Opinion The British government has been accused by Greenpeace of trying to strangle development of renewable power in Europe, and in particular in the UK. Greenpeace say they have obtained draft documents from negotiations in Brussels, which amount to a 'smoking gun' exposing the UK's anti-renewables agenda.
The pressure group's accusation has gained big ink, generally along the lines "UK gov seeks to water down renewables plans", which seems an odd thing to do; so we put in a few calls.
Greenpeace campaigner Robin Oakley explained his organisation's position to the Reg this morning. He said that a major issue facing renewable power plants in the UK is that of gaining access to the National Grid. According to the leaked Brussels documents, British negotiators from the department of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) want to downgrade EU policy to say that renewables plants "may" rather than "shall" get priority when seeking grid connection.
Oakley, who is head of climate and energy at Greenpeace, says there are several issues around the way the national grid works with renewables in the UK. Firstly, planned and existing renewables plants tend to be in remote or difficult-to-access areas (offshore, away from densely inhabited areas etc). According to Oakley, "gigawatts" of capacity could be in use as quickly as the National Grid Company could hook them up.
Secondly, there are some existing grid access points at nuclear sites, especially along the east coast, which would be very handy for future offshore wind farms to use. However, the planned new generation of nuclear stations would like to use these connections too. Oakley says the government's new-nuke efforts are "a total mess", and believes that he and his colleagues will succeed in stopping them. Nonetheless, Greenpeace would still prefer that EU rules clearly state that offshore wind farms are to be given priority access to the UK's coastal grid connections, not any nuclear stations which might appear.
Finally, Oakley says that there's a further problem in the way that the UK National Grid operates, in that at times of low demand, renewable power plants don't normally get a look-in. Even if the wind is blowing hard, the spot energy price is low at times of low demand. This means that fossil and nuclear plants are able to undercut wind operators, and so sell all the power. Wind farms thus stand idle, even if there happens to be lots of wind just then. Greenpeace would like to see "priority" grid access interpreted to mean that all available wind power must be taken whenever the wind is strong.
Contacted by the Reg, BERR spokesman Aled Williams said that far from strangling renewables the British government is "fully committed" to achieving both UK and EU targets, and that it was happy to provide "quicker" grid connections for renewables plants, but not "priority" ones.
In essence, BERR is willing to make a push to connect up wind farms, tidal plants etc more quickly. However, they are resisting the "priority" ruling in Brussels because they don't want offshore wind farm operators to take away the existing grid connections of the country's nuclear plants. Even more than that, they don't want to impose a rule on the British energy market that it has to take any offered renewable power first, before fossil or nuclear.
This is because nuclear power plants can't ramp up and down as fast as the wind rises and falls - and even responsive gas turbines will find this very difficult, according to authoritative analysis. In the presence of such a rule and lots of renewables - say 30 or 40 per cent of the supply - nuclear power plants might find it difficult to exist at all.
In that scenario, the majority of the UK's electricity would come from gas turbines, many of them less-efficient ones able to deal with the surges in variable wind output. Some have proposed massive pumped-storage hydropower facilities, able to cope with several windless days on end, but the cost of these would be enormous.
It has also been credibly suggested that you would still need close to 100 per cent gas turbine backup to cover the even more prolonged calms which occur at long intervals. With vanished nukes replaced by dirtier, non-combined-cycle gas plants, the UK might struggle to meet its carbon emissions targets even as it easily achieved its desired renewables goals. And our national dependency on gas would get worse, just as North Sea supplies are running out - meaning that we'd have to buy gas from a possibly unfriendly Moscow.
Williams sent us a BERR statement:
Priority access for renewables is not necessary for us to meet our fair share of the EU renewables target.
The UK is already taking significant steps to remove grid access barriers for renewables. It is, however, important that all forms of generation have faster access to the grid network to ensure a balanced and secure energy supply.
Summing up - it's a common viewpoint among more hardline greens that renewables can't coexist on the same power grid with nuke plants, and if you are in favour of them you can't also be in favour of nuclear. That certainly seems to be consistent with what Greenpeace is saying.
The government and the nuclear industry contend that they can all quite happily get along together, but not if renewables have priority over others for grid access - certainly not to the extent of overruling the UK energy market. This would cause serious problems for all non-renewable operators, not just nuclear, and tend to worsen the UK's national gas addiction. That's why BERR say they're right to argue against the EU "shall give priority" wording.
In many ways, one might say that the government aren't so much strangling renewables here, as refusing to strangle nuclear. ®