Labour is about to destroy our energy grid

People walking in complete darkness at Clapham Junction station
People walking in complete darkness at Clapham Junction station

The Labour Party has reiterated its commitment to decarbonise the UK’s electricity system by 2030. That will be hugely expensive, but the more immediate impact will be on the security of electricity supply. Will we face the prospect of rolling blackouts, a regular occurrence in countries like South Africa that have mismanaged their electricity systems?

The primary alternatives to our current reliance on gas generation are wind and solar power, both of which are intermittent, and which all too frequently produce very little during periods of high demand during the autumn and winter.

My analysis of the “decarbonised” British electricity system, which allows for historical weather patterns as well as predicted changes in demand, implies that low carbon generation plus imports must be supplemented by additional backup supplies in about 55 per cent of hours in each year.

Extending the life of current nuclear plants, if possible, and building lots of battery and other storage will reduce this dependence on backup generation to about 50 per cent of hours, but will not change the fundamental problem.

The current government knows that. It has said, albeit rather quietly, that Britain needs to build new and more efficient gas plants to provide backup during the 2030s and beyond. However, if the Labour Party is serious about decarbonisation, it will refuse to grant licences for such plants and will deny funding for the payments required to persuade investors to build such plants.

Currently, Britain (excluding Northern Ireland) relies heavily on 27 GW of gas combined cycle plants to maintain electricity supplies. Of these plants, a number accounting for roughly 15 GW are likely to retire before 2035.

Even if Labour were to allow the remaining gas plants to run as “emergency” backup, it would be necessary to develop a large quantity of low carbon generation capacity to keep the lights on. All of the alternatives – small nuclear plants, carbon capture, hydrogen – are experimental and most are very expensive, especially as they cannot be guaranteed to operate sufficient hours in the year to cover their capital costs.

To make matters worse the UK has a terrible record of inconsistent and dilatory regulation and policies in the energy sector. Many energy investors have simply given up on believing that the UK Government will behave reasonably, rather than changing its mind frequently in response to intellectual fashions and political pressures.

To persuade such investors to commit the capital that will be required, the new government will almost certainly to offer high – and guaranteed – rates of return to surmount all of the planning and regulatory hurdles to developing new plants. For example, waiting for reforms to the planning system won’t work because any new plant is likely to take 4 or 5 years to develop and build.

Since most of the potential technologies are experimental there is a high probability that some plans will fail outright or be delayed or simply underperform. Thus, any cautious planner needs backup to the backup. Realistically that means building some gas plants alongside any commitment to build a large amount of new low carbon capacity.

Almost certainly strict adherence to full decarbonisation of the electricity system by 2030 is a recipe for blackouts in 2030 and later years. National Grid has a – largely successful – history of ducking and weaving to avoid blackouts, but there is no way of doing without at least some gas or diesel generation to fill the need for backup generation when output from wind and solar is low. You cannot reduce system demand by two-thirds by persuading people to switch off their washing machines or not to charge electric vehicles!

The current get-out-jail card is importing energy from France, Norway and other countries. Assuming we can continue to do so would be unwise. Most of Western Europe is moving in the same direction as Britain and output from intermittent renewables is heavily correlated over the whole area. French nuclear plants will not keep British lights on. No matter what current Labour doctrine claims, there is no realistic alternative other than to build a significant amount of gas capacity.