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The dreaded Dunkelflaute is no reason to slow UK’s energy push

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The UK is facing the dreaded “Cold Dunkelflaute”.

These cold snaps that are both dark and windless put strain on the UK’s increasingly wind-reliant power system, prompting inevitable angst about what the energy transition and the stampede towards renewable power means for future winters.

If anything, it just highlights the need to press ahead with overhauling the energy system more quickly.

Dunkelflaute, a German term now widely used in the renewable energy sector, is a reasonably regular winter occurrence in northern Europe, accounting for between 150 and 300 hours, according to a recent climatology study.

The one the UK is facing this week has increased peak power demand by about 10 per cent to around 45GW as chilly Brits crank up their electric blankets and heaters, while at the same time halting the wind turbines that produced more than a quarter of the nation’s power in the past year.

Interconnectors, which bring in electricity from neighbouring countries, are usually a source of flexibility. But this time, the UK and France are not just rivals on the football pitch. They are vying for electricity, with France suffering its own tight market because of nuclear outages.

The result is that the UK’s power mix is strained, dirty and expensive. Gas-fired capacity is running at full pelt, providing well over half of power generation. Coal plants are producing; National Grid even warmed up two reserve plants, which were subsequently stood down.

Carbon dioxide emissions have risen to more than 350g/KWH — 60 per cent above the average for past year. And day-ahead electricity prices on Sunday spiked above £2500/MWh, according to Thomas Edwards of Cornwall Insights.

Fortunately, this snap is likely to be short. But it has raised alarm bells. What if we get another one later this winter, when gas stores have been run down? Worse still, how will we cope with Dunkelflautes as we get closer to net zero? Electric vehicles and heat pumps could bring peak power demand to some 100GW in 2050 — more than double the expected peak on Monday. A lot of this will be wind.

Concern is justified. But the answer is not to slow wind power down. It is to speed everything else up.

Indeed, part of the reason why we are in this situation is that the UK’s efforts to build up other, flexible, clean technologies have spluttered and stalled.

Chief among them is nuclear power where flagship project Hinkley Point has suffered delays and cost overruns. Hydrogen — where the UK has a target of 10GW of capacity by 2030 — is still awaiting policy support. Carbon capture and storage will be essential to reach net zero but this too has been hampered by endless delays. SSE and Equinor’s Keadby 3 project — a power plant with capture and storage — has just become the first in the UK to receive planning permission.

Meanwhile, demand response, a fancy term for getting people to charge their vehicles when power doesn’t cost thousands of pounds, is still only a twinkle in policymakers’ eyes. National Grid expects it to grow from 6GW to 100GW by 2050.

The current cold snap is a reminder that falling between two stools can be painful. The UK should not just focus on increasing renewable power generation and adding gas-fired units for back up. It should be working to deliver a full-system transformation.

In this light, the price spikes we are seeing are useful market signals. They might hurt any smaller supplier forced to buy on the spot market to satisfy additional demand, and they will add to the government’s subsidy bill. But overall, the numbers are not huge. Aurora Energy calculates that this cold spell only added about 1 per cent to total expected wholesale market costs for a supplier in December.

If the Dunkelflaute serves to highlight the market opportunity for clean, flexible technologies, and spurs the government to turn its attention to them, it will deliver much more value than it has cost.


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