Last week the supply side showed itself to be somewhat less than robust, when seven ageing coal-fired power stations broke down, causing a supply crisis where electricity prices rose from £60 to £2,500 per megawatt hour and the National Grid had to pay businesses to reduce consumption. This "power crunch" saw up to 10 per cent of the UK's power supplied by sources which will be closed by next year – to meet EU air-quality rules; 13 power stations (mainly coal fired) are set to close or reduce capacity before March.
"These carbon targets have been heaped on the electricity generation industry with a [mistaken] perception about what the solutions were and a confusion of energy and climate-change objectives," said Angela Knight, former boss of Energy UK, the trade body for energy suppliers, at an Energy Live fringe meeting. She called for a stop on all generating plant closures until their replacements are actually generating electricity. "It should be lights on, first. Bills down, second. And carbon reduction, third," she said.
Her words were echoed by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, who talked of an energy "trilemma", where the problems of achieving sufficient and secure supplies of energy should go hand in hand with CO2 reduction. "Keeping the lights on should be at the core of any government action," she said.
But most of the talk was about maintaining existing supply, not the tidal wave of electric vehicle recharging demand just over the horizon. A UK Power networks presentation saw the startling prediction that in five years time the company will be delivering just as many electrical charging posts for cars as it will deliver lamp posts. A measure of this coming demand was shown at the Venice Sustainability Conference last month, when Professor Yasuhiro Daisho of Waseda university in Japan pointed out that "if you have 20,000 electric vehicles plugged into 50kW fast chargers, that's the output of an entire nuclear power station."
It's also almost twice the installed capacity of the London Array, Europe's biggest wind farm, so where's the spare capacity going to come from to charge these vehicles?
Seems the industry has problems even meeting existing demand. Knight tried to put the lack of safety generating capacity into perspective. "They say it's five per cent, but what does that mean?" she asked. "I reckon that's roughly one and a half power stations [experts in the audience nodded] and if it's early November and we're running out of power now, we've got a problem."