Electric Lalaland?

I spoke at a PRASEG  (Parliamentary Renewable and Sustainable Energy Group) seminar yesterday on renewable and future networks. My small contribution was to talk about interconnectors, electricity storage and super grids, all of which keen readers (yes there are some, I understand) of this blog will know I have been going on about for a while, so I won’t bore you with any detail of what I said.

However, I will bend your ears about another contribution to the meeting, from Richard Smith, who is the future Transmissions Manager at National Grid: or rather one particular point he made. Clearly, he said, if we are to develop electricity delivery in line with what is projected in the ‘roadmaps’ to 2050, then we will have to build in a great deal more capacity and substantial grid development and strengthening. So far so uncontroversial, except that, of course the pathway to which he refers is the ‘high capacity’ route set out in the DECC ‘Pathways to 2050’ document of last year (here). The central case in that document, repeated in the National Energy Planning Statement is that as it said “demand for electricity could double over the next forty years as a result of the need to electrify large parts of the industrial and domestic heat and transport sectors.”  That is based on the assumption that we will be largely driving around in electric vehicles, and, importantly, heating our homes and offices electrically.  Sort of makes sense doesn’t it?  After all, gas comes out at well above the level of emissions we will have to have in our electricity and heating economy by 2030 so it will have to go.

What Richard Smith sets out (and I think this is the first time I have seen it put quite like this) is what that switch from gas to electricity will actually mean.  He takes as his starting point electricity demand per day (an average November day, to be precise) of 1000 Gwh and then sets that against the average gas demand for the same day at 4000gwh. “What would you have to do to electrify all that heat?” he asks. The results are rather startling: you would need 45 nuclear sites at two reactors per site: or perhaps 30000 wind turbines at 5mw per turbine, or maybe 75 CCS equipped power stations. Or you might go for Solar PV –  40 million homes with PV on the roof: or then again if you interconnected; well that would be a modest 150 new interconnectors the size of the new Brit Ned line. It’s just not going to happen is it?

There is, of course, a distinction to be made between gas in power stations and gas for heating homes, offices and factories. Whilst we can and should reasonably decarbonise (i.e. degas) our power supplies, or at least ensure that the remaining gas is Carbon Capture equipped, to do the same for all our heat doesn’t really add up, at least on Richard Smith’s scenarios.  And yet…as I have mused on previously, we’re seemingly locked into a scenario of ever increasing requirements for additional electricity generation capacity over the next thirty year because of these and other assumptions about what demand is going to look like, and in what form.

I think we’re going to have to look at all that again. I had a little look a while ago about our assumptions to 2020, (here) and how with reasonable progress on interconnectors and storage, we could come in at a much lower level of capacity requirement. We are going to have to think out the future after that a bit better as well, and probably, I would think resist the temptation to throw away our extensive gas delivery networks to pursue a probably unattainable goal of wholesale electrification.

Yes, you say, but what about the carbon backpack in all this?  I’m not sure that this is necessarily the complete riposte it looks like. A combination of better managed energy efficiency, installation of district and home heating CHP fuel cell boilers (of which a little more later) and a fairly comprehensive programme of putting biogas into the mains supply would substantially decarbonise heating whilst avoiding much of the need to replace gas distribution capacity in the way currently envisaged:  and by the way, we’d need far fewer new power stations to fuel our ‘electric’ future. I guess Richard Smith should be able to work all the numbers out on this, as well…


3 thoughts on “Electric Lalaland?

  1. Great blog Alan, and a fair representation of my comments to PRASEG. However, I do feel compelled to expand on one point – when looking at “what would you have to do to electrify all that heat?” I have presented a high impact case – in reality much will depend the efficiency of those electric heating devices, with coefficients of performance ranging from ~1:1 for resistive heating, to ~3:1 for an electric heat pump. So my illustrative numbers in terms of power supply impacts could be lower if higher numbers of the higher efficiency devices are deployed. That said, this does not and should not detract from the point that electricfying all heat will lead large scale deployment of low utilisation power generation – which as you note, would be a sub-optimal solution. So is the future of heat electric? I would say significantly, but not entirely.

  2. Will you both come to the US and talk some sense into our politicians? It is refreshing to hear officials anywhere talk about the facts and numbers before they start talking about the solutions. Over here, our elected officials start with their “beliefs” about solutions and then manipulate and/or ignore the facts as required to justify what they’re selling.

    John Howley

  3. I do find it curious that the DECC hierarchy still cleave to the most improbable of the various Pathways to 2050 they published : specifically, that electricity consumption will at least double between now and 2050, thus justifying needing to spend enormous tens of billions on new power stations and infrastructure.

    In contrast, Germany – with near identical climate change and security objectives – is projecting a 25% reduction in current electricity consumption levels, via a sustained and purposeful energy saving campaign.

    Remind me, which country has the best record for effective long-term industrial planning? And which for endlessly promoting white elephants?

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