Britain and Electricity

There is a looming electricity crisis that is about to overtake the United States. While our demand for electricity continues to increase due to construction, computers (data centers take up a significant portion of electricity demand), and potentially even electric cars, essentially no new “base load” supply of electrical generation is being added to the market. We do get the occasional wind farm or solar or geothermal source of energy, and a bit of conservation is on the rise, but these tiny dents in supply and demand, respectively, don’t even begin to cover growth much less the fact that many electricity plants are aging and will face retirement in the future. Due to the long lead times involved with getting a new plant on line (at LEAST 5-10 years in the case of large base load coal or nuclear plants, best case), our problem is that we aren’t doing anything NOW to head off the crisis LATER, when we won’t have any options at all. If you are interested in any background or more detailed analysis of the energy situation and in particular our Illinois issues go here to see the posts I have written on this topic.

Recently I was in London and I noted a similar situation was emerging in that country. Unlike the US, where conservation measures are still haphazard and sporadic, London seemed to have “smart” meters installed in many hotels (like I noted in Italy) and the entire culture embraces the “concept” at least of saving energy.

As in the US, however, the situation in Britain is going to be desperate soon. This graph from the April 5, 2008 issue of the Economist shows in a great, simple diagram how the declining use of coal and nuclear power is going to cause an energy crisis in Britain. Britain, like the US, has an ample supply of coal and can import much more from reliable allies like Australia, and has been a pioneer of nuclear power technology and is quite capable of building and operating these plants. While Britain does have North Sea natural gas available, the supply is declining and has other uses (industrial, heating) beyond power generation.

The problem is that the NIMBY crowd in England is even fiercer than those of the US; while the chances of building any nuclear or coal plants in the US will fade if the Democrats take the White House in November, even the most liberal US Democrat seems like Attila the Hun compared to anyone in Europe when it comes to greenhouse gases and pollution.

Even today power is short, in particular in London. The situation will grow more dire as the years go by and localized plants are decommissioned. It is unimaginable that new sources of serious generation will be built anywhere near London or the left would go bonkers. The likeliest courses of action is that over time businesses that aren’t forced to be localized (retail, financial services) will bolt London for other parts of the country where the power situation isn’t so terrible. Local businesses will likely start to rely more and more heavily on backup power as the grid becomes more unreliable (on peak days it can fail overall, but it is more likely to just become less reliable over the years).

I don’t know how people can go on consuming electricity and products that require electricity and just pretend that adding new generation isn’t an option; while conservation is useful and perhaps even some localized elements like solar can help they aren’t sufficient for a serious, first world economy unless rotating blackouts a la Nigeria are viewed as OK. Of the options, nuclear emits the least greenhouse gases and new, modern coal plants are quite efficient and emit far less noxious compounds than their predecessors. While these 2 options clearly are not without flaws, they have to be part of the solution else reliability will just crater over time and inefficient local solutions will have to jump to the front.

I am somber on any hope that generation will be built; today the water situation in London is already a mess. The pipes are so old in central London that they can’t turn up the pressure or water will just leak out everywhere; thus water pressure is generally poor. Houses and businesses have appliances that bring in water and basically store it locally so that they have pressure when you turn on the tap; this refills after you turn off the water so that you have some capacity available on notice.

Is this efficient? No. But this is the likely outcome for energy, too. The central model is dying, piece by piece, thanks to weak government leaders and desperate NIMBY opposition. Nothing really is coming up in its place except for jerry-rigged solutions, higher prices, and some modest conservation & renewable solutions which aren’t economic on a grand scale.

Meanwhile, the coal we aren’t using here is being burned left and right in China and India and across the developing world, without most of the “clean” technology that we take for granted here. It is hard for me to see what is actually being accomplished as we move our industry that requires energy overseas, where they make dirty power and become industrial powerhouses and we fade into irrelevance in the developed world for our failure to come to grips with this situation.

Cross posted at LITGM

35 thoughts on “Britain and Electricity”

  1. I am very worried about this situation. As shortages develop, utilities are likely to react by installing peaking turbines, which are smaller than central-station plants, quicker to procure, and less likely to be the target of activists. There will be no other cards that they can realistically play. Unfortunately, these units are less fuel-efficient than are the big central stations, and more dependence on them will will reduce the overall efficiency of the grid and drive up the price of natural gas as well as electricity.

  2. I think a good part of the problem comes from the rise of a permanent political class , which once established becomes as difficult to get rid of as,say,Robert Mugabe.They also become less and less competent at ruling. You get a “Lord of the Flies” situation among them. May I suggest “The Rise and Decline of Nations” by Mancur Olson for a take on this.

  3. Carl,

    Maybe the situation in Illinois is more grim than in the rest of the country, but I disagree with your assertion that “we aren’t doing anything NOW to head off the crisis LATER …”. The recent implementation of the combined Construction and Operating License (COL) procedures by NRC, the more-than-two-dozen applications received for new nuclear plant starts, and the resurrection of Watts Bar 2 (nee Watts Bar 1) in the Tennessee Valley, show that in actuality MUCH is being done. And with diverse energy firms like Covanta (which just hired Dr. Paul Gilman away from Oak Ridge to become their “Chief Sustainability Officer”, at the same time they are now listed on a number of “Green” indices for their work on novel renewable energy methods) and the NuStart consortium actively working toward meeting projected energy needs, I think our energy needs are well in hand.

  4. Britain is about to develop nuclear power “big time!”, as you Americans say, and we have enough coal reserves to last 300 years which could be burned cleanly.
    The coal mines were shut as a political manoeuvre not for lack of reserves. We should not rely on importing oil and gas from terrorists.

  5. Due to the long lead times involved with getting a new plant on line…

    I think the long lead times in most major infrastructure allows the luddites to continue to jam the sabots into the technology of our civilization.

    Political feedback occurs in the short term, in time frame of a few months or years. Politicians can make bad decisions today that lead to negative consequences decades in the future without paying any price.

    Planning for power, fuel, water etc must be down decades in advance. Today all over the developed world we are paying the price for political hysteria of the 70’s and 80’s when the pseudo-environmentalist created a social, political and legal environment that severally retarded our infrastructure development. They did so at no cost to themselves.

    Good decision making requires timely and forceful feedback. Long term project lack that feedback. The free-market has the advantage in creating such projects because the owners and investors for a project understand that they will bear the consequences long-term. Politicians by contrast pay absolutely no price for the long term consequences of their decisions.

  6. Deichmans,

    This isn’t my first post about the power industry. I have been in the power industry for a couple of decades now (sigh).

    While I appreciate your optimism in my other posts I note that while many people are putting in applications for new plants, few if any are being built. There are some Federal funds available for the first few nuclear plants, but they are not necessarily enough to incent building.

    I would be happy to bet against any single nuclear plant being built; it is POSSIBLE that the TVA, which is a unique organization in the US with a mandate and access to Federal funds, might build a reactor, but this is hardly a renaissance. The investor owned utilities are a LONG way from anything like that, and even if 1-2 get built (my guess) that won’t even fix the plants that are going to be retired, much less make a dent.

    I don’t think that these “diverse energy firms” you speak of will make a dent in our overall energy situation; they can help on the margins but that won’t make up for the lack of investment in coal or nuclear plants by a long shot. The numbers don’t add up. Take a look at the fates of the last batch of new entrants in the market around 2000; they’re all dead now.

    As for England, I wish you luck, but your Greens are absolutely bonkers and I’ll bet that they find some way to sabotage your progress.

    Remember Shoreham in the US, when they built a nuclear reactor in Long Island and the greens wouldn’t even let them fire it up? Or the transmission cable under long island sound that they can’t even use. They stop BUILT items from going into service, much less the relatively easy task of stopping items from getting built in the first place.

    The TVA isn’t a trend, it is an anomaly. With the Texas utilities going private another possible nuclear builder is gone. Don’t forget that the average generation provider PROFITS from the situation; why would they commit financial suicide to build a coal or nuclear plant when they can just rake in profits on their existing assets and strangle the distribution companies?

  7. I’m very interested in this issue. To be more blunt, I’m very angry that our leaders aren’t preparing for our future. At least in Europe the population is fairly stagnant. Here in America we are going to add 100-150 million people in the next 50 years. How are we going provide the needed heating and lighting? Conservation isn’t even an option unless we force them to live in shanty-towns.

    What is the likely public policy response once a crisis hits? It seems probably a populist backlash against the Enviro elites would happen. Of course, if more people felt like me a backlash would have already started.

    Isn’t one likely response to be allowing older plants to expand, instead of building new plants? And will individual states be allowed to pursue different policies? As the price of electricity rises, West Virginia will have a strong incentive to get rich supplying the rest of the country with coal-based electricity. The enviros and the courts will try to keep West Virginia poor, of course, but perhaps federalism will save us.

    It is a very depressing and infuriating topic. It’s like the those religious cults who won’t allow their children to be treated with modern medicine. Except this time the cult (the Greens) are preventing *my* children from accessing modern energy sources — which is key to their health and well-being. I must admit I loathe our GreenGoogle overclass.

  8. Here’s another issue that may affect the speed with which nuclear plants can be brought on-line. I recently read that there is ONE factory in the world (in Japan) which has the skills & equipment to forge reactor containment vessels in a single piece, which apparently is considered highly desirable–maybe required–for new reactors. And this factory is fully booked.

    Anyone have any insight on this? Can the containment vessels be safely made in pieces and welder together, or do they really need to made as single integral units? What do U.S. and other national reactor safety codes have to say about this?

  9. David Foster,

    I read something about the Japanese plant but somebody in the U.S. must make similar vessels because we use the same technique to build the reactors for submarines. I doubt we farm that out but I could be wrong.

  10. BTW submarine reactors are much smaller than power plant reactors. So the comparison is apples oranges.

    Note: I’m a former Naval Nuke.

  11. David: Until such time, if ever, as there is demand, supply will be irrelevant.

    The political/cultural problems so far exceed any conceivable technological problem as to render the merely technical derisory.

    Our p/c problem is multidimensional and deep. They will not end until the last lawyer is strangled with the intestines of the last environmentalist.

  12. Who are the enviro elite? A good bet here would be to follow the money. There are a lot of stooges, of course, but if the leadership people could be identified, and their family trees traced into family fortunes? Perhaps you would run into a lot of old (coal and gas) money.

  13. In addition to the sheer irrationality and lack of thought that pervades leftist ‘environmentalists,’ there is another more ominous purpose. They welcome shortages of gas, electricity, water, etc. Shortages require extreme governmental control of every aspect of our lives. Shortages require rationing, taxation, and in general a Stalinist approach to governing. Of course, those in charge of the government will never themselves be subject to any rationing limits or shortages because they have a demonstrable personal need for the better of all society. This will be inevitable. All personal freedom and choice will be gone. You will have to ask permission of the government to do anything at all and hope that they are so merciful as to grant your plea. Welcome to the Dark Ages.

  14. I happen to work at a natural gas fired power plant in Michigan and hence I often see industry trade publications. This article is dead on. In my opinion the US will be lucky to have power 24 hours 10-15 years from now unless enviromentalists get smacked down hard. In other words, I agree with Robert Schwartz. For example CMS Energy is attempting to build a baseload clean coal plant somewhere near Bay City Michigan. I heard that the local government is onboard with this but that the Sierra Club or some other bunch of greens is suing on behalf of the locals, arguing I suppose that they are too stupid to know what’s good for them. I’m aware of other examples of this kind of idiocy. This can’t go on or the lights will go out.

  15. Whoops- That should read the US will be lucky to have power 24 hours A DAY 10-15 years from now.

  16. David Foster:
    The article is correct, and it is something we have known about for a long time. A single large casting allows greater pressure and volume than a smaller one and seams are not desirable in such a large piece of metal with multiple compound curves. Decades ago I read in Popular Mechanics, I believe, that explained all this in an article on giant dirigibles. The plan was to use VTOL dirigibles to pick up the massive castings and deliver them by air to wherever the nuclear power plant was being built. Freed of the constraints of dockside cranes, trains and roads, the castings could be designed for maximum strength and efficiency.
    It sure would be nice to return engineers and architects to their former place of honor in American society. Every person who lists their occupation as “activist” kills the future, just a little. The lawyers were lining up to sue the inventor of the Segway before his first personal transport was even sold to the public. John Edwards will never get my vote for anything, unless he returns the money he took using discredited research in his lawsuits.

  17. They will not end until the last lawyer is strangled with the intestines of the last environmentalist.


    For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

    For every lawyer working to stop nuclear power, there is an industry lawyer (or investor lawyer, or pro-power-interest-group lawyer) working to make it happen.

    Thankfully. Because, in a society guided by the rule of law, you don’t want to cede the legal argument to the Luddites.

    So, let’s at least check the nametags before we start the strangling.

    (This message brought to you as a public service by The Lawyers Who Defend Against Frivolous Lawsuits, Manufactured Class Actions, Fraudulent Whiplash Claims, Coercive ADA “Pre-suit Demands,” and “She Died, Therefore The Doctor Must Have Been Negligent” Estate-Filler.)

  18. Have you considered the impact of rapid technology advances? That is, the impact on exponential increases in technology whose impact we cannot foresee. For example, solar power could become extremely efficient.

    For this reason, I don’t worry about tomorrow. Just look at the rate of change in technology; pay attention, and you’ll be amazed what’s coming.

  19. SomaKing,

    Ever hear about plan ahead? What happens if these wonderful new inventions take 20 years to reach the market instead of 10? Then what? But I have a little cautionary note for you:

    Biofuels Scam you will love the end:

    The fall of the Soviet Union has taught these idiots nothing. You can just hear the voices in their head. “We are smarter than the stupid Soviets. We have Degrees from Harvard.”

  20. Somaking,

    Have you considered the impact of rapid technology advances?

    Have you considered the effect of political hysteria on the advancement of technology? It does no good for us to make technological advances if the political class won’t let us adopt.

    Nuclear power is the natural successor technology to fossil fuels. The entire global warming problem results from political suppression of this technology. Had we continued building nukes at the same rate as we were in 1970 we would today be Kyoto compliant. If we had adopted France’s approach and switched 70% of our electricity production to nukes we wouldn’t have a global warming problem ever even under the most pessimistic models.

    Politics can block necessary technological change. Look at Chinese history or for that matter most of western history. Technological progress requires a conducive political environment. The same anti-technology politics that drives people to block power plants will block other developments as well.

  21. For a current example of this insanity, look at Kansas, where the state’s EPA equivalent is now refusing to issue permits for any coal baseline power plants by officially declaring C02 a pollutant. From other things I’ve read, the building of coal baseline power plants is over in the US (for now, at least), natural gas is not a good option given the supply situation, and it’s pretty clear it’ll take a very long time if ever before we’ll see significant nuclear power (which never was a very large fraction of US baseline power generation anyway). E.g. didn’t the company that’s closest to getting an NRC permit just get their application sent back?

    While as noted utilities are in desperation building small gas turbine plants that are normally used for peak power, it’s looking very grim right now and these predictions of unreliable power within 15 years look very likely as things stand.

  22. I recall in elementary school in the 70’s (during the oil crisis) the talk of conservation and alternative technologies. That was all the rage and yet nothing substantial came of it.

    One only need take note of how the fearmongers react to new technologies, such as: nano, genetically modified crops, certain types of pesticides that eliminate/reduce disease and suffering of people, etc. to know that people will always oppose logical solutions to modern day challenges.

  23. Actually, it’s a little more complex than this. Most of what we’re facing is a lack of ability to meet PEAK demand, not average demand.

    We only need that peak for perhaps 50-100 hours per year (out of the 8760 hours of a year). Instead of installing additional generation, we could be working to mitigate those few peak hours. This can be done by conservation, by distributed peaking resources or by distributed energy storage capabilities around the grid.

    One thing that won’t do is wind power. It never blows just when you need it.

    Oh, and our national electrical grid is going to have to get much, much smarter very fast in order to deal with all that renewable energy that comes online and offline so capriciously. Texas recently very nearly had a massive outage when the wind in west Texas quit blowing unexpectedly, leaving the grid 1,400 megawatts in the hole. Fortunately, they had programs in place that allowed them to shed 1,400 megawatts of industrial demand within a few minutes or the grid would have become very unstable.

  24. It is hopeful that a growing number of environmentalists are promoting nuclear energy.

    I don’t know about other nations, but here in the U.S. if electricity shutdowns occur, people will want heads to roll, and no politician will want to be the one in the crosshairs.

  25. somaking…I predict that *every* new/alternative energy technology, however much support it may have from enviornmentalists in its early stages, will be opposed by a significant segment of the environmental-activist world once it reaches commercial deployment.

    Wind turbines sound nice when you’re reading about them–once they are actually built, you realize that they make noise and kill birds. Solar cells sound wonderful…but their deployment will consume zillions of acres, and their manufacture involves certain toxic chemicals. Intelligent grid sounds smart–but electricity doesn’t travel over fiber optic data circuits, and at some point transmission lines need to get built.

    The fundamental problem is that there is now a large class of people who live entirely in the world of words and images, and hae difficulty dealing with actual reality.

  26. Here’s a very intriguing possible way to avoid an energy crunch: miniature nuclear power plants, apparently designed on an entirely different principle from traditional nuclear plants, and designed to power smaller areas (neighborhoods, apartment complexes, city blocks, small industrial parks, etc.). Toshiba has already begun production and sale of the units in Asia, and they plan to start marketing them in the USA next year.

  27. On 2/27/08, Ercot of Texas had to reduce power to large customers because….the wind stopped.
    Welcome to the world of fruits and nuts running the show.

  28. Peaking units are not the answer, they typically produce expensive power, and it’s bad planning to get in just under the wire. Back when real people ran things, a certain amount of baseline generating overcapacity of at least 20% was required. Now we are overcapacitated by idiot liberals with no idea how things work.

  29. I think I’ll have to take issue with Rob’s 8:34 am post about conservation and peak. Here in Calif. the State was trying to mandate that all new homes and any that are existing but have new a/c or heating installed would have to have a wireless FM receiver installed at the thermostat that would allow an energy agency to decide that for the good of all, your system could be shut down during “peak” hours or whenever they think that energy usage needs to be reduced.
    Even here in remote Butte County, they’re trying to regulate when I can rely on my “primitive” woodburning stove. And every few years they fly the idea of putting water meters on rural residents’ wells and springs.
    I just hope this doesn’t become an issue where the Second Amendment becomes a deciding factor.

    Rob J

  30. I think a couple of days of blackouts will sober up most of the environmentalists and enrage everybody else. Not having a functioning refrigerator tends to change people’s priorities.

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