Wind and the Grid: a Precautionary Tale from the U.K.

U.K. wind farm. Photo credit: Daily Mail

by James A. Bacon

So, you think the rolling blackouts experienced in California were a fluke and of no relevance to Virginia? Well, then, consider what’s happening right now in the United Kingdom, where “unusually low wind output” and a series of planned power plant outages puts the nation at risk of blackouts. You see, the U.K. relies upon wind power for literally half of its electricity, which is just dandy when the wind is blowing, but not so great when the airs are calm.

As it happens, here in Virginia, Dominion Virginia Power has finished installation of its first two offshore wind turbines. Those two units are paving the way for a much wider deployment of wind power in the Atlantic Ocean. The utility forecasts that wind will account for 5.1 megawatts of its electric-generating capacity (about 20%) within 15 years.

In the U.K. the becalming of the wind — windpower is expected to drop from 51% of output to as low as 10% over the weekend — coincides with planned outages at two of the country’s nuclear reactors, reports the Daily Mail. The National Grid Electricity System Operator reassured the Brits that it would “make sure there is enough generation” to prevent blackouts…. In other words, the U.K. will be cutting it really close.

One big difference between the UK and Virginia is that the UK continues to invest in nuclear energy to supply a reliable base-load of electricity. Here in Virginia, the 15-year forecast in Dominion’s Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) assumes that its two aging power stations will be re-licensed. But powerful environmental groups oppose the projects, which are still several years out, in the expectation that energy conservation and battery storage will be able to make up the difference.

Another difference is that Virginia’s portfolio of renewable power sources will rely heavily upon solar. Indeed, the IRP forecast projects three times as much solar as wind. That makes Virginia less vulnerable to a falloff in wind but more vulnerable to extended cloudiness.

The UK experience points out other problems associated with excessive dependence upon renewables:

During the national lockdown earlier this year, the network was inundated with extra power.

National Grid had to spend £50million on the second May Bank Holiday weekend alone to pay power producers – including surplus wind and solar farms – to switch off.

It spent almost £1billion on extra interventions to prevent blackouts during the first half of the year and also handed out money to EDF Energy to halve the amount of power generated at its Sizewell B nuclear plant.

Bacon’s bottom line: Virginia will get to a 100% renewable grid eventually. But it is reckless and dangerous to set arbitrary deadlines in the hope that somehow, maybe we will have developed batteries or other energy-storage mechanisms that will allow us to maintain reliability without driving electricity rates into the stratosphere. Until such technologies are proven, we need to maintain a base supply of nuclear and, dare I say it, natural gas. Further, we’ll need quick-surge natural gas capability to fill in when the sun don’t shine and the wind don’t blow.

The most discouraging thing about the discourse about maintaining the reliability of Virginia’s electric grid is that the environmental lobby has yet to say anything more reassuring than, “We’ll figure it out.”

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48 responses to “Wind and the Grid: a Precautionary Tale from the U.K.

  1. One could argue the logic of shutting two nuclear reactors at the same time is the root cause of this weekend’s problem, but my other issue is that new nuke plants aren’t getting built successfully. UK is selling its soul to China with Hinckley plant. Commissioning construction of any new plant now puts the owner at financial risk given the difficulty of new construction–when is the last time a new nuke plant was on time and cost-effective?

    But point is well taken. Let’s stick with natural gas during the transition.

  2. “planned power plant outages”. Problem sol… er, created.

  3. There is a huge generation margin in Dominion’s integrated resource plan, including even more gas peaking plants. They understand full well how unreliable the solar and wind will be and build in redundancy. Should North Anna and Surry not get longer lives, things will get interesting here, too.

  4. Is this temporary in the U.K. in 1979 at the Pilot, I broke a story that DOE was worried about rolling brownouts because VEPCO had screwed up its nukes so badly. Is this similar?

  5. How can this be? We have the word of a Swedish teenager and the supporting endorsement of editorialists that it cannot happen.

  6. Dominion’s nuclear plants sitting on an earthquake fault line should worry everybody. Back in 2011 a relatively mild 5.8 magnitude quake hit with an epicenter at Mineral, Va – not far from the North Anna power plants. The plant lost power and automatically shutdown during the quake. Dominion reported “no major” damage. Three diesel generators kicked in to keep the reactors’ radioactive cores cool. A fourth generator failed.

    First, it takes a special kind of dipstick to build nuclear power plants on or near fault lines. Second, while the reactors did shut down as they were designed to do in an earthquake, one of the diesel generators required to cool the cores failed. What would have happened if two or three of the diesel generators failed?

    Those plants need to be shut down, not re-licensed. All it takes is one Chernobyl to ruin your day … or rather, your millenia.

    • If I recall, most of the US nuke plants are on or near faults. The ones that are not are located in flood planes, see SC and GA plants for example.

      Hell, 3-mile Island isn’t a cakewalk.

      • What is truly curious is how long it is taking for modern designs to come online. Modern designs are supposed to be less suseptible to faults , smaller, less deadly and able to modulate and one would think – win over the public and skeptics.

        I can only guess they are still not ready for prime time – and as a result, we are still stuck with designs that are almost as old as some of us… imagine a world today that is frozen in computer designs from a generation ago.

        • They should have remained Babcock-Wilcox.

          I had a friend of mine who went to work for them in someplace near Pittsburg. He was mortified at how bad they were at modernization of the design software. He was there around 2005 and claimed they were using stuff he had worked with in the 80s.

          Not to get into an ageism discussion, but at 50, he was called “the Kid” by most of the engineers there.

    • Virginia seems to have more than it’s fair share of “special kinds of dipsticks”.

    • …the other big problem was that our elected officials KNEW about the discovery of the earthquake fault line, and held that fact secret until construction was approved (for fear of losing public support the Anna nuke projects). This is the point.

      I am ambivalent about nukes, probably rather do the offshore wind. But I’d prefer the way NJ is doing it, ie; competitive bid process not promising Dominion (or equivalent) a blank check.

    • I live 40 miles from the Lake Anna nuclear plant and I am not even a little bit worried about it.

      • I live 10 miles from it and realize if something goes wrong, I’ll probably have to leave. I live just beyond the permanent siren towers.

      • That doesn’t say too much Wayne.
        Humans do not perceive risk well.

        If it is a big risk you agree with, then you are happy to advocate that risk.

        If it is infinitesimally small risk you do NOT agree with, then it is an enormous outrage equivalent to mass murder.

        • I was trying to fold in your view of risk with regard to global warming.

          If you do not believe in it – is there risk?

        • Always book a vacation AFTER a terrorist attack. You can pick up someone’s cancelled trip for 1/2 price. Learned that one from an office mate. He said the one thing Americans suck at is probability and associated risk.

          Hell, he’s right. It’s keeps the Lottery going.

          • I suppose as long as civilian militia are still “protecting” the streets and stuff, eh?

          • A little late in the season for a Michigan vacation.

          • Oh well.. they do have trench coats up there and it makes them look less threatening as long as they keep their coats closed… but then again that sometimes defeats the whole purpose of presenting yourself and who you want others to think you are.

            did that make any sense? 😉

        • My comment was in response to whether I WORRY about the Lake Anna nuclear power plant.

          Whether or not I choose to worry about a given thing/event/situation has nothing to do with the risk, or lack thereof, of that particular thing/event/situation.

          I am aware of the risks associated with living within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant and I have chosen not to worry about them.

  7. Ripper. It shut down for three months if I recall. It also launched national plant inspections by the NRC

  8. In the bigger scheme of things – why is it so wrong to use wind/solar when you can and STILL KEEP backup generation for when you can’t?

    Even a significant percentage of the environmental community support Nukes as well as what it takes to maintain a reliable grid.

    When we keep pointing at the extremes and claiming they represent the mainstream of environmentalists – and for that matter a lot of ordinary people – it’s just disengenous.

    There are extremes on both the left and the right when it comes to renewables and fossil fuels. We don’t need either one.

    And why don’t we talk also about the “unreliability” of Nukes when they have to go down – and why two of them at the same time?

    Is this a problem with renewables or the folks in charge of the grid making bad choices – that would be bad choices even if there were no renewables?

    I’ve never in my life seen such hostility to common-sense things like wind/solar when it can be used. Why? Only the wackadoodles are insisting on only wind/solar/battery right now…

    Finally, MODERN nukes – we should do. The kind that do not melt down, are smaller and can modulate in response to grid demand and variability of wind/solar.

  9. Baconator with extra cheese

    Electical generation requires the use of math, the scientific method, reason, logic, and most likely people who like things to be “on time:… that being said why does Virginia want to push this white supremacy upon her people? Also we must ensure that any and all new electical generation and transmission lines, including construction, has no disproportionate impact on any BIPOC communities.
    Defund electical generation.
    The wise Larry G showed us his chart where US citizens use the most electric in the world. Why don’t we set the green standard for the world and show that Virginia can use none. We can have a green utopia free of carbon!
    We can be the greenest and the most equitable at the same time!

    • You have to define what “most” is. On a total use basis – we do not – and that’s simply because we are 1/4 the population of China and even though they use 1/2 per capita of what we use – they still use MORE than us.

      Dealing with facts and reality are a struggle sometimes because if people don’t like what they hear – they just hum “I can’t hear you”.

  10. The level of ignorance and bias on display in several of these is frightening.

    C’mon DJ, the flawed Chernobyl design has almost no similarity to the plants operating in Virginia. What happened there cannot happen here, not that way. The whole “China Syndrome” movie story was a lie, but a brilliant one that ruined an industry. How many people died from Three Mile Island? Of radiation at Fukushima? Zero at either. Yes, North Anna got a good test, and came through, with no danger. And even the long term horror stories about Chernobyl’s impact are not panning out at all.

    Larry, the only problem with lots and lots of renewables backed up with standby baseload is the cost. You build those baseload plants and then don’t use them, making the cost per generated MW quite ridiculous.

    Plenty of environmental activists are pushing for wind-solar-storage only as viable, which of course it is not. But politically, they remain a strong force. It’s a major Democratic plank, whether they actually mean it. And plenty of them remain hostile to nuclear. I do expect major opposition in that quarter to the license renewals at North Anna and Surry. In the meantime, the war on natural gas will continue, leaving no reliable base load generation. It is almost like energy poverty is their goal, which it actually is.

    Just finished Shellenberger’s “Apocalypse Never” and he reports that the natural gas interests are heavy into undermining nuclear, to leave gas standing alone as the baseload companion to renewables. But if you really want zero carbon, it has to be nuclear of the available choices.

    • I think I’m in the middle on this even though I get accused often of being left.

      I support nuclear to power the night and as much of the day as it can.

      Using renewables for fuel when they are available and natural gas when they are not.

      I also support more and more energy efficiency.

      And I don’t have a great hope for batteries that are going to be cost effective for anything beyond short-term fail over type use – not base load.

      And I support a Manhatan type project to find how to crack hydrogen using solar power. Once we can do that or something equivalent – we are going to be free of fossil fuels and can argue about other issues.

      Finally – there are folks on the left – wackadoodles – no question but I think it’s the people in the middle who want cleaner and greener who have the political muscles. A significant percentage of people in poll after poll, want renewables – and they’re not wackadoodles.

    • “How many people died from Three Mile Island? Of radiation at Fukushima? Zero at either. ”

      Are you including cancers, or just dead bodies found the next day? If you worked at the yard, you know the US safety record is very good. But that was because of one man, and he’s dead now. But even the yard had “incidents” as opposed to accidents. I remember they dropped a mockup core during a practice to a refueling. Oops.

      Steve, before you get all apoplectic, I am in almost complete agreement. Chernobyl cannot happen here, and Hollywood is entertainment. But stuff happens.

      I want more nuclear power, not less, but not until we have a much, much better waste storage plan nationally. Period!

      • Last study I saw predicted that three-mile island would cause a total of about 350 “extra” deaths of people in the region from cancer or leukemia. I don’t know if the study was peer-reviewed or not.

        • Remember when TSA wanted to use x-ray backscatter? A study out of UAz concluded 12 deaths per year. Unreasonable search?

          Ionizing radiation, just say, “No!”

          When I worked for NAVELEX, they had a “safe RF level”. While there, it was learned the USSR level was 1000 times less. Everyone freaked wondering what they knew.

  11. Steve H. There were Fukushima deaths, mostly from the quake and tidal wave. Thousands were forced to evacuate for lengthy periods. How do I know? I visited the area in Japan in the fall of 2011 as research for my book.
    You are right about Chernobyl. No containment dome. I covered hearings on it in the USSR in the 1980s. Lots of deaths.

    • 54 during the event and in the immediate aftermath, with another +/-30 in the ensuing years, for a total of about 85 (so far).

      Source = United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR)

      • Chernobyl,,, not only no containment dome,,, but the design was not self modulating,,, oops… add in some bad decision making as they ran an experiment… an interesting story… then of course being a part of communist Russia they didn’t want to admit to a problem when it blew,, BTW,, this was and is typical Soviet procedure… was it only maybe 10yrs ago they refused help with a sunken sub and crewmen still alive on board…. read a great little book some time back about accidents Russia had in their space, rocket, nuclear programs over the last 50 years.. interesting technical stuff…

    • That’s Russia, not Japan. In Japan, two died from the actual tsunami, the flooding. Yes, they evacuated a huge area, but there are no radiation deaths. Zip, zilch, zero.

      • Deaths: 1 cancer death attributed to radiation exposure by government panel.

        How many received non-lethal doses? They were rotating crews in and out while they tried to get the one reactor under control. Every one of them was dosed.

        • now, don’t be asking all these uncomfortable questions.. it totally screws up the “so nothing happened” narrative… not to mention all the financial costs……..

          Nukes are safe. Nukes are safe. Don’t be blathering blasphemous offal.

          • Nukes CAN be safe. Well, relative to coal, and gas, anyway.

            But, in point of fact, ADM Rickover knew how to build and run a nuclear reactor/program. I would have permitted the Navy to put a reactor in my basement.

            But Dominion build one within 9.23 miles of me? No effing way. Surry is there; can’t do nothing about it now.

          • We really have no clue as to what the Navy is doing with the retired reactors and hulls..

            We got a glimpse as to what the Russians are doing:


            we probably do better but then we have places like this:


      • “The maximum predicted eventual cancer mortality and morbidity estimate according to the linear no-threshold theory is 1,500 and 1,800, respectively, but with the strongest weight of evidence producing an estimate much lower, in the range of a few hundred.”

        Sadiq Aliyu, Abubakar; et al. (2015). “An overview of current knowledge concerning the health and environmental consequences of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant (FDNPP) accident”. Environment International. 85: 213–28.

        A screening program a year later in 2012 found that more than a third (36%) of children in Fukushima Prefecture have abnormal growths in their thyroid glands.[219] As of August 2013, there have been more than 40 children newly diagnosed with thyroid cancer and other cancers in Fukushima prefecture as a whole. In 2015, the number of thyroid cancers or detections of developing thyroid cancers numbered 137.[220] However, whether these incidences of cancer are elevated above the rate in un-contaminated areas and therefore were due to exposure to nuclear radiation is unknown at this stage.[221] Data from the Chernobyl accident showed that an unmistakable rise in thyroid cancer rates following the disaster in 1986 only began after a cancer incubation period of 3–5 years;[222] however, whether this data can be directly compared to the Fukushima nuclear disaster is yet to be determined.[223]

  12. Steven. What tall tales? Give me some facts or I suggest you shut up.

  13. Like duh! Did I say there were widespread radiation deaths at Fukushima? Have you ever been in that area? How about anywhere close to Chernobyl or is your knowledge limited to that of a lobbyist working for a shipyard that builds atomic powered ships? I mean, give me a break! And don’t feed me any “ad hominem”’crap. You are the master.

    • Journeyman. I’m the Master. No kidding, he’s really not all that good at it. He thinks “Nancy Boy” is an insult, but I’ve noticed he only uses it when he is conceding a point.

  14. Yes, I’m proud that I do not engage in the ad hominem fallacy. You and Peter do that better.

  15. My nuke engineer father and his upper level boss Adm. Rickover were a bit concerned about the utility-style huge nuke plants. But why are we taking nukes? I know because utilities like to build everything super-humongous, right?

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