On 29th June 2021 the UK Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) issued a statistical release providing information on energy production, trade, and consumption in the UK for total energy and by specific fuels. It covered the UK economy for the first three months of 2021.*
Given that the covid crisis had not fully taken effect in the comparable first quarter of 2020, the following statistical analysis should come as no surprise:
“Energy consumption in the first quarter of 2021 was low as COVID-19 restrictions continued to reduce demand. Energy requirements for industrial use were down 2.1 per cent on the same period last year, and demand from other final users (e.g., shops, restaurants, offices, and public buildings) were [sic] down 4.6 per cent. Domestic demand was up 8.9 per cent as more people stayed at home. Oil used for transport dropped 31 per cent compared [to] the same period last year, led by a 70 per cent fall in aviation demand. Diesel demand was down 15 per cent and petrol demand down 29 per cent.”
“Imports of gas reached a record level, offsetting lower than normal production to meet higher than normal demand for gas generation.”
“…the UK exported more primary oils than it imported for only the second time since 2005.”
This is where it gets really interesting:
“Renewable generation fell on the same period last year due to less favourable conditions in 2021, particularly for wind. Windy conditions last year led to record renewable generation and the stiller weather this year decreased wind generation by 20 per cent to 21 Twh.”
While reduction in demand for energy generally, and for oil, diesel and petrol specifically, is understandable, driven by the pandemic and the measures taken to combat it, the fall in renewables generation (not mentioned by the turbine-loving mainstream media, so far as I am aware) was driven by something else entirely – less wind than in the previous year. This doesn’t come as a surprise to those of us who keep an eye on the National Grid data, but it might to the long-suffering UK public, and possibly also to those in charge of UK energy policy, who are – irresponsibly in my view – making the National Grid ever more dependent on a source of energy that is inherently unpredictable and unreliable.
The unpredictability of UK weather caused problems in two ways – greater domestic demand (as I pointed out in “Global Cooling” the start of 2021 in the UK was very cold indeed) and lower renewables output:
“Renewable electricity generation was 34.7 TWh in Quarter 1 2021, 16 per cent lower than the peak in Quarter 1 of 2020. In contrast to early 2020, when high wind speeds drove record renewable generation, weather conditions in Quarter 1 2021 were less favourable for renewable generators, with lower wind speeds and lower average daily sun hours. These conditions meant that solar and wind generators both produced 20 per cent less electricity in Quarter 1 2021, despite small increases in capacity.”
As an aside, these further details might also cause some raised eyebrows, given the general direction of travel:
“Growth in renewable generation capacity was modest, up 1.5 per cent on the same period last year. Growth in renewable capacity has slowed since the start of 2020. Maintenance on the nuclear fleet reduced generation by 12 per cent and as a result low carbon’s share of generation was 6.8 percentage points down on last year at 55.4 per cent.”
I doubt if you’ll read that at the websites of the Guardian or the BBC.
As a further aside:
“In Q1 2021, coal imports rose to 1.5 million tonnes, 45 per cent up on Q1 2021. [This is a direct quote from the BEIS website, which I noticed is rather sloppy]. Net imports accounted for 49 per cent of supply in Q1 2021… Russia (45 per cent), the USA (15 per cent) and Australia (15 per cent) accounted for 75 per cent of total coal imports.”
“Domestic coal production has fallen steadily because of coal mine closures and reduced demand. Imports filled the gap, rising from 1.0 million tonnes in the first quarter of 2020 to 1.5 million tonnes in the first quarter of 2021.”
Despite this, the powers-that-be and the usual suspects frown on any suggestion that a new coal mine should be opened in Cumbria.
National Grid Data**
As we’ve just seen, according to the latest report from BEIS, “low carbon’s share of generation [in the first quarter of 2021] was 6.8 percentage points down on last year at 55.4 per cent.”
I’m not entirely sure what “low carbon” is, but the National Grid’s website talks instead about “zero carbon sources”. Its report for June 2021 suggests that 42% of electricity in the UK during that month came from “zero carbon sources”. And that struck me as odd, given that June is a month when it should be warm, so demand might be expected to be low, and there are long hours of sunshine, so solar power might be expected to produce a not insignificant amount of electricity, and generally, one might anticipate that June would be among the best months for “zero carbon sources”. Yet during this optimum month, according to the National Grid, the share of “zero carbon sources” was 13.4% down on the first three months of this year, according to BEIS, three months which as BEIS acknowledges, were poorly-performing compared to the same quarter in the previous year.
And so I went to look at the National Grid’s data for January, February, and March 2021. I learned that “zero carbon sources” produced the following percentages of UK electricity in the first three months of 2021:
In January 2021, 40.6%;
In February 2021, 44%; and
In March 2021, 44%.
Intrigued, I looked at April and May too and found the figure of 40% for April and 40% for May 2021.
“Zero carbon sources” are defined (rather strangely, to my mind, given the nature of biomass) as solar, wind, hydro, nuclear and biomass. Given that the levels of generation from nuclear, biomass and hydro tend to be relatively stable, the poor performance, I reasoned, must be coming from wind, as solar should be contributing more in the months with longer hours of daylight). So I went back and checked.
And sure enough, in the first six months of 2021, I discovered that wind (and sun) generated the following percentages of the UK’s electricity:
January – 19.16% (solar 0.77%)
February – 25.95% (solar 1.85%)
March – 24% (solar 4%)
April – 15% (solar 7%)
May – 18% (solar 6%)
June – 15% (solar 7%).
The percentage of electricity imported to service the UK’s needs is also rather worrying, in my opinion:
January – 7.89%
February – 9.88%
March – 10%
April – 8%
May – 11%
June – 13%
As the year has progressed, with the exception of April, reliance on electricity imports has steadily increased. This looks like no way to run a country’s electricity system.
A question I leave you to muse upon is the discrepancy between National Grid and BEIS statistics. If National Grid’s “zero carbon” sources comprise nuclear, solar, biomass, hydro and wind, and BEIS’ “low carbon” sources consistently show a different, higher, percentage of electricity generation, what explains the difference? What is the low-carbon source that doesn’t qualify as zero-carbon in this Alice Through the Looking Glass World? It looks as though the official statistics are as unreliable as the renewable energy to which they relate.
However, that is not what I set out to write about. I wanted to explore one aspect of the cost of wind – another that is no way to run an electricity system. As we will see, although lack of wind is bad news for the National Grid, too much wind also causes problems.
I bring no new insights to bear on the system of constraints payments now embedded within the UK’s electricity generation system. Much excellent work has already been done by others, and I draw attention to it below. My purpose here is simply to remind readers that wind turbine operators are regularly paid significant sums of money to switch wind turbines off, because when it is too windy, the National Grid cannot cope with the surge in supply. Secondly, to note that (until the rather windless 2021, at least), the sums paid out to operators to turn turbines off has been increasingly remorselessly. Thirdly, to observe that with many more fleets of turbines planned, the levels of constraints payments will continue to increase, possibly by huge amounts.
The Renewables Energy Foundation website*** is a good place to start for those interested in learning more about the Balancing Mechanism and constraints payments generally. This passage from it should be enough to pique your interest:
“Constraint payments to wind farms to reduce output started in 2010. Prior to that, National Grid usually called on gas and coal power stations to reduce electricity output which is the cheaper option… There is a fundamental difference between costs of reducing output between conventional power stations and wind powered generators. If a fossil-fuelled power station reduces output, savings are made on the cost of the fuel which need not be used. As a result of this, fossil-fuelled power stations submit negative bids to the system operator indicating they will pay National Grid a certain sum per MWh if asked to reduce output. Conversely, wind farms do not have fuel costs, but if they are called upon to reduce output, they lose subsidies such as the Renewable Obligation Certificates (ROC) and (prior to 1 August 2015) the Climate Change Levy Exemption Certificates (referred to as Levy Exemption Certificates, LECs). This, in part, explains why wind generator participants in the Balancing Mechanism submit positive bids to the system operator indicating that they need to be paid by National Grid to reduce output.
What has become clear since 2010 is that the amount charged by wind farms is very significantly in excess of the value of the subsidies foregone. For example, the average price paid to Scottish wind farms to reduce output in 2011 was £220 per MWh, whereas the lost subsidy is approximately £55 per MWh. The amount paid by conventional plant such as coal and gas was approximately £34 per MWh to reduce output in 2011. Ultimately the cost of balancing electricity is paid by the electricity consumer so this large difference in cost is not in the consumer interest.”
The Power Technology website also has a useful primer on the topic, and refers to REF figures as part of its explanation.**** Again, this should whet your appetite to read more:
“…‘constraint payments’ have reportedly totalled up to £650m over the last decade as compensation to wind farm owners for discarding 8.7 TWh of electricity. In some cases, wind farm operators have been paid more to switch off than produce power….
…As to who actually foots the constraint payment bill, the REF explains that they are ultimately paid for by electricity consumers through their bills, via the Balancing Services Use of Systems (BSUoS). The BSUoS, which is added onto bills as a charge, recovers the cost to the system operator (National Grid), who pay out energy producers when the system requires this form of balancing.”
Money for nothing. Not a great way to run a system – unless you happen to own a wind farm, of course.