Opinion Piece, Part Two
Click here to read Part One.
I believe that we can significantly reduce our reliance on natural gas by utilising the renewable energy technologies that we already have.
Traditionally the problem with renewables has been around intermittency, output and cost. They have been unable to produce electricity consistently for long periods of time, nor have they been able to produce enough in comparison to non-renewable alternatives. For example solar panels and wind turbines rely on the wind blowing or the sun shining to produce electricity.
Bring large scale battery storage into this however, and the role that renewables can play changes.
Tesla only this month unveiled an energy storage system that it says could ‘replace peaking power plants that generally provide electricity when demand is high.’ The company claims its new ‘megapack’ can store up to 3MWh of power and has an inverter capacity of 1.5MW. This kind of technology changes the role that renewables could play in times of high demand, as they would be able to supply the grid with stored energy rather than the UK grid having to rely on non-renewable power plants to meet this excess demand.
The more that battery storage develops, the greater role that renewables will be able to play in ensuring that a consistent supply of electricity is being fed into the grid. This is certainly something that the UK government should be investing in more.
However, it is unlikely that a fully renewable energy mix combined with battery storage will be enough to provide the National Grid with a consistent energy supply, especially when 7 out of the 8 existing nuclear power plants within the UK are set to retire by 2025, meaning that the grid will lose a significant amount of baseload supply. It seems that we will be relying on natural gas for a couple of years at least to fill this output gap.
So what can be done to fill this output gap?
Some have suggested that in order to cover this output gap we need to build a new generation of nuclear power stations.
Nuclear power plants can generate a significant amount of energy and do not produce any CO2. This is certainly a positive.
However, the future grid is likely to become more complicated and more reliant on a flexible electricity supply especially with the growth in demand for electric cars. One of the problems with nuclear power stations is that output cannot be altered quickly. This is likely to become a problem when supply will need to change quickly in response to demand.
I don’t see nuclear as being the solution for the UK in transitioning to a net-zero energy system for this reason, but also due to the high costs that are associated with nuclear decommissioning (estimated to be between £99 billion and £232 billion over the next 120 years).
I believe that the answer lies in substantially increasing investment in existing renewable energy technologies. Yes we will need to rely on natural gas for a few more years but we need to take steps now to significantly boost the percentage of renewable energy within the UK’s energy mix.
Renewable energy continues to fall in price and by 2020, onshore wind and solar PV will be a less expensive source of new electricity than the cheapest fossil fuel alternative. The UK government should really push this.
However, I feel that the UK is currently massively underutilising one of the most valuable indigenous energy sources that we have.
I’m talking about tidal energy.
The tide is predictable unlike many other forms of renewable energy and the UK has the second largest tidal potential in the world after Canada. I believe that this energy source can be part of the solution to fulfilling the output gap that is set to occur with the phasing out of our nuclear power plants.
As of 2015, nuclear produced 72TWh of electricity which was around 21% of the UK’s electricity demand. The Hendry Review which is the report that looked into the feasibility of tidal lagoons across the UK, found that a scheme of 18 feasible lagoons could generate 55 TWh of electricity annually.
This is a significant chunk of what is currently provided by nuclear. Rather than increasing the amount of natural gas that we import, or investing in new nuclear, the UK should really be looking at the case for tidal energy seriously. Not simply in terms of tidal lagoons but we should also be investing in large scale individual turbines.
It was only announced a few weeks ago that the MayGen Tidal turbines were operating at over 98% of total system availability. This breakthrough demonstrates that tidal energy has the potential to send a consistent baseload of clean electricity to the grid. The 4 MayGen turbines sent 7GWh of electricity to the grid from January to July this year. This is enough electricity to power 4.9 million homes.
In Q1 of 2019 gas made up 41.9% of the UK’s electricity mix. If we can utilise tidal energy and significantly step up our investment in renewables, this reliance can be significantly reduced. We have no time to waste and we cannot continue to rely on fossil fuels within our energy system. For the sake of our planet, it is time for the UK government to be bold and to act now.
Natural gas is no transition fuel. We have the technology to completely revolutionise our energy system, and it is time to do so.
If you have a question about anything in the above blog, please ask it in the comments section below.