By Paul Homewood
Two cheers for Rishi Sunak for having the courage to push back on some climate deadlines last week. But the dates he juggles are almost irrelevant. A cliff edge is approaching, and beyond it, a chasm that will devour whoever is in power. This is Britain’s Energy Gap, which is already here, and is getting wider every day.
The Gap is easy to understand – it’s the difference between supply and demand. Western societies have committed themselves to the electrification of transport and heating, but without actually providing sufficient electricity to achieve this goal. The size of the gap is contentious. It will be twice as much electricity by 2050 than we make or use today, according to the British Energy Security Strategy.
But nobody believes that number is realistic: in reality, we’ll need much more. Electrifying home heating, transport, and industry and commerce, requires around “four times” more power than we make and use today, a minister acknowledged in January 2022.
The Energy Gap is more than a cost or an inconvenience, but an existential threat to our national security and social stability. The more we depend on unreliable energy, the higher the risk of a catastrophic societal breakdown if the grid fails us.
When demand exceeds supply, the electricity grid collapses, and the consequences of that are very serious indeed. Food can’t reach the supermarkets, because petrol stations can’t pump diesel – let alone charge an EV. People freeze in their homes. Thousands of water pumping stations have no backup power. Without clean water, disease can break out. And don’t expect Britain’s creaking water infrastructure to keep working when it can’t cope with a heavy rain shower today.
This nightmare will most likely happen in deepest midwinter, during those beautiful, clear, calm lulls that the Germans have a word for – a dunkelflaute. That’s when an anticyclone settles upon us, and the wind doesn’t blow.
Last winter, one such a spell lasted over a fortnight, during which time the British mainland saw almost no wattage returned from its costly investments in onshore wind: the wind didn’t move the air fast enough to turn their blades. Not many more of our offshore facilities reached the required speed, either, although a few did.
The Gap is here today, the National Grid confirms. Today, we need over 60GW of electricity at peak demand, with much of our home heating and transportation using dependable hydrocarbons instead. But even so, the Grid acknowledges we can’t meet demand as it is.
The Grid then has to fall back on what it calls “operational tools”, of which “Demand Flexibility Service” is the most ominous. We already rely on other countries to sell us their surplus, at a pretty price, via interconnectors. Now imagine what happens when the anticyclone becalms Europe. Then no country could afford to export energy, and the entire continent grinds to a halt.
Surely all the clever people in charge have thought of all this? If only. Simple calculations, using existing official utilisation figures and assuming no population growth, suggest that switching cars over to batteries will require over 80GW of additional electricity. That’s assuming the size of the nation’s fleet remains the same.
Add in around 50GW more to keep HGVs and large vans moving. (I haven’t counted small vans, which make more journeys than ever). On top of that, UCL researchers reckon an additional 70GW will be needed at peak times to get us through a cold winter like 2010 using heat pumps.
Alas, we’re closing nuclear power stations faster than we‘re building them. So the paltry “24 GW [more] by 2050” that the Security Strategy blithely predicts falls short by about 90 per cent. What about batteries, you wonder – surely there must be a Plan B? Alas, our largest battery backup facility can power 300,000 households for just two hours. That’s not much use for Britain’s other 28 million homes.
What’s remarkable about the Energy Gap is how so many people in authority have been able to ignore it for so long – either by fudging reality, or pretending it doesn’t exist at all. In July, the Grid published its latest Future Energy Scenarios (FES), which made an attempt to square the circle.
It does so by predicting we will use much less energy than we do today: up to 52 per cent less. As energy expert and blogger David Turver points out, no Western society has achieved this or would want to. Nor does the Grid doesn’t explain how this will be achieved.
I’m not the first to warn about the looming societal breakdown, or even write about it. Researcher James McSweeney raised it in The Critic, suggesting it will arrive in 2035. It may be even sooner than that.
“No one has the courage to look people in the eye and explain what that involves,” said Rishi Sunak in his speech last week. I fear that as a storyteller, he has barely begun on such a journey.
But he should take heart that both Germany and Sweden have embarked on emergency expansions of hydrocarbons and nuclear – while still swearing loyalty to net zero targets. Those pledges, like those sacred targets, don’t mean anything any more.
It is worth pointing out that Andrew Orlowski is a technology journalist. So he knows what is talking about, unlike the Emma Gattens of the world who environmental reporters and who usually get to report on energy matters.