Britain's Power Certainly Doesn't Lie With the Sun

By Commenter Printerelf on at

Well that was it, that was summer. Did you blink and miss it? The nights are drawing nearer once more, and it's time to break out the warm clothing yet again.

Perhaps I exaggerate a little, or even quite a lot -- as I write this, I'm sat on a beach enjoying the sun; it's a gloriously warm, calm evening as it has been with almost alarming frequency for most of the past few weeks (obviously it's going to rain next week -- it's the second half of Wimbledon!)

Casting my gaze out over the water, there are various vessels making their way through the waves in the distance, bound for destinations unknown, but there's something not quite right. Scanning the horizon, my initial thoughts were confirmed -- they're not moving. All of them, stationary. No, I'm unfortunately not writing this on some far flung skin-kissed isle watching the yachts and liners sail past; I'm at the east end of the north Kent coast, and what is catching my eye is the London Array.

For those unfamiliar, the London Array is in development to become the world's largest offshore wind farm, comprised of 341 turbines covering 100 square kilometres with a planned generation capacity of 1,000MW (still a pitiful 21 per cent short of Mr Fusion). Generating at its optimum, this single site will generate enough power for 750,000 homes. Right now, however, I could generate more power by rubbing a balloon on the dog if he'd only sit still long enough. That's quite a problem.

When the weather gets warm we all turn on the air-conditioning and fans to dissipate the heat and humidity that we're so unaccustomed to (although I appreciate that in some schools and offices this is seemingly the opposite); fridges and freezers are working overtime to provide us with chilled snacks and refreshing beverages; sound systems are turned up long into the night.

When things turn colder we get even more demanding, running fan heaters, central heating pumps, kettles and much more. All of that uses electricity, a lot of it.


Time to get your calculators out...

The EU Renewable Energy Directive sets the target that 20 per cent of the energy consumed within the EU by 2020 will be come from renewable sources. Being an island nation, and a rather breezy one at that, our primary focus for renewable energy is wind turbines, more recently of the massive off-shore variety.

Massive is still a bit of an understatement -- these things have 120m diameter blades and produce up to 3.6MW each.

At the end of 2012 the UK had roughly 8.5GW of wind power generation capacity, which supplied 5.3 per cent of the electricity we used last year. If, as is the case right now (this data is available almost live), the UK's 8445MW of wind generation capacity is producing just 197MW or 0.12 per cent of the total UK power generation capacity, then we only have 94.82 per cent available (assuming every other source is working at max).

Fast forward to 2020, and wind is now expected to be responsible for 28GW, or 15.6 per cent of the total UK capacity.

With the same conditions as this evening, wind turbines are generating just 0.36 per cent of the UK total, but because wind makes up a much larger chunk of what the UK uses, the system can now only run at 84.76 per cent of max.

While any power generation network needs some slack built into it to cope with fluctuations (the advert break in Corrie being the most well-known) losing 15 per cent of your national generation capacity just because it's a calm day isn't really a good idea. This might not be as much of an issue in summer as the total demand is actually nearly 15 per cent lower on a typical day in July than January, but it's still not a good problem to have.

So what happens on that clear snowy day in January (or entire week that we had a couple of years ago), when we can't generate enough electricity because there's no breeze? Simple, we get takeaway -- when we need more than we can produce, we purchase it from France, from those oh-so incredibly-renewable nuclear power stations of theirs. Which is another reason why it's EDF building the new nuclear plant in the UK, not us, because we no longer have the expertise. (That's a separate rant, let me assure you.)

So what do we know? Well we're an island nation as I mentioned earlier; we're rather good with water (Rule Britannia!, etc...), so why not tidal? Conservative estimates suggest that there's the potential to harness 60GW from various different locations and methods at sites around the UK.

I'm all for renewable energy production and maintaining our electrical independence from the continent (it's cheaper if nothing else), but let's think about choosing a source that even if we can't control, we can at least predict it for the next few hundred years.

PrinterElf is an all-too-prolific commenter on Gizmodo when he's not refilling his intravenous coffee supply; walking the dog, or pretending he's an aerospace engineer designing and testing autopilots that in no way resemble Otto from Airplane!.

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