How will the UK keep the lights on this winter?

Today will see a policy speech by the Prime Minister on the subject of wind power and the offshore version in particular. Compared to our nuclear plans it seems extraordinarily cheap to say the least.

Every home in the UK will be powered by electricity from offshore wind farms within a decade, Boris Johnson will say in his conference speech on Tuesday morning.

Promising to “build back greener”, the prime minister will pledge £160m to upgrade ports and factories for building turbines.

The plan aims to create 2,000 jobs in construction and support 60,000 more. ( BBC News)

These sort of statements are revealing for what they do not say. For example “Every home” sounds all encompassing but what about industry? Also we are turning out eyes away from days when the wind does not blow.  Then we note the £160 million is just to have the ability to build the wind turbines. Finally we see that these jobs have an extraordinary multiplier of 30! Or Alice has gone through the Looking Glass yet again.

Actually the going through the Looking Glass theme continues.

He will say the UK is to become “the world leader in clean wind energy”.

“Your kettle, your washing machine, your cooker, your heating, your plug-in electric vehicle – the whole lot of them will get their juice cleanly and without guilt from the breezes that blow around these islands,” he will say.

We get some more details here.

The scheme will see the money invested into manufacturing in Teesside and Humber in northern England, as well as sites in Scotland and Wales.

Mr Johnson said the government was raising its target for offshore wind power capacity by 2030 from 30 gigawatts to 40 gigawatts.

The rhetoric becomes ever more extraordinary.

“Far out in the deepest waters we will harvest the gusts, and by upgrading infrastructure in places like Teesside and Humber and Scotland and Wales, we will increase an offshore wind capacity that is already the biggest in the world.”

The PM will also repeat his pledge for the UK to become the “Saudi Arabia of wind power”, adding: “As Saudi Arabia is to oil, the UK is to wind – a place of almost limitless resource, but in the case of wind without the carbon emissions and without the damage to the environment.”

Where are we now?

According to UK_WindEnergy this is the state of play as I type this.

GB Grid: #Wind is generating 4.50GW (13.53%) out of 33.26GW

In itself that is an achievement as there was a time we would not have believed it to be possible. There are times over the next day or so when it is expected to be much better.

Today’s forecasted metered #Wind peak is 10,180MW between 23:00 and 24:00 GMT Tomorrow’s is 12,105MW between 10:00 and 11:00 GMT

We get several perspectives from this. The first is that in theory some 40 GW of wind power would cover current UK electrical power needs. But as we move to practice we have the issue when we have less wind as we have as I type this or even worse a still day.

Also the numbers are even on the best days quite a bit below the maximum. As we stand according to RenewablesUK the maximum operational capacity is 24 GW yet we at best struggle to actually get much above half of that. They do a calculation to try to allow for that.

The load factor is the actual output of a turbine benchmarked against its theoretical maximum output in a year. The load factor is calculated by RenewableUK as a rolling average of the past five years.

What is it?

  • onshore wind: 26.62%
  • offshore wind: 38.86%
  • BEIS “all wind”: (onshore + offshore): 31.14%

As you can see for wind power in total we get about 31% of the maximum on average. Intriguingly the new plans suggest we will do much better?

BEIS also states that the load factor for new build offshore wind (2023/24/25) is 58.4%

Have we built the existing ones ( providing 38%) in the wrong place or has there been some new advance?

A Confession

Although they would not put it like this The Guardian has published a tacit admittal of my points today. Take a look at this by the author Chris Goodall.

We should go much further because we’ll need to generate far more electricity to meet demand from electric cars and from heat pumps for heating homes. If we increase generation by about 20 times from today’s levels, it will give us sufficient electricity almost all the time, significantly reducing the problems arising from the unpredictability and intermittency of most renewable sources.

There are two refreshing elements of honesty here. The first is the acknowledgement of the unreliability of renewable energy sources and the second is that we are going to need a much higher level of electricity generation in future. I am reminded of the electric car issue regularly as there are nine charging points around Battersea Park and for now there is plenty of excess capacity there. But we see that more electric cars are being purchased.

Demand for battery electric vehicles (BEVs) increased by 184.3% compared with September last year, with the month accounting for a third of all 2020’s BEV registrations. ( SMMT)

The requirements for such a plan are really rather extraordinary though.

Is such as massive expansion actually possible? I have calculated that the UK would achieve this target by devoting about 5% of its maritime zone to offshore wind, 2% of the land area to solar panels and about 12% to onshore wind.


There is a plan for that too.

Under the scenario described above, we will have far too much electricity almost all the time. Batteries can cope with some of this surplus but most of the power should be converted to hydrogen. Today, hydrogen is created from fossil fuels but it can be easily made from water using electrolysis. The gas can be stored to make electricity on the rare occasions when the available renewable power is insufficient. Hydrogen is hugely versatile; it can also be deployed to power vehicles, to provide the energy for steel-making and other industrial processes, and to act as the critical raw material for the chemicals industry.

With battery technology as it is I am struggling not to laugh at the mention of it. But let me hand you over to How Stuff Works on Hydrogen.

It’s expensive to pull hydrogen from water……… are other problems as well: Scientists are still struggling with the challenge of how to store hydrogen. Because it has such a low energy density, hydrogen needs to be stored and transported under high pressure — which makes it bulky and impractical. The pressure issue compounds another issue with hydrogen energy; like gasoline, hydrogen is highly flammable, but unlike gas, it has no smell.

The latter was highlighted many years ago by the Hindenburg disaster.


There have been considerable achievements here over time. I have just checked on the UK government website and as of the end of August we have some 13.5 GW of solar capacity as well. In theory we are covered but of course practice is very different to that.

GB Grid: #Solar is generating 2.26GW (6.56%) out of 34.43GW ( @UK_SolarEnergy )

The solar problem is that it works for fewer hours and at weaker power at the time we most need it. On the upside it has been getting cheaper as according to the official figures the cost of small scale production fell by 12.3% between 2014 and 2018.

Added to the availability of supply when we need it is the cost issue. The price falls for solar are especially welcome as we have seen electricity prices rise by so much. Although price and cost issues get hidden behind a barrage of rhetoric like this from Chris Goodhall.

Author Chris Goodall says tackling the climate crisis is neither difficult nor expensive and can help boost the economy……..

It is hard not to laugh at the idea that his plan is ” relatively cheap “. Also later we get this.

Many other countries, such as the US, have publicly controlled energy companies that can act to meet local needs and minimise the cost of gas and electricity.

I am not sure that is going so well and given the quality of local government in the UK I fear the worst from this.

 The UK should follow the example of Germany and offer the chance to local governments to run all the utility networks in their areas.

After all isn’t the German system a bit of a mess?

Returning to my title here is Ofgem on the subject which for some reason they seem to be rather out of date on.

Electricity capacity margins (the average amount of extra electricity available compared to peak winter demand) are tightening in Britain. This is because older and less profitable power stations are closing. However, if needed, National Grid can use extra tools to balance the system in winter 2016/17.

Are those the same “extra tools” available to the Bank of England?

Here is Imperial College on last year.

When output from wind power fell sharply on cold, calm days the stress to the system increased and in one incident created a higher chance of blackouts, with just 0.2GW of spare capacity available, compared to over 4GW the following day.

Also some had to reduce usage.

An evening peak in demand was also managed with factories and supermarkets reducing their electricity usage, helping to maintain normal day-ahead power prices.

The balancing ability we have is pretty much supplied by gas with biomass also helping to some extent.



47 thoughts on “How will the UK keep the lights on this winter?

  1. Hello Shaun,

    bit of a landmine subject ! tells us the problems that need to be overcome.

    Oh I have no doubt the windmills will be built , I just don’t know the public reaction to SMART meters that cut them off half way through the footy will be …….. well I can , actually .


    PS: DUKES tell us that the major consumer of energy is domestic. The SARS2 pandemic also tells us that – see how little actual energy use fell in March April.

    PPS you’ll need 3 hinkleys to power transport (80TWh) estimated . 28 billions lost in fuel duties too.

    • Hi Forbin

      I heard a Smart Meter advertisement on the radio earlier and it was quite a shocker. All sorts of claims which ignore the fact that as you say the only gains of any size will come from switching people and or businesses off.

  2. Not sure it would be possible to feature Thomas Dolby as musical accompaniment to Shaun’s blog

    And given the regular critiques of the clown currently in No. 10, it does include an appropriate lyric

    Etch out a future of your own design
    Well tailored to your needs

    With his imprints in this, it is no surprise that the figures don’t add up – and like the Guardian article, my first thought was what will happen when cars go electric? Then the science doesn’t stand up – much like his solution to the Irish border, the technology simply does not exist. The interesting sideline is this move to put the turbines Oop Norfolk, given the protestors kicking off in Surrey about fracking. So, there is plenty of politics surrounding this investment (which probably comes from previous announcements as it so often does), although his recent interview about a hospital in Leeds would suggest that no-one can even be bothered to provide the proposed figures (might be something to do with eyesight problems, who knows?).

    Have to leave it to Belinda Carlisle – I had a big redhead phase in the late 80s.

    • Watson et al. (2002) say a minimum annual mean wind speed of 7.0 m/s is
      currently thought to be necessary for commercial viability of wind power.
      About 33% of UK land area has such speeds.

      I remember the Great Gordo saying we were to become a great windpower nation……. then brought the things from Germany …….


      PS: Figures I have seen suggest we could power fully from green if we threw all economic, social, and environmental constraints to the , uh , wind………

      but face we’re not going to , even before SARS2 we didn’t have the money .

  3. “unpredictability and intermittency” – tidal power is very preditdable and consistent. Mind you, it will slow the planet’s rotation and lengthen the days. Is that why it is hardly ever mentioned?

    • it’s not dispatchable though, and expensive

      the Greens go ape over anything needed to build it ……..

      It’s one major eason for windmills and solar , even though these have issues too.


      “Coal and oil will soon be depleted. Uranium is too dangerous. Geothermal and tidal control, too expensive..”

      • Uranium is risky but we could and should build a whole series of Nuclear power stations that take the “waste” material and break it down further via fission into materials with lower and lower half lives until the end product is fairly benign. We have the expertise in processing waste anyway it was just that the by-products were useful when making nuclear weapons rather than generating more electricity.

        It is always possible that Nuclear Fusion research may finally get there, it has been 10 years away my whole life.

        Having all these electric cars will at least allow us to store excess energy somewhere on very windy days but the best approach to reducing energy consumption is simply having less people.

        Wind Turbine blades cannot be recycled at the moment either and are starting to pile up when they are end of life. We need to have a think about what we can do with them.

        The UKs lack of use of water driven turbines seems crazy and the tidal stuff is surely a no-brainer. We reached peak energy per person in the 1970s so we can use less but we have to deal with that population problem.

  4. True electric vehicles will need more supply, however there are some compensatory factors with more people working from home and not having to travel !

    The UK has to evolve and windpower, solar and wavepower just a start. Bear in mind better insulation and construction will also cut down energy.

    Rome wasn’t built in a day but a decade is a long time in my opinion.

    • Hi Peter

      I have no problem with ambition and like advancement. For example I mentioned the improvements in solar power in my piece. But some of this stuff is pure fantasy and even worse some ( Smart Meters) is based on lies.

  5. Shaun,
    Full circle from local utility then regional / nationalisation followed by privatisation back to local control? HGVs difficult as EV but replace with electric railway distribution and then EV local deliveries?
    If truly pessimistic then back to canals & horse drawn freight!

    • Hi Chris

      The water bourne system might work here as I live near the Thames. But sadly in my City commuting days the river bus did not start early enough.

      We may well go full circle on the energy sector which we did not like when nationalised and now often do not like it as privatised. We sort of end up in that situation when we look at the railways…

  6. Someone with more knowledge than I can probably flesh this out, but, I read a little while ago that running vehicles on electricity was likely to be the saviour of the power industry as consumption is falling. LED lights are a large factor, EU regulations mean that more efficient electric motors must be used in future.

    “More efficient motors under the current regulation will bring 57TWh of annual energy savings in the EU by 2020. Taking into account the overall effect of the revised regulation, the annual savings will increase to 110TWh by 2030, which is equivalent to electricity consumption of the Netherlands. This means that 40 million tonnes of CO2 emissions will be avoided each year and that the annual energy bill of EU households and industry will be reduced by approximately €20 billion by 2030.”

    Batteries to store excess energy? Nowhere near there yet but you could convert the excess offshore power to Hydrogen, store it in the depleted gas fields and distribute via the gas network.

    • When the UK first embarked on windpower it was expensive and costs have come down significantly and the same should happen with wavepower dams and rivers could be used to harness powder as well.

      Battery power will improve and most people have led lights in their homes in fact most street lights are now led.

      Going green won’t save the entire economy but it will help.

    • Hello PeterH

      the trouble with hydrogen is that it is too leaky due to small molicules. We could convert to ammonia but that smells too much and

      can be a bind on polution ( nitrous oxides aka smog) . Battery tech is getting better but not enough yet. Using cars and truck as tempoary storage? the question then is , for how long ? ( answer short term , ie hours , not days ) and would you have a flat battery Monday morning when you have that make or break deal or vital hospital appointment.

      110TWh by 2030 ? not bad , total electricity generation was 2,806 Terawatt hours (TWh) in 2018 ( don’t have a newer figure), about 4% .


    • There is around 1GW of battery power available to the grid at the moment. And only 5 coal generators are remaining now, which can provide around 2GW (and which we are currently paying to burn coal to keep them functional until needed). Some of the old ones are currently running and have been converted to burn biomass (2.5GW currently). Currently, UKpower can provide around 38GW from existing units, running at 100%….not accounting for pumped storage (a short term fast-acting 1.95GW reserve). Then we have 3GW from interconnectors available.
      Currently consumption is at 37.5GW. Then there is the Short-Term-Operating-Reserve, in which various businesses/hospitals are signed-up to cease drawing power from the grid and provide their own, or even to provide grid power from their own generators. And wind power, currently providing 10GW. Battery storage will be at around 3GW by the middle of next year. Don’t knock it, at the very least it will provide time for an orderly removal of power while reserves are spinning-up, and stop the total collapse of the grid if the frequency drops lower than around 48.5HZ.

      • the ICs should be 5GW capacity , we also export too via the ICs

        another 3.8 GW capacity will be online by 2023 . .

        48GW was needed last year peak , just for normal domestic demand

        plans to phase out domestic gas (112GW)* and petrol and diesel

        one more cold winter…….


        * ok so the bright spark suggested we use heat pumps as we get 3GW heat for every 1GW used ( this is not given btw , its an assumption or guess) 112/3 = 37 GW needed , mostly in winter when the sun will not be of much use.**

        ** each hour each day .

        • The highest demand during last winter was 41GW in the third week of January.
          My domestic air-source heat-pump extracts 4KW of heat using 1.25KW of electricity. In winter, as the temp slips to zero, it supplements it with electric heat…but still uses 2.5KW to extract/provide 4KW of heat…ground sourced is better. And you may like to consider that by 2025, gas heating will [may] not be allowed, and heat pumps will be the norm..and they’re made abroad !

  7. This going green with windmills is just a con.
    It will be insanely expensive and will fail when we have a winter high pressure system over the UK.
    The treasury said (under Phil Hammond) that it would cost £70.000,000,000 per year. But they are currently refusing to answer FOI requests for more detailed information.
    The UK has had a two week period in winter, in the last ten years, with no wind.
    This means we will have to store two weeks of electricity production, how? No system has been invented to do this at the scale required.
    If you like the idea of shivering in your home, with no lighting, cooking, or television etc. then by all means try it in the next cold spell.
    If you do not fancy that, I suggest you look into the cost of going “green”. You might find that using you head, instead of your heart, changes your opinion.

    • Hi JRH

      I hope the chemistry works…

      As to opposing views I am glad Joseph Balzagette ignored the “experts” when he built London’s sewers as I might be living in the “Great Stink”. He also stopped the cholera epidemics….

      • Of course, no good deed goes unpunished.

        By removing the nutrients / chemicals / organics / waste (call it what you will) and dumping it in the sea we have seriously degraded the fertility of the land where it used to be recycled to grow food. Across the world we now have 30 – 100 years left before the soils are finished. Google soil health / degradation.

        Presumably the seas are getting healthier as far as the algae are concerned, they are blooming away.

  8. Hello Shaun,

    Q:How will the UK keep the lights on this winter?

    A: burn coal and buy what we can from abroad. Like last time we had two weeks of freezing weather with no wind and little sunshine.


    • Hi Forbin

      The problem with relying on abroad is if they have problems too. I know the French system is based on a different source ( nukes) but if they hit trouble at the same time…

      We will of course be told that it could not possibly have been expected,

  9. In the meantime, the Govt continues to use a test which is known by all to hysterically exaggerate infection levels. The Govt. also uses chicanery to to count supposed fatalities associated with covid.

    As such, there can be no truthful alternative to the fact that the Govt. wants us to believe that covid is far worse than it is, to justify its “anti-covid” measures, even though it knows they will cause economic harm & more psychological & physiological damage than the virus itself.

    Mark me down all you like, but the establishment is deliberately harming both the economy and the populace.


  10. Shaun, as you know there is a lot more to keeping an electricity grid energised than just having a bunch of generators attached the wires. There are requirements for frequency control, VAR controls etc. Most importantly is the requirement for second by second load following , ie making sure there is just the right amount of energy to meet fluctuating demand in real-time. There are only now very limited amounts of the sort of generation available to meet these requirements, most ( with the exception of pumped storage) are due to be closed soon. Batteries etc are only good enough for very short duration response, if there is no spinning reserve available from conventional generation to take over after that short duration , their use ( and costs) are worse than useless.
    Wind and solar are no use , neither is nuclear, in meeting these requirements. The fantasy of using interconnectors to meet fluctuating demand at one end as if the other end did not have the same requirements is just that, a fantasy.
    I suspect Boris is insane, it seems to run in his family and the recent stresses have sent him over the edge.
    The whole of the UK’s ‘energy strategy’ ( a rather ridiculous title) over the last two decades has been a disaster. It appears more of the same is to to follow. This will mean people and commerce paying many times more than necessary for totally inferior product. Regular brown and black outs will occur. Smart meters are legally to be allowed to be used by distribution companies to cut supplies. Its probably already too late to change this future.
    This process is under the pretext of reducing CO2 emissions. Yet the amount of CO2 emissions have continued to increase since the start of the covid crisis despite severe reductions in travel, industrial output etc. This is because CO2 emissions are almost all natural, man-made emissions are a small component, and the UK’s component is negligible overall.
    As the UN and WEF openly admit this is about changing society and the way its run, it has nothing to do with climate at all.

      • That article, as is the whole website, is a load of rubbish.
        Science can never be a matter of ‘consensus’ , its aim is to continually test against actual results. As all the forecasts of temperature rises made by IPCC models have been wrong by a factor of over 100% ( except for the honourable exception of the one run out of Moscow) all the forecasts have failed.
        The reason is simple, the very idea that the chaotic global weather/climate system can have one control knob of CO2 is frankly ridiculous.

        • “That article, as is the whole website, is a load of rubbish.”
          Play the wo/man, not the ball?
          “The reason is simple, the very idea that the chaotic global weather/climate system can have one control knob of CO2 is frankly ridiculous.”
          “Argument from incredulity, also known as argument from personal incredulity or appeal to common sense,[1] is a fallacy in informal logic. It asserts that a proposition must be false because it contradicts one’s personal expectations or beliefs, or is difficult to imagine.
          Arguments from incredulity can take the form:
          I cannot imagine how F could be true; therefore F must be false.
          I cannot imagine how F could be false; therefore F must be true.[2]”

    • Won’t be “brown-outs”, those were in the past when everything ran filaments or transformers. With LED lighting and switched-mode-power-supplies (able to accept 115V to 300V and still work) brown-outs won’t happen..

  11. The Annual Load (or Capacity) factor on my Solar PV system is about 18%. It doesn’t vary by more than 0.5%
    It’s at latitude 35° and we get about 2000 hours of sunshine per year.
    The return on investment is around 6.5%

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