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Will renewables prevent a future energy crisis? 

Welcome to the Powered On column, a brand-new companion piece to the popular podcast from Electrical Review. In this column, we explore a topic discussed in a recent episode of the podcast and answers the question posed by the episode. This month – will renewables prevent a future energy crisis? 

The UK has been grappling with its worst energy crisis since the 1970s, with gas prices soaring and energy companies across the country collapsing under the financial pressure. 

It all began in August 2021, when high gas prices across Europe began impacting the UK market. The UK is heavily reliant on natural gas for its electricity supply, having made the decision in the 1990s to go all-in on gas as a replacement for coal-fuelled power plants. 

That meant as the price of gas increased, as did the price of electricity. In fact, in September 2021, power prices peaked at £2,500/MWh according to Cornwall Insight. That’s significantly higher than where one would usually expect wholesale electricity prices to be. 

However, many were quick to pin the blame of this energy crisis on numerous factors. Of course, the underlying issue was the rising price of gas, but that didn’t stop some publications from blaming a period of low wind for the high prices. So, let’s examine that for a second. 

Why would you want to be more reliant on wind power, if it caused this price increase?

Let’s start off with one undeniable fact – renewables are intermittent. We cannot guarantee that there will always be periods of high winds to generate enough power for the whole of the UK, there will be days of low wind and there will be days of high wind. 

In fact, it’s true that the energy crisis was exacerbated by one particularly hot day. That’s because rather than generating the usual 24% of the UK’s electricity, wind power dropped to producing less than 2%. That gap needs to be plugged somehow – and if gas prices are expensive, gas power generation is certainly not going to come cheap. 

So, if wind power is so intermittent and was responsible for worsening this energy crisis, why should we back renewables? After all, as the Telegraph noted in one of its editorials, what are we going to do in the event of no wind? 

Well, firstly, if there is ever a day of no wind, I think we will have a lot bigger problems on our hands than worrying about the lack of wind generation – because, and here’s a fact check for you, there has never been a day of no wind, only low wind. 

Okay, so what can we do in the event of low wind? Well, there are ways to mitigate those days. The particularly hot day we are talking about could have seen higher than average generation from solar panels, or we could have built more wind farms in areas where there’s typically a lot of wind – namely out to sea – or we could have more interconnectors that allow us to benefit from other countries that are producing a glut of renewable energy at the time. 

It’s not about a one-size fits all approach 

Let’s be honest with ourselves, when we talk about the switch to renewables, no one is saying we should go all-in on solar, or wind, or hydroelectric, or tidal. The same way we probably shouldn’t have gone all-in on gas power plants. To deal with the intermittency of renewables, we need to prepare for all eventualities. 

That includes diversifying the grid with multiple renewable assets, as well as pairing those assets with the necessary energy storage. Right now, if we produce more electricity than we can use from renewables, that energy is wasted. So, we need to learn from those mistakes and find ways where we can store some of that energy for later use – whether that’s using static energy storage in the form of batteries, or pumped energy storage. 

Many will claim that nuclear power is the solution, as it’s a constant and reliable source of electricity. But is it? During the height of the energy crisis, when coal power plants were coming back online, five of the UK’s remaining 14 nuclear reactors were involuntarily offline. Many of these reactors were offline for months, alongside those that had planned downtimes – so much for being a reliable source of electricity, eh? 

Some would also argue it’s possible to achieve net zero for far less money if nuclear power was taken out of the equation, and there’s certainly some truth to that. After all, the cost of building Hinkley Point C has continued to rise, hitting £22 to 23 billion according to the latest estimates, while the project has continuously been delayed – with the latest opening date now not expected until June 2026. 

So, will renewables prevent a future energy crisis? 

If you’re currently looking at the energy crisis and saying we need more finite fossil fuels, then I have a bridge to sell you. This energy crisis has proven that the disruption of supply chains can cause major issues, and in order to combat those issues, we need to be more reliant on what’s cheap and readily available – and thankfully, that’s exactly what renewables are. 

We don’t have to rely on pipelines from Russia or gas production in Norway with renewables, we can use the resources that are right on the doorstep. As an island, we are incredibly well suited to make the switch to renewables, after all, we have an infinite energy source in tidal power, as well as the bounty of wind just off our coast. 

There will be days where renewables will produce more electricity than we need and there will be days where they will produce less, that’s just a fact of the natural world we live in. However, that’s why we build the capacity to cope with a slight dip, while building resilience in the form of energy storage to store the peaks and deal with the troughs. 

Renewables alone will not prevent a future energy crisis, but that’s why the UK’s push towards net zero isn’t just about slapping up a few wind and solar farms and calling it a day. The whole system will need to advance alongside renewables, which means a smarter grid, better Government policies, and the increased energy efficiencies of products and buildings.

This energy crisis has shown that things cannot go on as they are, so it’s time to learn from our mistakes. 

You can learn more about this topic on the Powered On podcast, which is available on all major streaming services. In the debut episode of Season Two, we talk in-depth about the current energy crisis and how renewables can play a part in preventing another in the future.

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