As a Wednesday morning treat I offer you…more reflections from the recent Select committee Hearings on the National Policy Statements. Last week I tentatively mentioned what ‘plan B’ might be if the promised avalanche of new nuclear power stations doesn’t arrive on time (or at all).
At the session, the minister (Charles Hendry) said that it would arrive on time, and that there would be lots of them. (By the way, I thought that he had just made a mistake on his dates in claiming that there would be 16gw of new nuclear in place by 2025, but the Nuclear Industry Association was quite happy to confirm this projection at this week’s Select Committee Hearing, even when I suggested this would mean one new nuclear power station coming on stream every nine months between 2018 and 2025).
Later in last week’s session, though, he (Charles Hendry) did wave a tantalising flag in front of one of my colleagues on the committee, Dan Byles MP. Dan asked about ‘plan B’ if Carbon Capture and Storage doesn’t shape up on schedule. The Minister mentioned in reply that the ‘Chief Scientist has identified thirteen pairs of Scottish Lochs where you can use electricity to pump water up to a higher loch and then release the power – a huge amount of capacity at a few seconds notice…’. Setting aside the disturbing image of Prof. John Beddington striding the Munroes feverishly sketching ‘matching’ lochs from atop convenient crags, what was he on about?
Well, it looks like, very quietly, the government has begun to look at electricity storage. The NPS documents themselves are ambivalent and frankly contradictory about storage. On the one hand the EN-1 summary states that ‘’demand for electricity must be met simultaneously by its supply’ and that ‘this requires a margin of spare capacity to accommodate fluctuations in supply or demand’ – implying more of the same in establishing a safety margin of excess generating capacity over likely maximum supply levels. Later, in the detailed sections the document suggests that, maybe after 2020, ‘highly renewable pathways might require some storage beyond 2020’.
There is storage capacity in existence already, of course. There are four storage plants to be precise, by far the largest of which is the Dinorwig hydro pumping plant in north Wales. The old Central Electricy Generating Board built the facility in the 60s for among other purposes, to provide substantial short term capacity in the event of a large power station outage– as indeed happened in May two years ago, when four plants, including Sizewell B went down simultaneously.
Dinorwig was vastly over-engineered, but can reliably deliver 1.8gw of installed power for five days before repumping needs to take place. Pumping water a up and down lochs is, however, in principle a relatively cheap process (although capital intensive up-front), and also relatively efficient – losses of recovered energy compared to input are about 30% – far less than the conversion cost of gas to electricity, for example. There are also other pumping techniques around that don’t involve matching lochs, but might be less immediately effective.
All of which causes me to wonder – shouldn’t this be a part of plan A rather than on the tail of a vague plan B? I say this because, as will become apparent with the Energy Market Review (out this Thursday, I gather) we will face the prospect of not only having to replace large amounts of capacity but of introducing new reserve capacity to back up the 30gw of ‘highly renewable’ wind resource we will have by 2020. In order to get this plant built the EMR will almost certainly introduce a ‘capacity payment’ regime: in practice a kinder, gentler way of saying that we will be paying suppliers to build plant that will, from new, hardly ever be used.
It might be a smarter idea to offset at least some of this additional build by using some of these ‘capacity payments’ to capture the electricity that will come onto the grid at inconvenient times (e.g. when the wind blows strongly in the middle of the night) and release it at times when it will be needed. It could also be done at a price level that will greatly benefit the long term economics of wind itself. That would, among other things, mean that we would need to build less semi-redundant and probably unabated plant to balance the system at peak times. We would be providing low carbon back-up instead.
If the price is right, I would make the modest suggestion that this should be done as part of that back-up plan, and not consequent to it. I’m having a look at what comparative costings might come out at. More on this later….