by Jerome a Paris
Wed Jan 13th, 2010 at 08:01:46 AM EST
Dash for gas-fired power stations raises concerns over future supplies
A steep increase in the number of gas-fired power stations has been approved by the government, raising fears about the growing pressure on future gas supplies.
This new "dash for gas", along with the huge investment in wind power launched by the government on Friday, reinforces concerns that Britain's infrastructure may become more vulnerable to extreme weather and supply disruption.
The article notes that "[c]ombined cycle gas-fired plants remain the preferred choice for many utilities because of their relatively low cost and how quickly they can be built" but of course fails to point out that they are relatively cheap because they bear the least burden of debt per kWh (so the higher cost of capital of the private sector is less penalising for such plants than it is for nukes, wind of coal), and, even more importantly, they are more profitable even when they are (on average) more expensive because their costs are better correlated, for technical reasons, to market prices.
But the article actually blames the large wind developments being planned for the 'dash-for-gas':
Gas-fired plants are being developed to back up the thousands of new offshore wind turbines planned by the government. The recent run of cold and still days has highlighted the risks created by a growing reliance on wind power.
At the end of last week, while gas supplies were being cut off for some large industrial users, wind farms, which account for 5 per cent of Britain's generation capacity, were providing only about 0.2 per cent of the country's electricity, enough to power a town the size of Tunbridge Wells.
The reality is that the UK has a creaky power system that needs massive investment just to replace existing plants. Nukes are old and will be decommissioned over the next decade or so, and coal plans are being phased out because of their carbon emissions and pollution. So new plants need to be built in any case, and not specifically as backup for wind.
The fact that wind is also being built means that the new plants will be used rather less than if wind were absent, but not that they do not need to be built: indeed, at times they will be all needed. But not often. Gas-fired plants are actually a good thing in the context of a massive wind build-up, as they are flexible enough to be able to come in when needed, and their lower capital requirements means that it still makes economic sense to build them even for lower use (gas-fired "peaker" plants that function as little as 3% of the time can be profitable, by running only at times of very high demand and commanding extremely high prices at such moments).
But - wind provides power, not capacity. Capacity needs to be built in the UK. If left to market forces, it will be mostly gas-fired plants. If wind is indeed built on the scale proposed, such build up will be a lesser evil, indeed a necessary one. If not, then it will be the dangerous, but inevitable consequence of the deregulating policies of our times, which favor financial returns over proper policies with collective purposes.
Front-paged by afew