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Talk Of Flexible, Smart Energy Systems Misses The Point

March 18, 2017

By Paul Homewood



“Flexible” and “smart” are the new buzzwords when discussing energy.

We need electricity to be our flexible friend”, says Richard Black.

We want to move from a 20th Century energy system to a smart, clean system fit for the 21st Century”, says Greg Clark.

Smart meters, battery storage, demand side response. These are thrown up as examples of how we can manage the inherent intermittency of wind and solar power.

But just how much difference will they make?

Black’s ECIU has just published a report suggesting that the Supplemental Balancing Reserve (SBR) scheme has been a waste of money, as The Times reports:


A government scheme that paid £180 million to keep old power stations open as an emergency reserve to prevent winter blackouts has ended after never being used.

The Supplemental Balancing Reserve (SBR) scheme was introduced in 2014 when the closure of old coal plants and delays building greener replacements led to fears that Britain could run short of electricity in a cold snap.

Plants that might have closed received millions to remain on standby in case they were needed as a last resort, if plants operating in the normal market proved insufficient.

The scheme ran for three winters and had been expected to be called upon several times as other plants shut and the gap between peak supply and demand tightened.

It finished at the end of February after what National Grid described as two exceptionally mild winters.

In a report today, the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) think tank suggests that the scheme was a waste of money. The fact that SBR was never used shows that “warnings of blackouts in the UK have been overblown, leading to potentially excessive spending on insurance policies to ensure energy security”, it argues.

Last winter was the most expensive period of the scheme, with £122 million spent to keep ten plants open. The plants were never needed despite what the report argues was “a tough winter”, owing to “a long spell of cold weather with low wind output, one of the cables connecting us to France broken by a ship’s anchor, and multiple French nuclear power stations out of action for safety checks”.

James Heappey, Conservative MP for Wells and an adviser to the ECIU, claimed that the scheme had been unnecessary. “Bill payers have spent £180 million on standby power stations that were not needed,” he said.


They have obviously never heard of insurance policies. Just because your house did not burn down last year does not mean that you should cancel your insurance.

In any event, I find it extraordinary that Heappey is worried about a cost of £180m over 3 years, when he is happy to accept subsidies to renewables of £8.7bn this year alone.


But on the deeper issue of standby capacity in future years, there is an implication that all we need is a flexible, smart system.

Unfortunately, the data does not agree.


If we look at rolling system demand during a typical week in January, we can see that demand ranged from 28517 MW to 50846 MW.

The average for the week was 40413 MW.




Let us therefore suppose that we could smooth this demand perfectly across the week, so that demand was a constant 40413 MW, something that would plainly be totally impossible anyway.

In the latest Capacity Market auction for 2020/21, the government has purchased capacity of 52430 MW.

So at the most, perfect flexibility would only reduce the need for this standby capacity by 12017 MW.

The auction clearing price was £22.50/KW, so the potential saving would only be £270 million. This is loose change, compared to the cost of subsidising inefficient renewables, which will amount to £12.6bn by 2020.


Whilst we persist with heavily subsidised renewables, there is no alternative to having some sort of system which guarantees standby capacity.

Currently most of this is contracted from existing coal, gas and nuclear plants, which can naturally undercut new generation plants.

This is something that Richard Black and his chums find distasteful.



In reality, however, we badly need a mechanism that brings forward new plants to replace the older ones due to shut in the next decade.

No amount of fanciful talk about smart, flexible energy systems can deny this inescapable truth.

  1. A C Osborn permalink
    March 18, 2017 8:01 pm

    Paul, I suggest that you depress yourself and the rest of us by reading this tasty item.

    The decisions and assumptions being made by that the article shows just how totally out of touch the government are.

    Couldn’t arrange a p!ss up in a brewery comes to mind.

  2. March 18, 2017 8:32 pm

    Hate to say this, but these loons are driving the UK toward SA style blackouts. I fear that is what it may take to bring the regulators to their senses. The loons will never come to their senses, but they can be ostracized for damage done..

  3. Athelstan permalink
    March 18, 2017 8:42 pm

    James Heappey, Conservative MP for Wells and an adviser to the ECIU, claimed that the scheme had been unnecessary. “Bill payers have spent £180 million on standby power stations that were not needed,” he said.

    Aye, heappey the thing is though £billions upon biliions wasted constructing birdmincers later and all the rest of the boondoggle idiocies piled on, indeed premised ON – a wrong headed supposition that by somehow and ‘puter modelling – natch [whatever else would they say] – the world is going to melt by sometime in the near offf but ever oft receding timeline “fewchah!”

    Blimey all those £billions thrown down the throats the world bankster elite – the system is so fucked that we have to have a fallback system and that costs £180 mill – that’s hardly small change when compared to an outlay of £2.3 BILLION for a sea going birdmincer array……..

    FFS. rearranging the deckchairs and Titanic comes to mind…………how much longer should we have to put up with these parasites [black heappeay whatever he changed his name to]……….. advertizing, pushing their begging bowls exhorting idiot nostrums and thus aiding and abetting to sucking the lifeblood out of the economy and murdering the industry, manufacturing and businesses of the UK? WHY – I beg WHY?

    I have all on to contain my dangerous thoughts, less, the thought police come to break down the door…..”there there lad, we can’t have you trying to tell the truth now, laddie can we?”

    • March 18, 2017 8:49 pm

      James Heappey couldn’t run a bath.

      • mikewaite permalink
        March 18, 2017 10:29 pm

        You will not be surprised to learn that he is a supporter of renewables, in this case marine energy , tidal lagoons , etc .

        far from being unable to run a bath he will probably end up extremely rich , consultant to the Grantham Institute and a member of the House of Lords.

      • March 18, 2017 11:05 pm

        Not much of a change from the previous LD twerp who represented Wells.

        The Army’s loss….

        There’s a very pushy bunch of Greens around Wells – if he’s like many of the new MPs he’s stupid enough to equate caving in to them as a vote winner – like the new Chippenham MP…

        Snuffling around Renewables UK does look a bit Tim Yeo-ish. Is it simple ignorance or cynical filling ones pockets from vested interests?

  4. March 18, 2017 8:45 pm

    It exasperates to read the man’s outpourings.

    He reminds me of say somebody who’s read the Biggles books and presumes to tell pilots how to fly airplanes.

    The cult of eco-loonery needs defunding big time and the “out of touch” in government who are Black Dick’s fellow travelers from NGOs are I suspect – ticks who’ve burrowed even deeper into policy making at BIS – nobody said when DECC was shuttered that the embedded / seconded NGO crew was being “let go” – the cnuts are still there.

    We have people in influential government positions whose mission is to send the rest of us back to the stone age.

    Eco activists and anti-industry campaigners must have *no place* in our public institutions – Hyde Park Corner and doing their version of the Watchtower door to door is where they should be – absolutely NOT tasked with energy policy.

  5. Bruce of Newcastle permalink
    March 18, 2017 9:11 pm

    Wind and solar are not flexible and not smart.

    Gas is flexible, but not smart since it comes from Russia.

    Coal fired power stations are flexible and smart: you can buy the coal from anywhere on Earth and ship it cheaply to your door.

    • March 19, 2017 11:07 am

      Only a small percentage of UK gas originates from Russia and most of that could probably be replaced by LNG imports if necessary.

      • It doesn't add up... permalink
        March 20, 2017 12:45 am

        If you look at the realities of the European pipeline system you soon realise that Russian pipeline gas never makes it physically to the UK at all, albeit that Gazprom have UK availability that they have traded into and sold at least in part to BG (gas they bought from some UK or Norwegian supplier probably in exchange for supply of real Russian gas from the Nordstream pipeline supplied into Germany). It might be possible in future that we will see the occasional cargo of LNG from the Yamal project, depending on how iced up the Arctic is for its intended market in Japan.

  6. Graeme No.3 permalink
    March 18, 2017 9:23 pm

    We have demand control in South Australia, it’s called rolling blackouts. You can look up which suburbs are next on the list.

    And on that subject an annoying add comes up on my screen saying “Jay Weatherill’s plan for SA Energy Future” click here. I haven’t clicked because I have lost interest in any of his stupid spin and the only time I will cheer him on is when I see him teetering on the end of the pier above a big white pointer.

  7. Svend Ferdinandsen permalink
    March 18, 2017 9:50 pm

    You could compare the payments for backup to the payments you would need to pay for peoble not using electricity for a while.
    If the incentive is big enough i believe some would take it.

    • Jack Broughton permalink
      March 19, 2017 5:12 pm

      Pay the poorest to freeze and starve because they are poor???

      Looks like the current Tory policy to me.

    • It doesn't add up... permalink
      March 20, 2017 12:48 am

      That’s the tiny bit in purple – 1,411 MW potentially when the bribes go high enough. Often, little of it is called on because the payments are high on most of it.

  8. Gamecock permalink
    March 19, 2017 11:35 am

    ‘It finished at the end of February after what National Grid described as two exceptionally mild winters.’

    Ahhh . . . Mother Nature. Not only can She rain on your parade, She can give you sunshine when you test your need for backup systems.

    Shut ’em down, then wait for the record blizzard sure to follow.

  9. Gerry, England permalink
    March 19, 2017 11:46 am

    If an alien landed and was told about our energy policy he would no doubt go straight back where he came from wondering how a smart system can be so dumb.

  10. Coeur de Lion permalink
    March 19, 2017 12:08 pm

    I still see this grannie in her darkened freezing room when the ‘smart mater’ turns off her 2-bar electric fire.

  11. Coeur de Lion permalink
    March 19, 2017 12:08 pm

    sorry – ‘meter’

  12. Stonyground permalink
    March 19, 2017 12:29 pm

    “We want to move from a 20th Century energy system to a smart, clean system fit for the 21st Century”, says Greg Clark.

    What we are going to end up with is an energy system that would be an embarrassment to the 19th Century.

    • Gamecock permalink
      March 19, 2017 2:32 pm

      Indeed, de-evolution to 19th century power.

  13. March 19, 2017 2:09 pm

    Is it the supply or the demand that’s going to be more ‘flexible’?

  14. Gamecock permalink
    March 19, 2017 2:33 pm

    ‘Smart’ is a begging the question fallacy. And a ploy to deter opposition.

Comments are closed.

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