If you were serious in your desire to decarbonise electricity the first thing you ought to do is get some at least rudimentary understanding of electricity grids actually work. Such efforts however appear to be too much for campaigning groups such as No Dash For Gas. Consider this recent tweet from them:
Here’s a novel idea – instead of new gas or coal, we stick with renewables technology we know leads to a safe future. http://t.co/aimslLap09
— No Dash for Gas (@nodashforgas) July 22, 2013
A novel idea indeed. Of course what No Dash for Gas fail to realise, or will not admit, is that the choice is not between renewable energy and new gas or coal, it is between renewable energy and new gas, or new gas. (Naturally, No Dash for Gas are not particularly keen on nuclear power either.) Now, you could say this is just a limitation of Twitter, 140 characters and all that. However, I have looked through their website and they appear to be opposed to all new gas plants. A position that is well meaning, but foolish in almost every respect.
As I wrote the question is not whether we build new gas plants, but how many we build. It is a simple problem: wind farms do not provide reliable round the clock electricity, often total UK wind farm output goes down to around 1% of total capacity. If we go a few days in winter with very low wind speeds where does No Dash for Gas expect we get our electricity from? Energy storage is almost certainly not going to help us, while interconnectors appear to off some, but not much help. There can be occasions when there are very low wind speeds everywhere in Northern Europe, and in these circumstances who exactly will be able to export excess wind power?
So, this leaves us with a clear need to build new gas plants. How many do we need? A recent report published by Greenpeace and WWF can give us some idea.
This report intended to show that electricity from offshore wind was better for the UK economy than natural gas, instead it seemed to only demonstrate the flaws and inconsistencies in Greenpeace’s and WWF’s policy positions. First consider that the report’s scenarios involved building new nuclear power plants. This fact was not mentioned once, and you can draw an obvious conclusion: Greenpeace and WWF did not expect excluding nuclear would have given them the results they wanted. Otherwise why did they not have scenarios without nuclear power?
And what does the report say about gas plants? Well, there are two scenarios that can be called High Gas and Low Gas. These scenarios involve exactly the same number of gas plants on the grid, for the simple reason that you will still need the gas plants for when the wind is not blowing. In fact, as I calculated here, the total number of gas plants you would probably need in a “No Nuclear & Low Gas” scenario are almost identical to the total number of gas plants to be built in George Osborne’s much feared dash for gas.
So, simple engineering realities. If you say no to nuclear power you will need a dash for renewables and a dash for gas plants. Sadly, engineering realities never make for snappy campaign slogans.