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Power Blackout- little help from shale gas, or new nuclear, or even microgen

Christmas cheer: my end of year (not so) jolly

by Dave Elliott

It’s been a year when energy issue hit the front pages more than usual. The political battle over energy has heated up with National Grid warning that the risk of electricity blackouts would be at the highest level for six years and even greater in subsequent years because of lack of investment in new power plants. But it said, although the plant ‘margin’ of just 5% was the lowest since 2007, supplies should be sufficient to see the UK through to spring.  Meanwhile the political battles continue over the price of energy, with some Tories calling for green taxes and targets to be cut, despite a call by the government’s advisory Committee on Climate Change, not to relax its commitment:   It may be worth noting that actually in 2012 the UK  had 17% lower electricity prices that the EU average: it was at number 16 in the league of 27 countries:

There was some unhelpful pretence that shale gas might help (that’s a decade away at best), but no one dared suggest that the nuclear programme could help much in the short term, either with energy security, or energy prices. Though DECC did claim that the new fleet of nuclear plants would magically cut prices by £75 p.a by 2030 (over what they would have been otherwise). In fact the more you had the better it got: buy two and get power £3/MWh cheaper! No mention of the risk that if things went bad with building the 3.2. GW Hinkley plant, the price of which was mysteriously raised from £14bn to £16bn, the £10bn loan guarantee to EDF could hit taxpayers. The large-scale renewables programme, with wind now at 10GW, and still expanding, will also add some extra consumer costs, but should deliver output, and cost reductions, somewhat more rapidly. That may help avoid blackouts. But what about small-scale renewables- stuff consumers can buy and run themselves? Will that help them cope if there was a blackout?

Earlier this year Channel 4 ran a worrying TV docudrama, Blackout, about what would happen if the UK’s power grid went down for 5 days after a supposed cyber-attack. Some may think that those who had availed themselves of home based off-grid renewable systems might survive better than the rest, but the character in the film who had a gen-set didn’t fare well!  The film didn’t explore other options, like PV solar, now at over 2.6GW in all including domestic units, but most of those would fail since normally they feed power to the grid via DC to AC converters and wouldn’t be able to deliver anything they produced directly to homes without a live grid connection. Fully off-grid PV systems (and micro wind) with batteries could, but they are rare in the UK. So are fully off-grid solar heaters: most have electric powered pumps. Thermo-syphoning systems might be OK, but they are rare in the UK. Stirling engine micro-CHP units can produce electricity as well as heat (from gas), but most current designs have to have a live power grid link to start up! Fuel cell micro CHP might be different, but electric heat pumps would of course not work.  Even some biomass boilers may need power links to run…Self-sufficiency is not part of current designs.

However blackouts in the UK are still only a remote possibility- unless nature intervenes more forcefully than just by imposing cold weather. Though that is always possible. Indeed in the storm at the end of October the 1.1GW Dungeness was forced to close after power to the site was cut, and stayed off line for some time. Earlier in October, Jellyfish clogged cooling water intake pipes of a Swedish nuclear reactor forcing the plant to shutdown. The same problem had occurred previously there and in Scotland and also California. Seems that Jellyfish are thriving due to overfishing, which has left more food for them.

Nature doesn’t seem to like nukes! For example, also in October, in Japan a typhoon hit the wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant and some of the accumulated rainwater got activated and was accidentally released from an overflow tank, adding to the flow into to the sea and soil from the leaking cooling water storage tanks there. Not a happy thought. Neither is that fact that, surprisingly, there was a Tsunami-like event in Somerset, hitting the coastal site of the proposed Hinkley plant – but back in 1607. It reportedly reached the upper Bristol Channel at a height of 7.5m, flooding dozens of villages, inundating farmland as far inland as Glastonbury Tor, and causing thousands of deaths along 570 km of coastline. It may not happen again but if it did, and sea levels have risen due to climate change, then it could have very worrying impacts, not least given that, on current plans,  nuclear  waste will be stored at Hinkley long after the new plant (if built) has shut.

A bit less worrying was the discovery in May of two radioactive goldfish in a steam tunnel in the Perry nuclear plant in Ohio. No one knows how they got there. They died soon after.  The plant developed a presumably unrelated leak soon after.

Not worrying at all was the training session in a US nuclear plant control room when the staff all adopted Star Trek personae.

Nothing wrong with that surely! After all, with old nuclear plants closing early across the US and planned new projects being abandoned, the remaining staff need a bit of a lift! Interestingly, in the UK, EDF have awarded their nuclear staff a 2.5% above inflation pay rise and lump sum bonus. But in the US EDF have concluded that there is  ‘no room for nuclear to expand in the U.S. at this time’ and it would instead focus there on renewables. Maybe, instead of trying to push on with Hinkley and Sizewell, they should do the same in the UK, taking a lead from E.ON, which said, when they withdrew form the UK Horizon nuclear project, ‘We have come to the conclusion that investments in renewable energies, decentralised generation and energy efficiency are more attractive- both for us and for our British customers.’

Of course not everything is entirely rosy with renewables. This year saw some more project failures and funding crises. For example, in the wave energy field, E.ON pulled out of the Orkney Pelamis offshore wave project, and Ireland’s Wavebob has gone into liquidation after failing to find an investment partner for its wave-tuned buoy system. Tidal stream projects also had their share of upsets. Neptune Renewable Energy’s Proteus duct-based vertical axis turbine was found to be technically flawed and therefore not commercially viable, and a yacht crew had to be rescued after it collided with the 1.2 MW Sea Gen marine tidal current unit in Strangford Lough. But it all ended happily. And in general marine renewables, like the other more establish large-scale renewables, are doing well, with marine projects moving up to the 100MW scale. Renewables altogether supplied around 15% of UK electricity in the second quarter of 2013, and are still expanding fast. DECC is talking about it being possible for offshore wind to reach perhaps 39GW by 2030 and PV 20GW by 2020! Scotland has already hit 40%. Shale gas? Bring it on!


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