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A Fully Green Grid: At What Cost?

The recent £1.7 bn state bailout of British renewables supplier Bulb is a case study in why taxpayers should not be extorted to subsidise government’s attempts to pick winners and losers in the energy sector. But this impediment to the economic viability of renewables has not deterred the Prime Minister’s commitment to a predominantly renewables grid by the net-zero emissions target of 2050. Are the present generation rates up to the task? Or will a wind and solar grid plunge Britain into blackouts and bankruptcy?

The production price for wind and solar have decreased 70 and 90 percent respectively since 2009. The cost of generation in ideal weather conditions matches that of coal, natural gas, and nuclear. But the cost-competitiveness of these innovations is in question, given taxpayers have been forced to subsidise the industry to the tune of £9 bn annually (£340 per household). These costs will continue to escalate under plans to rapidly expand reliance on renewables for grid contributions. Surely, if renewables are as reliable as politicians praise, they should be subject to market mechanisms and be allowed to succeed on their own merits, right?

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So, what are the projected costs for a fully renewable grid?

Well, according to my modelling for the Adam Smith Institute: if the average energy production rate of renewables (7.76 GW) became the sole source for Britain’s national grid, it would fall short of meeting the existing average consumer energy demand (30GW) by 74.5 percent. Grid capacity would need to nearly quadruple to facilitate the switch: from 40GW, to 154.6 GW. And if wind and solar were to double their grid contributions, costs for consumers would increase by £10 every MWh.

That’s if generation could be stabilised enough to be reliable. Last year’s largest weekly peak for renewables production was 46.4 GW. Its deepest trough? A 21 day stretch of 15.5 GW. These 15GW disparities from the average production demand (30GW) expose how existing renewables are dangerously reliant on favourable weather conditions. Scottish energy company SSE reported an 11 percent deficit in wind power generation between April and September, citing “historically dry and low-wind [weather] conditions.” Combined with a gas price crunch caused by President Biden decommissioning the Keystone XL pipeline, and increased reliance on Russian gas by America’s former export purchasers, this renewables generation trough will increase household energy costs for UK consumers 30 percent by 2022.

Expanding such grid capacity to generate and store 7560 GWh — to safeguard against these 15-day-long generation troughs — would cost £2.9 trillion; more than the UK’s annual GDP. Such a feat would require the redirection of global battery production entirely, between now and 2028, solely to the UK. This would coincide with other nations attempting the same, and an increased demand for batteries during electric car production and automation of everything from factories to public transport. Burdened by bureaucracy, and without competitive incentives to accelerate innovation, this plan is economically and logistically impossible.

But the energy generation peaks and troughs carry other costs. Renewables fail to produce enough grid inertia to safeguard against power outages. Inertia is kinetic energy produced by rotating components involved in energy production, which acts as a reserve to draw upon to stabilise the grid should the frequency drop. Fluctuations in frequency can take a grid offline. With insufficient levels of inertia produced by renewables, rolling brownouts could become a feature of decarbonisation if there are no nuclear stations to act as a generation baseline.

This happened in Germany.

Chancellor Angela Merkel called for the complete decommissioning of nuclear plants by 2022, and looked to renewables to revolutionise the German grid. But when they only met 40% of consumer demand, regional brownouts began; costing German citizens €3.5bn annually in lost commercial revenue, and an additional €7 billion in an additional 1,100 annual pollution-related deaths. Wait, pollution-related deaths? Well, Germany delayed decommissioning coal-power until 2038, and invested €9.5bn in Russia’s Nordstrom gas pipeline. Germany’s renewed reliance on fossil fuels resulted in a 5 percent emissions increase. Russian gas now constitutes 40 percent of Germany’s annual gas consumption; despite Germany paradoxically paying €356 million annually to NATO.

Alongside the unsavoury reliance on Russian gas, renewables rely on China’s manufacturing capacity for 70 percent of the world’s solar panels, 80 percent of annual global battery capacity, and now must bargain with them for access to Afghanistan’s large mineral deposits.

So, while prices fall, supply chains and generation regularity grow ever more precarious; meaning renewables alone are not a mechanism for achieving energy independence. Then, what is the solution?

As the IPCC, and experts at the UK’s largest in-land wind farm, Whitelee, agreed: nuclear power must constitute a contribution to the grid of every nation seeking to have net zero emissions by 2050. France produces 70 percent of its electricity via nuclear power without carbon emissions, and is the world’s largest net exporter of electricity (pocketing €3 billion annually from surplus generation). By addressing impediments to the cost of plant construction, — negating the present reliance on state-secured loans — countries can have a stable, emission-free method of electricity production without the pitfalls of solely relying on renewables.

The infrastructure and resource supply-chain Cold War brewing between the Anglosphere, China, and Russia reaffirms the urgency for achieving low-emission energy independence. But an ideological aversion to nuclear power will sacrifice the viability of this goal. Wind, solar, fission, and fusion must all comprise contributions to a carbon-neutral energy sector. But the government must not be in the business of monopolistically picking which companies or technologies will come out on top. Come rain or shine, renewables must be left to succeed or fail on their own merits. 

Connor Tomlinson is the Policy Director for the British Conservation Alliance and a political commentator for Young Voices UK. He appears regularly in American Spectator and on talkRadio. Follow him on Twitter: @Con_Tomlinson

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of C3.

Copyright © 2020 Conservative Coalition for Climate Solutions

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