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.”

Worryingly perhaps:

Imports of gas reached a record level, offsetting lower than normal production to meet higher than normal demand for gas generation.”

Strangely:

…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.”

And:

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.

Constraints payments

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.

*https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/997347/Energy_Trends_June_2021.pdf

**https://www.nationalgrideso.com/great-britains-electricity-explained-monthly-insights

***https://www.ref.org.uk/energy-data/notes-on-wind-farm-constraint-payments

****https://www.power-technology.com/features/constraint-payments-rewarding-wind-farms-for-switching-off/

8 Comments

  1. There is no such thing as “zero carbon” electricity. Wind farms have huge amounts of embodied carbon in their construction, and solar farms are only a little better. Zero carbon is greenwash.
    And it’s all very well to proclaim how much power was wind generated: there still had to be a steam turbine spooled up for when the wind drops.
    Then there is the devastating effect of the industrialisation of our scenery.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Stephen, obviously I agree entirely, but thank you for making the point. The article was long enough without pointing out that when they say “zero carbon”, they mean “zero carbon dioxide”, and more pertinently, pointing out that the phrase “zero” carbon (or CO2) is a lie in this context, since all forms of “renewable” energy involve the emitting of significant amounts of CO2, in their manufacture and transport, and often (in the case of wind turbines) in the destruction and/or disruption of peat, given where they are often sited.

    It is always worth pointing this out, as otherwise the language surrounding these issues becomes distorted by repeated misuse. There should be no place for the inaccurate (in this context) term “zero carbon” in these discussions, and there is a danger of it becoming accepted unthinkingly by the public, because of the repeated and regular misuse of the term by those who push a particular agenda.

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  3. Yes, it all seems to be working well. Throw away energy while paying for more than the value of it. It would be like not requiring any whelks one day but paying the whelk stall owner double their value to toss them to the gulls.

    And at the same time relying increasingly on imported whelks, er, leccy.

    “Money for nothing and your chicks for free” – in the sense that with the parent bird smashed to the ground, the young starve or are eaten by the gulls, once they’ve slept off the whelks?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Ron, thanks for the antidote. However, it’s difficult to be optimistic, when you read stuff like this:

    “Green transport can only succeed with a greener grid
    Analysis: UK power infrastructure needs a big upgrade to tackle a surge in electric vehicles and manufacturing of alternative fuels”

    https://www.theguardian.com/business/2021/jul/17/green-transport-can-only-succeed-with-a-greener-grid

    “The challenge of decarbonising the UK’s roads, railways and flight paths will rely on harnessing the UK’s cleaner energy system to power the future of the transport sector….

    …But senior energy industry sources have warned that the UK’s ambitious targets to drive down carbon emissions from the transport sector will require an acceleration of green investment in the energy system too.

    “The energy industry has a huge role to play in facilitating the decarbonisation of transport,” said Graeme Cooper, the head of future markets at National Grid.

    He says a green transport system will require a multibillion-pound investment to rewire ageing power grids and fit vast amounts of electric-vehicle charging infrastructure. Additionally, it will spur a boom in demand for green energy to produce hydrogen for heavy trucks, ferries and long-haul coach travel.

    “There will be an uptick in demand for energy, so we need to ensure that we are future-proofing, putting the right wires in the right place for future demand. We also want to ensure that the energy we’re plugging in for the increased demand is as green as possible,” Cooper said.

    The energy regulator, Ofgem, recently gave the green light to a £300m investment spree to help triple the number of ultra-rapid electric car charging points across the country over the next two years. Energy networks are expected to install 1,800 ultra-rapid charge points at motorway service stations and a further 1,750 charge points in towns and cities. It’s a taste of what’s to come if the UK hopes to meet its green transport targets.

    The Energy Networks Association (ENA) estimates that by 2028 the industry will have needed to invest in enough grid connections for charging points to power 8.2 million electric vehicles. A green transport system will also require the equivalent of about 30 terawatt hours of hydrogen fuel per year by the middle of the century, which will require roughly a tenth of the UK’s current electricity use to manufacture, it says.

    Peter Kocen at the ENA said the speed of the transition would require a new approach to regulation – one that helped energy companies invest in anticipation of the boom in green transport. “The regulatory environment sets out investment over a five-year period and requires energy networks to provide evidence of immediate ‘need’ for this investment. But energy networks also need to be able to be responsive to the energy transition, including investing before there’s the immediate need,” Kocen said….

    …Keith Anderson, told the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders this year that the company was preparing for more than 30 million electric vehicles to be on the road by 2040.

    “By 2050, we’ll need something like 25 million private chargers and 3 million public ones,” he told the trade group’s international motoring summit last month. “That will only be possible if the electricity distribution networks are suitably reinforced to cope with all the additional demand, and a system of fair access for remote or deprived communities is in place.”

    In addition, heavy transport “like bin lorries, big buses and boats, [which] are unsuited to battery power” will need green hydrogen – made using renewable electricity and water – to help heavy vehicles, he told the Observer.

    The company plans to invest £10bn over the next five years in projects ranging from “wind and solar power plants to battery storage – from smart grids to EV charge points and hydrogen electrolysers” to help meet the need for car charging and low-carbon transport.

    “In a couple of decades’ time, UK electricity demand will double, as transport, heating and industry all make the shift from carbon. In short, we need to electrify the hell out of everything over the next few years if we’re going to meet our net zero targets,” he said.”

    Looks like a recipe for disaster, to me, especially on the back of those BEIS and National Grid statistics.

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  5. Mark,
    Thanks for a good overview. The amounts paid out for constraints came as a surprise and I cannot see how they are justified – probably some sneaky small print in the contracts which were never read carefully! Those figures need greater visibility.
    I suspect the difference in the claims for the percentage of electricity supplied by renewables is down to a bit of sleight-of-hand on the part of BEIS to boost renewables. My guess is that the Grid’s figures reflect the percentage of total consumption whereas BEIS are talking about the percentage of power actually generated in the UK, excluding imports.

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  6. MikeHig – welcome, and many thanks for the comment. I suspect you may well be right regarding the discrepancy between National Grid and BEIS statistics. I should have spotted this on the BEIS website:

    “…low carbon’s share of generation was 6.8 percentage points down on last year at 55.4 per cent.” Share of generation is different from share of electricity consumed. Well done for working it out.

    While, as usual with these people, the BEIS’ statistics are factually correct, they are, it seems to me, misleading (deliberately so?) to a casual reader, since they suggest that renewables are doing better than is actually the case. 55.4% of generation sounds so much better than 40% or 44% of consumption. Most people are ignorant as to the huge amounts of electricity the UK imports, and to many of them the difference being percentage generated and percentage consumed will not readily be appreciated.

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