(By Mark Lynas and Chris Goodall. Published on the Guardian website on 12th November 2015)
Our green obsession with windmills is bringing Britain's electricity system to its knees, if Tory press commentators writing about last week's short-term grid problems are to be believed. In the Times, Matt Ridley demanded an electricity policy "rethink", blaming the "emergency" squarely on the fact that "the wind was not blowing on a mild autumn day".
Over at the Telegraph, in a column headlined 'The obsession with global warming will put the lights out all over Britain', Charles Moore observed that "there was almost no wind" during the day in question, noting without irony in his climate denialist piece that it was nonetheless "very warm for the time of year".
Not to be outdone, Peter Hitchens thundered in the Mail on Sunday that the "pseudo-scientific dogma" of climate science is turning the UK into the Soviet Union, complete with accompanying (intellectual) gulags, and that because of "warmists armed with windmills" (to quote from the headline) "we came within inches of major power blackouts".
It all sounds very worrying, and no doubt the rising tide of elite Tory opposition to Britain's decarbonisation policies will be noted in both Downing Street and by ministers at DECC. There's only one problem: it isn't true. The reality is that last Wednesday's brief 'notification of inadequate system margin' (NISM) had nothing to do with wind power, as any of the writers quoted above could have discovered had they taken the trouble to call National Grid and ask.
We did so, and with the Grid's help pieced together the following sequence of events. During Wednesday morning last week, the National Grid experienced what it told us were "multiple failures" of coal and gas-fired power stations. Though the Grid won't reveal which plants were affected, other sources report that there were at least three major power plant failures, including the Fiddlers Ferry coal plant in Cheshire.
At 1.30 in the afternoon, the National Grid, anticipating a shortfall for ater that day, issued its NISM calling for additional generation of 500MW to be offered to cover peak demand between 4.30 and 6.30pm that evening. (500MW is about 1% of peak UK demand for the time of year, so hardly a huge amount.) Don't panic said the Grid, the NISM "is part of our standard toolkit for balancing supply and demand and is not an indication there is an immediate risk of disruption to supply or blackouts".
What happened next was equally non-dramatic. The electricity market responded to the request and more plant was brought online. 40MW of demand was also offloaded, thanks to a rudimentary smart grid system where big electricity users are paid to switch off at critical periods.
Ridley and other commentators breathlessly reported that prices reached a whopping "£2,500 a megawatt-hour - 40 times the normal price". This is true, but the £2,500 offered was to a single generator, and only for 70 minutes of production of 147MW.
Satisfied that sufficient margin had been restored, National Grid cancelled its NISM at 5.45pm, stating unambiguously once again that the "issuing of a NISM does not mean we were at risk of blackouts".
Note that none of this is about wind. As a spokesperson told us, "our weather forecasts are very accurate". Grid managers therefore had plenty of warning that Wednesday was likely to see very little wind generation, and planned accordingly. Yes, wind is intermittent - but that does not mean it is unpredictable.
This saga showed not that wind is driving the UK towards blackouts, but that reliance on a small number of large generators - coal, gas or nuclear - carries the risk of inadquate margin if more than one of these big plants fails at the same time. Wind, being composed of lots of smaller generators, cannot by definition all fail unexpectedly together.
This is pretty much the opposite of the conclusion reached by the Tory commentariat, which hates wind turbines spoiling views in the Shires and takes any opportunity to criticise renewables and oppose climate change action. Let's at least hope that the Government listens to National Grid's version of the story, not the misinformation peddled in the Tory press.