What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

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On Friday last week, the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 featured some items about a report just released from the National Infrastructure Commission, which describes how Britain (lucky thing!) is perfectly placed to kick off a “smart power revolution” and become a world leader in all things low-carbon. Here’s a transcript of one segment:

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Justin Webb: Let’s talk about electricity, which is going to be quite a feature of today’s programme – big report coming out today from the people who have been asked by the government to look at our national infrastructure and come up with big ideas about how it can be altered and used more efficiently, and they’re telling us we must use electricity differently. Roger Harrabin, our Environment Analyst, is on the line. What’s the point of what they’re saying today, Roger?

Roger Harrabin: Well, I mean, this is the problem, Justin. The commissioners say that we need an absolute revolution in energy. We’re facing massive problems, so the coal power stations are closing, we’ve got to decarbonise the economy and the whole electricity system – that’s problem number one.

Problem number two is a lot of the sources that’ll be coming onto it will be intermittent – so the wind doesn’t blow when we want it, it blows when the wind blows.

And then the third big challenge, which I think most people have not quite grasped yet, is the UK is committed to taking virtually the whole vehicular system – all our cars, cars on the roads – onto electric, during the 2030s and then after, then heating our homes with electricity, too. So not only is there more intermittent demand [sic] but that demand will be even greater than it has been before, putting enormous strain on the grid.

Justin Webb: And the solution?

Roger Harrabin: Well, the solution, they say – we have to really revolutionise things, this, we’ve got to look at flexibility on the grid and we’ve got to look at storage. So storage is kind of obvious – we build batteries and we build all sorts of other devices, maybe storing energy in liquid air or perhaps in compressed air, there’s all sorts of ideas, some of them which we’ve featured on the programme already.

But I think the thing that will really interest people is they envisage a really entirely new system in which your fridge, your freezer, your washing machine, your dishwasher, your car battery will in some way via an internet of energy be linked to all my gadgets, some solar panels on my roof if I had one, my wind farm if I had one, a nuclear power station, all of those things will be linked together. And in order – that will happen in order to let us use electricity more flexibly, so when power is cheap, you will be able to turn on your washing machine – in fact, it will turn on, itself – and then when power is scarce, the internet will ask your freezer “Justin’s freezer, do you mind if we turn you off for half an hour so Mrs Bloggs next door can put on the supper?” and your freezer will say “Yes”. And this is – this is the future they envisage.

Justin Webb: What could possibly go wrong? [Business correspondent Tanya Beckett is laughing uproariously in the background.] Roger Harrabin, thanks.

*  *  *

Indeed, what could possibly go wrong? Actually, I think Roger’s correct, in that the brave new British revolutionary intermittent interwebs of energy thing described above will really interest people – in fact, I’d go further and say the scenario has “interesting times” practically written all over it…

34 thoughts on “What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

  1. Demand response is not new. It is widely used to stabilize grids. Extending it to domestic use is an interesting challenge but the principle that it is better and cheaper to constrain demand temporarily than to bring online expensive peaking plant seems hard to argue against – even in a 100% fossil system. Once the principle is accepted, all there remains to argue about are the implementation details.

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  2. RAFF
    Demand response is not new. It is widely used by Ryanair to decide whether your flight to Spain will cost £200 or £0.99. Extending it to domestic electricity bills is an interesting challenge. Once implemented, all there remains to argue about is whether the prime minister of the day will be laughed out of the studio or strung up by angry pensioners.

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  3. Well, if it could work anywhere it would be the UK. Fairly moderate weather, 64 million people, a lot of ’em very,very clever.

    But man, a lot can go wrong. They’re already losing, what, 15,000-20,000 every year to cold weather, right? Wind doesn’t blow a lot when it gets cold. Insolation isn’t very good for solar. No mountains for hydro-electric.

    If I were British I’d be saying ‘let someone else show proof of concept first.’

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  4. Pingback: What Could Possibly Go Wrong? | Tallbloke's Talkshop

  5. Load shedding and the rolling blackout will become the norm. Buy your cashmere woollies now while stocks last.

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  6. Announced generation closures for rest of this year guarantee substantial negative UK peak reserve margins next winter. Blackouts assured unless some plant owners can be ‘bribed’ not to close. BIG bribes. One plant owner is paying a £35 million penalty for breaching an already signed capacity agreement because staying open would lose £50 million despite the contracted capacity payment aka bribe. An object lesson in green policy foolishness embedded in the CCA.

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  7. There’s only a fairly small fraction of load that can be shed before they would have to start cutting into the real meat and bone of what sustains our current civilisation. Deep freezers and vegetarian poodle-dryers just don’t actually use a lot of electricity. At the household level, people won’t accept regularly not being able to be warm, not being able to cook, not being able to take hot showers, dry clothing, etc etc.

    The biggest problem remains the variance in supply, not demand. They can’t load-shed due to no wind for days or weeks on end. Roger Irrelevant at the BBC may not realise it yet (or he may just lie), but the electricity storage technology required that would make his windy schemes economically viable simply doesn’t exist. Batteries are not even remotely close to what is required. They have been developed for over a couple of centuries now and the lead-acid battery invented in the 1850s is still in common use for good reason.
    Norway has wealth, not many people, and lots of wet mountains nearby for hydro-storage. Most people in the world do not have the same fortunate circumstances.

    It’s a sign that there might still be hope left for the BBC that they have people ready to laugh at Harrabin’s castles in the air.

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  8. Roger Harrabin, as with all those who believe fossil fuels are bad for us, always make the unwarranted assumption that we will have to suffer energy shortages. This can only be true if we are stupid enough to leave all fossil fuels in the ground before coming up with real alternatives. That’s equivalent to moving house before you’ve found somewhere else to live. Yes, what could possible go wrong?

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  9. THE big loads in a home are heating, A/C in places like California, cooking, and clothes washer /driers. Everything else is irrelevant. When you are cold, you NEED heat and being off for a few hous will not work. , Ditto AC on hot summer days. Cooking can’t be put off to midnight without dire consequences, and letting the fridge warm up a couple of hours means food spoilage and health risks increase. That leaves the wash. We do that on Saturday when we have time to fold and put away. Having wet clothes ferment until Sunday 2 AM is not going to happen. (At least on the east coast USA, wet clothes start to mildew in a few hours, so rapid assured drying is essential.)

    Yes, one might also have electric water heating. That is already tied to the wash… But the dishes feeding roaches all night is not an option either… Nor is taking your “get ready for work” morning shower going to move to noon either.

    In short, time of demand is fixed by life needs and not flexible.

    My credentials for this oppinion are several years living with rolling blackouts under the Democrats in California. We dumped Gov. Grey “out” Davis, put in a Republican (of sorts) and got reliable power back. Oh, and I sold my second generator… I’d bought two during The Grey Years… One thing I learned was that the small 1 kW job ran all the lights, entertainment, and fridge and everything else small. ONLY if using the wash, electric kitchen, or heater A/C did I need the 5 kW one. That is a direct existance proof that only those things are the big load where shifting can have an effect.

    So what can you live without? Food? Clothes? Heat A/C?

    I found the generator a workable solution…

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  10. I was talking to someone with the type of mentality found here. He lived in France, which is famously highly nuclear. Despite objecting strenuousy to demand management he was happy to run his washing machine at night on account of the nukes not being good at ramping up and down and there being an expectation (and a price incentive) to run stuff at night. Demand management in practice and he simultaneously objected to it in principle and happily accepted it in practice. Go figure!

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  11. Raff, there’d need to be a pretty good discount or incentive for me to run my washing machine at night. Living in a fairly small house, the noise of the spin cycle kicking off at 3am would be a nuisance. As would a load of wet clothes sitting for ages in the machine – being green, I use a solar-powered clothes dryer which runs to its own strict schedule. 🙂

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  12. Put Whitehall, the various Royal’s Palaces, Parliament, and of course any and all climate NGO facilities and University Climate Institutes at the top of the rolling blackout/curtailment roster. A “First off/Last On sort of ranking seems appropriate. The new bright smart grid could achieve that sort of fairness with no challenges. Let’s see if that helps catalyze some new thinking.

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  13. I think this is quite likely to happen – the “smart fridge” thing. It’s brilliant news for the big manufacturers of course. Gullible consumers will be told that they have to throw away their old perfectly functioning goods, dumping them by the roadside or in landfill, and buy a load of expensive new products with the words “eco” and “smart” on them. You have to do this, to save the planet.

    It won’t work of course, for the various reasons mentiined in the comments. You can’t turn the freezer off for a week during a stable anticyclone while you wait for the wind to start blowing, and energy can’t be stored in sufficient quantity. But people like Roger Harebrain lack the basic numeracy skills to see past their ideology.

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  14. Alex, I think it is about 30%. But Geoff is in France so he should be able to fill us in on the state of such demand management.

    Paul:

    But people like Roger Harebrain lack the basic numeracy skills to see past their ideology.

    Except that they, unlke you seemingly, probably know that the purpose of demand management is to reduce peak loads and/or shift load to where there is surplus supply, not to fill in for days or weeks on end. That is how demand has alays been managed in electricity supply. It is how it is managed in phone and transport systems or anything where there is peak/off-peak pricing.

    It is people like you whose ideology seems to get in the way of sense. It is not difficult to understand that when a system is running with high demand, it may be cheaper to cut demand than to add dedicated peaking plant that runs for only short periods.

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  15. Ah yes, the ‘Internet of Energy’ is going to solve all future energy problems. Computers and smart meters to the rescue. There is just one annoying fly in the ointment: It’s called ‘Supply and Demand’. If you are unable to supply sufficient energy to meet the demand, then the faucet must be throttled or the grid collapses. So who decides the rationing scheme when supply cannot meet demand? Computers? Hah! You better believe that only Big Brother will decide who gets what and when. But when it reaches that point, who will Big Brother blame for the problem? Why the computers, of course.

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  16. Here is a very interesting and highly comprehensive PDF on some of the legal and constitutional implications of ‘Smart Meters’ prepared by the US Govt. Congressional Research Service for the information of Members and Committees of Congress.

    Figure 1 is particularly instructive.

    https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R42338.pdf

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  17. RAFF
    Yes, there’s a discount at night, but not enough to persuade me to get up at 2am to do a wash though. There’s also a discount on electricity to second homes in the off season, so we go to the beach house in February and switch all the electric heaters on, which we couldn’t afford to do in August, and wouldn’t want to anyway.
    Demand management is a funny thing. Do you feel grateful to Ryanair for their £9.99 trips to Spain? No you hate them when the next day the price has gone up 1000%. We’re being manipulated, and being told it’s for our own good only makes us angrier.

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  18. Geoff, I’m unsure what you think. Is it that there should be no attempt at demand management, with prices the same whatever the level of supply/demand and sufficient generation capacity installed to meet any peak load?

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  19. I quite often set washing going overnight at the weekend, with a timer on the plug, so I can put it out on the washing line the next morning.

    But that’s not the issue. The issue is that the idiot Harrabin correctly points out that wind power is intermittent, but then thinks this can be solved by Justin’s fridge turning off for a few minutes while his neighbour boils the kettle. The time scales are all wrong. See comment by Michael Hart. And of course he’s living in his own innumerate fairy-land if he thinks we are going to have all electric cars and electric heating while closing down power stations.

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  20. If Harrabin’s scheme is to work, it can be done in at least three ways.
    First, is that the intelligent devices will only switch on when electricity is available. The washing will only get done when the wind is blowing. On cold windless nights the heating will get turned down and the car will not get a sufficient charge to get the owner to work the next day.
    Second, is that we will allocate the electricity on cost, like with Ryanair. The rich will set a very high bid price ceiling, and pensioners on limited income will set a low price. So the rich will get their washing done, and their cars recharged, whilst the poor can get bed hats, bed socks and a stout pair of boots to walk.
    Third, is to decide priorities based on a super-duper computer model. The brilliant scientists whom we reverse will feed in rankings of all people based on needs and job necessities, and the model would make the decisions. Of course we would want to make sure that the poor, babies, those with disabilities and the old were all given priority. Jobs are more difficult, but I am sure that those who work in essential services would be given some priority. In the future this could include police, nurses, doctors and climate communicators.

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  21. Yes, we will solve the energy storage problem by just shuffling around when and where power gets distributed. Likewise, we will only need one winter jacket per household. All we have to do is to let whomever is coldest wear it for a few minutes, then shuffle it off to the next person in line. Hooray for Science!

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  22. Paul, “the idiot Harrabin” did not say he thinks the intermittency of wind “can be solved by Justin’s fridge turning off for a few minutes while his neighbour boils the kettle”. You made that up despite, presumably, having listened well enough to write a transcript (or maybe you cut and pasted from elsewhere and didn’t read it). He said:

    we have to really revolutionise things, this, we’ve got to look at flexibility on the grid and we’ve got to look at storage

    The thing about fridges and kettles was “the thing that will really interest people”. And he was right. You are more interested in faking what he said about that than you are in how sufficiently large storage has yet to become practicable in the UK. And he is probably aware that extra demand will require extra supply, and that this is not necessarily incompatible with closing aging coal plant.

    [PM: err, here is Harrabin’s article. He said “the UK needs to store much more energy from intermittent renewable like wind and solar. Fridges, freezers and washing machines could play a part…” ]

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  23. We are meant to be following a “smart power revolution”. But the justification for this revolution are pretty dumb and superficial. Under Harrabin’s vision total costs of power will be vastly greater than using fossil fuels, along with vastly less convenient. But we can be comforted in knowing that we are taking a lead in saving the planet from dangerous climate change. Apart from the little matter real world data failing to conform to the predictions, 80%+ of the world’s population live in countries which are not following this great sacrificial example for future generations. They are in denial of this climate change is the number one priority. They think the eradication of hunger, disease and absolute poverty are more important, along with provision of basic healthcare, clean drinking water, education and cheap electricity. In other countries, those in power are not convinced, or realize that they would be turfed out pretty quickly if they were daft enough to impose such policies. So the sacrifices of the British will be pretty much in vain, even if the worst prophesies climate experts are true.

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  24. Five years ago, the UK had spare capacity in its electricity generation system. It is truly weird that destruction of that capacity margin and the acceptance of the use of unreliable generation methods together with the imposition of “demand management” methods is viewed as progress. Just what goes on in these believers’ heads?

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  25. RAFF: “You made that up despite, presumably, having listened well enough to write a transcript (or maybe you cut and pasted from elsewhere and didn’t read it).

    You know, when you patronise people, it helps if you get your facts right.

    If you don’t, you make yourself look a fool – or more likely, you really are a fool.

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