Once electricity companies have established the principle that they can cut off consumers in order to cope with shortages of supply, they are bound to come back asking for more.
Imagine that you do as the Government wants you to do and buy an electric car. Then you replace your dirty old gas boiler with an electric heat pump and install a smart meter. You think you have done your bit to help the environment.
So what is your reward? To have your electricity company use your smart meter to turn off your power because there is not enough juice in the grid. Suddenly, you find yourself sitting in a cold home and your plans to drive to Birmingham tomorrow are scuppered because your car won’t be fully-charged.
Smart meters have been sold to us as part of a green future where we can manage our homes via mobile phone, switching appliances on and off remotely so as to cut our bills. But it is the cynics, so often denounced in the past few years as paranoid and backward-thinking, who have worked out the real reason why electricity companies are so keen to install them in our homes: they want to ration our electricity.
It isn’t just us who will enjoy the convenience of being able to access our appliances remotely. Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks has proposed a system in which it will be able to turn off certain devices in our homes, such as electric vehicle chargers and heat pumps, when the supply of electricity is too small to meet demand.
For the moment, the company says it will only do so with consumers’ permission and that it will only be for two hours at a time. But I don’t expect that promise to last. Once electricity companies have established the principle that they can cut off consumers in order to cope with shortages of supply, they are bound to come back asking for more. And at the current rate, they will have to do this, because we simply don’t have enough storage in the electricity grid to cope with the switch to renewable energy.
Here’s the problem. Yesterday afternoon, Britain was using 34 GW worth of power. It was a sunny and windy day across much of England – ideal conditions for renewable energy. Wind was producing 5.3 GW and solar 7.6 GW, with most of the rest being produced by gas (12.1 GW) and nuclear (4.7 GW). We were also importing 1 GW from the Netherlands.
But what happens when the wind stops blowing and the sun stops shining, as it all-too-frequently does in cold, anticyclonic conditions in midwinter, when demand for power is at its greatest? Moreover, what happens when electricity demand has been boosted by the switch to electric central heating and electric vehicles?
It ought to be obvious that if we are going to rely on intermittent sources of energy we are going to need massive investment in energy storage. Quietly over the past few years, large battery installations, housed in rows of shipping containers, have indeed popped up across Britain. At present, however, there are only enough of them to meet 1 GW worth of demand – and even then only for an hour or two. The Government is desperately trying to encourage more batteries by speeding them through the planning system. Even chuck in proposed capacity, however, and it would only supply another 4 GW of electricity for an hour or so.
But don’t expect even these batteries to get built. The Government is trying to solve the problem of a lack of energy storage through what is calls “capacity auctions”. The bids for batteries, however, are losing out to something called Demand Side Response. If you haven’t heard that jargon before, it means exactly what Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks is proposing to do: persuading people to turn off appliances when electricity demand is too high.
In other words, the electricity industry has worked out that it is going to be cheaper not to bother building batteries but instead to cut us off when the sun isn’t shining and wind isn’t blowing. As far as the Government’s capacity market is concerned, a kilowatt-hour of energy saved is the equivalent of a kilowatt-hour stored.
For the consumer, however, there is every difference. Cutting off our electricity threatens seriously to interfere with our lives – especially if we are going to have to rely on electric cars and heating systems in future. It doesn’t matter too much if our heating goes off for a few minutes, but if electricity companies try to plug the enormous gap between supply and demand on a still winter’s night entirely by cutting off our electricity supply to demand, we are going to find ourselves sitting in the dark rather a lot.