The Government is preparing for energy shortages, but this will mean further hikes in our bills
The answer lies in a huge “secret weapon” the Government is adding to its armoury, which until now has almost entirely escaped general notice. It is true that, as we run down our conventional power sources through the closure of coal-fired power stations and our ageing nuclear reactors, the gap between our electricity supplies and the 60 gigawatts (GW) required at times of peak demand has become dangerously narrow. But the Government knows that the National Grid is quietly building up a hidden array of new power sources quite sufficient to keep our lights on and our computer-dependent economy running.
There are three legs to this answer to the Government’s prayers. The first lies in the fact that there are thousands of hospitals and commercial and industrial concerns, such as banks, data centres and water companies, that have their own back-up generating facilities, largely powered by diesel. For some time, the grid has been signing up these operations to a scheme known as STOR (Short Term Operating Reserve), which, thanks to smart computer management, will enable it to call on them at very short notice to feed power into the grid.
Those operators already signed up can supply 3.2GW to the grid, and this is estimated to rise within a few years to 8GW (estimates of the potential supply from such stand-by generators are between 20 and 30GW). Leg two of the scheme is that another 6GW is already available from thousands of CHP (combined heat and power) schemes, mainly gas-operated. A further 4GW could be made available, if the price were right, by recruiting those gas-fired power stations that have been “mothballed” because gas has become more expensive than coal, the price of which has plummeted thanks to the USA’s switch to using cheap gas from shale.
All this adds up to 18GW or more of capacity that can be called on to ensure that Britain’s lights stay on — equivalent to that of all our remaining major coal-fired power stations. It also provides an answer to that other problem I have reported here for years: the need, as we install ever more ludicrously expensive and unreliable wind turbines, to provide instantly available back-up for all those times when the wind is not blowing.
Although this may offer a clever solution to our shortage of conventional power supplies and the huge problems created by the erratic nature of wind power, it comes, of course, with a massive downside – the prospect of yet another dramatic rise in our already soaring electricity bills.