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Energy security will trump emissions reduction

Between now and mid-December, when the Paris climate change summit ends, global warming, sea level rise, extreme weather events, emissions controls and even ocean ‘acidification’ are all likely to figure regularly in the media. Studies will be released, commitments made and links – some extremely tenuous – will be made between continued use of fossil fuels and a range of negative impacts. Similarly, sceptical voice will be raised (though probably not at the BBC) in attempts to question the validity of many of these stories.

Not that it will really matter, since neither side will listen much to the other. The dialogue of the deaf will continue, with most ordinary citizens remaining apathetic or, at best, just skimming the various stories that appear. Those who are already convinced by the IPCC story of the real threat of dangerous global warming this century will not have their minds changed by sceptics raising doubts. Sceptics – who are mainly what Matt Ridley labels ‘lukewarmers’, convinced of the reality of climate change but not of the urgency of the threat – are equally unlikely to be convinced by what they see mainly as circumstantial evidence and computer modelling. Meanwhile, this is simply not a high priority issue for the majority of citizens.

What is important to everyone, though, is a secure and affordable energy supply. Occasional power cuts caused by bad weather or accidents are a nuisance but tolerable. But supply interruptions because demand exceeds supply quickly become a major cause of concern. Industry, banking and communications are stopped in their tracks and costly backup generators are needed to keep vital services going. The general public suffers from travel disruption and cold, dark houses. If such things become commonplace, politicians carry the can.

This is a particularly difficult time to manage security of supply, since many national governments are actively changing their mix of generation capacity in ways which reduce the overall amount of despatchable (ie, on-tap) electricity. Germany, via its ambitious energiewende and impending shutdown of remaining nuclear capacity is in theory increasingly dependent on solar and wind energy. In practice, of course, it is also geographically well situated to be linked to the grids of neighbouring countries via a number of interconnectors.

The UK’s position is different. Although relatively late in committing to significant amounts of renewable electricity capacity, there are now plenty of wind farms either operating or at various stages of construction, and solar arrays have become quite a common sight. At the same time, both coal and nuclear capacity is being lost, with gas-fired stations being built at too slow a rate to keep the same margin of supply safety.

The result is that margins are slipping year by year. A positive spin is being put on this (UK power supplies enough for winter, says National Grid), although the current figure is a still rather low 5.1%. However, even this has only been achieved by NG paying operators to keep plant on standby, including the very expensive (and dirty) option of having banks of diesel generators available across the country.

This Illustrates how seriously the situation is being taken. The government knows that it has to do whatever is necessary to maintain even such slim margins. At the same time, politically it has to be seen to be working hard to meet the agreed climate change targets of a 20% increase in energy efficiency, a 20% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions and a 15% share of energy from renewables by 2020. At some stage, hard choices will have to be made between keeping the lights on and meeting increasingly ambitious emissions reduction and renewable energy targets.

So far, I’ve only considered grid electricity, which is where most people’s thoughts turn when thinking of energy. This, indeed, is vital. Lack of electricity means that few of the things we take for granted in a modern society work anymore without some form of backup generation. But in reality electricity is only one component of our overall energy use, the other equally important components being heating and transport. If gas supplies ran out, life could go on as normal for a few hours, perhaps even a day, but in winter houses would soon become virtually uninhabitable. This would be in addition to the impact on electricity generation, towards which gas makes a very significant contribution in the UK.

A major hiccup in the supply of petrol and diesel would also have a large impact, although road transport would not completely stop overnight. But those of us who have lived through previous oil supply problems will remember the difficulty of keeping moving, particularly as motorists competed to keep their fuel tanks topped up as much as possible.

Although national renewable energy targets are being met largely through the electricity sector at present, there will be an increasing move towards renewable energy for heating and transport. For the latter, this is likely to mean a growing share of the market taken by plug-in hybrids, which will require additional electricity generating capacity if they become truly mainstream. This will put additional strain on the generating network, which will be called upon to charge large numbers of car batteries, often at the same time as general demand is high.

The essential problem is that the intermittent nature of solar and wind generation makes it increasingly difficult to guarantee a stable and secure electricity supply as their contribution to the grid increases. At some point – whether ten, 20 or 30 years – the crunch will come and, without a breakthrough in massive-scale energy storage, a choice between energy security and emissions reduction will have to be made. It is inconceivable that the electorate would vote for a governing party which places energy security second.