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The White Paper could crash the National Grid

Summary:
Driving down a motorway while looking only through the rear window is generally considered risky. The December energy White Paper considers the provision of electricity as a whole but gives no consideration to the key problem of the volatility of renewables which amplifies as the reliance on renewables grows. Since hydrogen is a user, not a source, of electricity, the main other zero carbon source is nuclear, backward to the traditional large pressured water reactors (PWRs).  That is using old technology to solve new problems.  The two new PWRs at Hinkley Point and Sizewell apart, the White Paper is talk rather than the commissioning action we need now. Of our eight large PWRs, seven need to be decommissioned, and their contribution replaced, within this decade.    Before returning to

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Driving down a motorway while looking only through the rear window is generally considered risky. The December energy White Paper considers the provision of electricity as a whole but gives no consideration to the key problem of the volatility of renewables which amplifies as the reliance on renewables grows. Since hydrogen is a user, not a source, of electricity, the main other zero carbon source is nuclear, backward to the traditional large pressured water reactors (PWRs).  That is using old technology to solve new problems.  The two new PWRs at Hinkley Point and Sizewell apart, the White Paper is talk rather than the commissioning action we need now. Of our eight large PWRs, seven need to be decommissioned, and their contribution replaced, within this decade.    

Before returning to nuclear supply, we should consider the renewables volatility problem.  This is currently addressed by the “Capacity Market”, described in the White Paper as “our primary policy mechanism for delivering security of electricity supply. It provides generators and flexibility providers with a payment for firm (reliable) capacity to ensure they deliver electricity generation or demand reduction, when required.” (p.148) It operates in parallel with the main “Energy Market”, the combination being the “Balancing Services Market.”

With renewables (wind and solar) contributing about 23% of our needs on a typical winter day and fluctuating between 15% and 31%, the Capacity Market manages, although there are times, as Energy and Climate noted in January, when it only just copes: “So far this winter, National Grid has issued more notices that power margins are tight than for any year since 2008”.                   

The risk with the Capacity Market, not addressed in the White Paper, is scale. It is one thing to have a patchwork of imports and fossil fuel, biomass and waste generators standing by to meet the current relatively small volatility in renewables supply.  It is quite another matter to have unused generators standing by to cover the vast majority of the total UK demand. BEIS forecasts that, by 2050, the electricity market will be far higher as other energy sources are shut down, and 85.4% of it could be coming from renewables (figure 11). 

When most of the supply suddenly stops, what do you do?  It is quite likely the clouds extend beyond Calais and batteries are prohibitively expensive at the scale required: back up for 100GW of wind capacity for a shortish period of time would need over 3,000GWh of battery capacity costing £1,190 billion. Perhaps there could be enough natural gas supply, with carbon capture and storage (CCS) still around ,but the White Paper does not refer to that in the context of the Capacity Market. The National Grid would probably crash in the middle of winter. 

The talk but no action on commissioning new nuclear plants has a long history. The House of Lords considered all this back in 2011, and concluded that the government had little idea whether nuclear would continue to contribute its then current 12 GW or rise to, perhaps, 48 GW or what. The Secretary of State “said that the Government were adopting a "portfolio approach" to meeting the UK's future energy needs. He also confirmed that nuclear energy would continue to play an important part in this portfolio.” The main further unknown was the extent to which continuing with natural gas, or shale gas (with CCS), was practicable. Nine years on, we are not much wiser. 

BEIS will not even start to consider introducing new nuclear, starting with the Rolls Royce small PWRs, before the 2030s. A decade later they might start to consider the small advanced modular reactors (AMRs) such as molten salt and even the wholly unproven fusion.  On this time-scale, the UK will only have significant non-PWR nuclear generation after 2050.  

PWRs are essentially base load generators; in practice, they have to produce steadily all the time. They cannot be turned up or down. Rolls Royce see their new small PWRs, however, as off-line generators, perhaps contributing to the Capacity Market and perhaps via storage. Whilst they cannot be immediately adjusted, being small, individual reactors can be phased in and out. 

Whilst we should have a bureaucracy devoted to commissioning new electricity generation, instead we have a brilliant system for preventing it. New nuclear plants have to go through two types of approval: plant safety (design) and site acceptability. The former is regulated by the independent Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) whose 70 page guidelines make no international reference.  The design could have been approved as safe in every other country in the world but the ONR has to ignore that and follow the 1965 Act, suitable for that era but not for an age where AMRs and small PWRs are manufactured in factories and transported to sites.  

One can argue that we should be proud that the ONR enforces the strictest approach to nuclear safety in the world but countries such as Canada can hardly be described as cavalier. Alternative, streamlined, approaches should at least be considered. The UK did well with approving Covid vaccines. The involvement of the Environment Agency, mostly known for its failure to prevent flooding, provides little reassurance. 

Site approval involves all levels, and many departments, of government. And then, of course, HM Treasury wades in.  What is approved, reluctantly at first, is likely to be disapproved as delays and re-budgeting set in. Clearances when finally given, e.g. Wylfa and Oldbury, are withdrawn. The whole system is geared to large PWRs with no account being taken of the new small PWRs or AMRs. Oklo, a 1MW district nuclear power plant, is going through US regulatory approvals relevant for smaller plants 8 and USNC will probably obtain Canadian approval in 2022 for its initial small plant.  

In short: back in 1990, government rightly decided it did not have the skills to manage the generation and supply of UK electricity. They privatised it. Then, unable to resist the desire to interfere, government over-loaded the market with regulations and interventions.  

In his 2017 Cost of Energy Review, commissioned by BEIS, Professor Sir Dieter Helm laid out the obstacles government had by then created to the operation of a free market. “The scale of the multiple interventions in the electricity market is now so great that few if any could even list them all, and their interactions are poorly understood. Complexity is itself a major cause of rising costs, and tinkering with policies and regulations is unlikely to reduce costs. Indeed, each successive intervention layers on new costs and unintended consequences. It should be a central aim of government to radically simplify the interventions, and to get government back out of many of its current detailed roles.” (p.viii)

His recommendations were largely ignored. 

Then the government announced Carbon Zero 2050, pretty much terminating the main sources of electricity, namely coal and gas, without intelligent analysis of how to replace them, solar and wind. apart 

A free market would fill the gap with AMRs capable of meeting renewable shortfalls but the government has blocked any new nuclear consideration until it will be too late.   

So fossil fuel generation only with CCS, a belief that hydrogen magically makes itself without the use of electricity or gas, and a reliance on a Capacity Market that looks unlikely to be man enough for that job without the availability of AMRs. That is how to crash the National Grid.  

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Tim Ambler
Tim Ambler (born 1937) is a British organizational theorist, author and academic on the field of Marketing effectiveness. Ambler featured on Marketing's list of the 100 most powerful figures in the industry. He is cited by the Chartered Institute of Marketing as one of the top 50 marketing experts in the world

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