In the wake of John Ridgway’s clinical dissection of a piece of BBC propaganda this week, and Jit’s inspired rant against the BBC’s latest piece of climate disinformation, it’s my turn. Not that I can hope to match their levels of analysis and vituperation, but irritation at yet more biased reporting and propaganda from our national broadcaster has to be shared.
The cause of my irritation is an article on the front page of the BBC website, headed “London narrowly avoided post-heatwave blackout”. From the very outset, then, the article creates a misleading impression. Yes, it’s true that the near-blackout event was after the recent heatwave, but the two events are not linked. So why mention the heatwave in the heading, unless to confuse and mislead the casual reader?
The reality is that the story should be a wake-up call to those in charge of UK energy security. As the BBC tells us:
Britain paid the highest price on record for electricity in London last week as the capital narrowly avoided a power blackout, it has emerged.
National Grid paid £9,724 per megawatt hour, more than 5,000% than the typical price, to Belgium on Wednesday to prevent south-east London losing power.
And that is truly, truly shocking. In the middle of summer, the capital of the UK came close to an electricity blackout, and the situation was saved only by shockingly high prices paid by the National Grid to buy electricity via the interconnectors, from Belgium.
Then the BBC says:
The hottest UK days on record led to power system constraints amid high demand, as first reported by Bloomberg.
If the heat caused power system constraints amid high demand, isn’t it strange that the really hot days were 18th & 19th July, but the problems occurred on 20th July, a day when the heatwave had broken, temperatures were falling, and many areas of the UK were experiencing rainfall?
Indeed, although the BBC makes its claim and links it to the Bloomberg report the simple fact is that the Bloomberg report does not make those claims. Yes, it talks of London recovering from its hottest day when the problems occurred, but it makes no more of the heat issue than that. Rather, this is what appears on the Bloomberg website:
The crisis, which quietly played out within the control room of the British electricity system, shows the growing vulnerability of energy transportation networks — power grids and gas and oil pipelines — across much of the industrialized world after years of low investment and not-in-my-backyard opposition.
On most days, the bottlenecks mean distorted costs. Sometimes, it results in sky-high prices where energy is in short supply when it is needed. At other occasions, prices can tumble to zero, or go negative, when producers cannot sell their power into a congested transmission system. Increasingly, it puts the whole system at risk. Talk to most industry executives and you quickly get the sense that we are sleepwalking into more blackouts. Discuss the problems with the engineers who manage the system day-in, day-out, and that danger appears even closer…
…In a normal situation, without the traffic jams on the grid, the UK should have been able to send power to the southeast of England from elsewhere in the country — even from all the way in Scotland, where offshore wind farms are producing more than ever. The problem is that the UK, and the rest of industrialized nations, aren’t investing enough in their grids, leaving the system exposed.
The world is investing about $300 billion per year in power grids, an amount that has barely changed since 2015, according to the International Energy Agency. It isn’t enough, as the global economy electrifies and deals with a shifting generation map, with intermittent renewable energy like solar and wind replacing polluting — but dependable — coal- and gas-fired stations.
High metal prices are making building new grids even more costly. Cables are made of copper or aluminum which, at today’s prices, account for nearly a third of what will be spent on a new grid, up 10 percentage points from investments made between 2010 and 2020.
Across the US and Europe, utilities and grid managers need to invest billions of dollars into digitalization of the network to allow demand-side load management that would reduce consumption at peak times, often via hourly prices. Managing peak demand is going to be even more important when millions of households shift to electric vehicles, creating a new source of electricity consumption.
Last year, the UK paid just under £1,600 per megawatt hour on one day to import electricity and avert a short squeeze. On July 18, it paid just over £2,000, which became the record. Two days later, the price went to nearly £10,000. The pattern is clear. At some point, even sky-high prices won’t be enough. Then, a blackout would belatedly lay bare the consequences of our under-investing ways.
None of which features in the BBC version of events. Instead we are told by the BBC (as it’s relevant to this story, which it isn’t):
London Fire Brigade reported its busiest day since World War Two.
Hundreds of fires across the city put strain on the city’s emergency services with just three fire engines left at one stage.
If the UK had a resilient and independent electricity supply, then the next paragraphs (at least those parts of them talking about increased demand for energy in Europe and a storm in Belgium) would be utterly irrelevant:
Increased demand for energy across Europe, combined with a bottleneck in the grid, forced National Grid’s Electricity System Operator (ESO) to buy electricity from Belgium at the highest price Britain has ever paid to keep power flowing.
Other factors, including planned maintenance outages of overhead lines and a storm in Belgium impacting solar power, put the system under severe strain.
Remember, all this is happening in summer, when demand is low (even if perhaps a bit higher than normal due to the heat perhaps bringing more air conditioning units into play) compared to winter.
As I write, less than a week after the event in question, the National Grid live status website tells me that average current demand (29.4GW) is higher than the average demand over the past week (26.7GW) and the past month (26.3GW). And at the moment, supply actually exceeds demand, so 6.6% is disappearing to energy-strapped Europe via the interconnectors (I wonder if we’re charging our European friends anything like £9,724 per MWH?). Coal is providing 3.4% of electricity generation currently, by the way.
Ironically, on 19th July 2022, the day before the near-blackout, perhaps as a reaction to the media frenzy about the heat, National Grid PLC put a post on its website with the heading “How we protect the electricity network in extreme heat”. There are five headed paragraphs, but none of them mention paying more than 5,000% more than usual to Belgians to keep the lights on.