW "is being given the go ahead by the UK each year". We should, it says, be reaching 1,250 MW a year to stay on course, more than twice the level being consented.

Confusion over the target, though, is only one of the problems confronting the industry. The Reuters news agency is retailing a report by the engineering consultancy, Arup.

Under a somewhat misleading headline, the news conveyed is that, in order to meet the industry's 2030 target, offshore wind developers are building larger projects to increase economies of scale. For instance the Dogger Bank project, located 80 miles from the English coast and due online from 2023, will have an installed capacity of 3.6 GW.

Such projects are putting greater pressure on local and regional grid infrastructure. Congested landfall zones on the East Coast, diminishing land availability for onshore substations, and falling onshore grid capacity, are slowing down developments.

Bruce Turner, Head of Asset Management at Transmission Investment, says that new onshore grid improvements need to be in place "or the 2030 target will not be met".

Additionally, the timelines for the allocation of project leases and contract auctions mean that the projects awarded leases this year will not come online until the second half of this decade or later. These delays will extend the overall timeline, so a faster "build-out" of commercial-scale projects is also "critical", if targets are to be met.

Then, should we ever get to see 40 GW of offshore wind capacity commissioned, the problems will be far from over, as the Climate Change Committee regards this as an interim step, and is calling for up to 125 GW of offshore wind to meet UK electricity demand by 2050, which will include hydrogen electrolysis.

Even with 40 GW of offshore wind, though, we will be in uncharted territory, with Renewable UK asserting that "net zero changes everything we know about the energy system", calling it "a fundamental challenge".

The energy white paper sees only a minor role for gas, and then only in conjunction with carbon capture, while the proposed nuclear programme will barely have started by 2035, when the majority of the nuclear plants drop out of service. Renewables – and especially wind - will be supplying a higher proportion of the UK's energy than has been experienced in any power system.

To ensure that the necessary level of system reliability is maintained, two major issues will have to be confronted. The first is the variability of wind which, with the sheer volume of wind power generated, will place considerable demands on the short-term operational reserve (STOR), and require a longer-term back-up capability for extended low wind periods.

The second pressing issue is the system stability where, as reliance on spinning generation reduced, the inertia declines to a point where an unplanned failure could precipitate a collapse of the grid, if the system can no longer react in time to major frequency drops.

National Grid is working on mechanisms to maintain system stability without a spinning reserve, but is coy about specifying the operational parameters.

Research elsewhere indicates that there are as yet undefined limits to the degree to which inertia can be allowed to decline. This currently restricts the permitted level of penetration of wind energy, and the provision of alternative control systems have major cost implications.

All of this points to considerable uncertainty in just one corner of Johnson's grandiose "net zero" scheme, pointing to the near certainty that his "low carbon" generation target for 2030 will not be met, much less the more ambitious 2050 target.

Doubtless, once a searching light is played on the other areas of his fatuous "build back greener" scheme – such as the ambition to up the installation electric heat pumps, from 30,000 per year to 600,000 per year by 2028 – this too will prove to be equally unrealistic.

His fantasy of "leading global action", despite the UK accounting for less than one percent of annual global emissions, seems equally unrealistic, but that is unlikely to prevent him wrecking the UK economy in pursuit of bolstering his already over-mighty ego.

Also published on Turbulent Times.