Renewables, Drax and Myth Busting No 1

It appears Drax wish to bust some myths about renewable energy (see HERE) They are tweeting about them one by one. So I thought I'd have a go too and dig under the headlines at least for the first so-called "myth" they wish to bust: Here it is.

The First "Myth" they want to bust is...

"Myth 1 — Renewables are unpredictable"

There’s more to renewables than solar panels and wind turbines. Tidal power is much more predictable than either, and geothermal power — using heat from the Earth’s core to generate electricity — is almost completely reliable.
As for predictability, sustainable biomass uses compressed wood pellets to generate electricity whenever it is needed. It’s completely predictable. You can use it to produce electricity on demand, to control frequency in a split-second or for baseload power. It’s as reliable as coal or gas, but with a fraction of the carbon emissions.

Yes it is true! There is more to renewables than wind and solar (both of which are hopelessly intermittent)

It is also true tidal power is more predictable and geothermal is reliable too! And that Biomass can provide baseload.  But we still have some problems here. So let us look at these predictable and reliable examples of RE goodness.


Sadly in the UK we have barely any tidal power at all. That is because in most places tidal power is simply unfeasible. Consequently little is planned and even this is horrendously expensive and arguably technically dubious.

To cap it all the maximum that could be generated by tidal is 12% of demand. But anyone who believes we could get anywhere near 12% is really living in the world of Tooth Fairies and Easter Bunnies. (h/t to  Dr Jim Hansen HERE)

But lets look at what Tidal there is and what is planned/proposed


In Scotland there is a tidal stream scheme (MayGen - HERE). Currently it has a maximum capacity of 6MW ( similar output to that from a single locomotive engine) But the dream is to expand this to is a maximum capacity of 398MW. Either way its capacity factor will be around 20%. (So averaged output power will be about 1.2MW/80MW)

There is a big incentive to build the dream. Tidal Stream generation is the only type of generation that makes offshore wind look cheap.

MayGen will be paid no less than 5 ROCs subsidy (or £225) per MWh. This means that typically they will be paid £260 per MWh whereas normal generators (gas/nuclear) get paid about £43 per MWh.

To be fair MayGen is verging on experimental. It is the very tip of the state of the art.

We know Tidal Stream power may be predictable. But is it viable? Or affordable? I'll leave you to decide.

But one thing is certain: It ain't going to be the golden bullet to save intermittent RE anytime soon.

Swansea bay Tidal Lagoon

Then there is the proposed Swansea Tidal lagoon. This will have a (very, very) brief maximum output of 320MW. But its capacity factor will be less than 20%. Averaged over a year its output power will equate to approximately 60MW. The estimated cost of building this thing is £1.3 Billion (Ouch!).

That is about the same cost as building a 1.2GW (i.e. 20x the output) CCGT gas plant.

Compared to the Scottish tidal stream scheme though, the Swansea lagoon will be cheap with only 1.8 ROCs subsidy per MWh. It will be only 3 times the cost of normal generators.

Again. Predictable it may be. Affordable? Viable? Or even environmentally benign? You decide.

(Euan Mearns did a wonderfully complete analysis of the Swansea Tidal Lagoon  HERE.)


Just like Tidal power, in the UK we have little to no geothermal power generation.

In fact the UK is geologically a bad place for geothermal energy. True - we can tap shallow underground heat for heat pumps and space heating but electricity generation? Really?

As far as I can tell the prospect for any significant geothermal power generation in the UK is Nil.

End of.


Then we come to the meat and potatoes of the Drax myth busting. Their glorious Biomass.

Happily I have to say that just about everything they say is true. I (sort of) believe them in their sustainablity claims as well. But there are problems.

But first - a pedantic point:
.....It’s as reliable as coal or gas, but with a fraction of the carbon emissions.

DON'T BE SILLY! Of course burning biomass emits Carbon Dioxide and MWh for MWh virtually the same as coal!! The fact that you offset that by replanting does not mean that magically no Carbon Dioxide or pollutants get emitted when you burn wood pellets! You could equally offset coal by planting trees - you just can't use the same space.

But back to what I see as a major problem with biomass.

Bear in mind to simply maintain the current Drax 2GW generation in a sustainable manner will require an immense 12000 sq Km of forest. (Wikipedia HERE)

How much more biomass can we (morally or practically) import from abroad?

I don't know.

But I would suspect that we are already at the limits of sustainably maintaining a supply of wood to the existing Drax wood burning plant.

So there you go. If you want non-intermittent RE in the UK, in reality you've got Biomass.

But how much more Biomass can we build before we start seriously damaging the environment?

Anyone who knows the answer to that one please tell me.

I'd love to know.

Why Microsoft Shares the Blame for the Cyber Attack.

Many folk have poured derision on people/business's still using Windows XP. After all, general support for XP was discontinued three years ago. Some further support was available to large organisations but essentially the operating system was abandoned by Microsoft in 2014. So,
many would say it would be foolish to continue with XP and anyone still using it deserved to get caught by this criminality.

Yet there is another story here.

Windows XP came out in 2001 and was initially truly awful. Yet over the following 13 years bugs were fixed and back doors closed. By 2010 Windows XP had hardened and was ( and still should be ) a robust and bug free operating system. XP has many applications far beyond mere desktop and laptop PCs. It is also extensively used for equipment control.

As an example, I understand that one of the problems that hit the NHS was the crippling of some body scanners that had Windows XP integrated into their design.

Microsoft abandoned XP because they wanted to force people to buy their later operating systems and associated products.  They ignored the fact that many could not afford the change (which usually required a hardware switch as well).

But as well as poorer desktop/laptop users, many companies/organisations simply could not move long established and complex equipment to a new operating system.

Microsoft could have easily offered (and profited from) an annual support fee of (say) $5 per machine. Bear in mind that after 16 years since it was launched, the code base in XP was hardened and reliable. New patches would be far fewer than with a new product. Code maintenance would require a smaller team. They would be working on an known and well established code base.  

But No. Microsoft decided to walk away.

Microsoft's action to stop publishing updates/bug fixes was both immoral and irresponsible.

In my opinion, if you produce a product on which people lives and livelihoods depend, irrespective of whether it is hardware or software you have a moral obligation to offer support for that product for more than a mere 6 years after it becomes obsolescent.

It appears Microsoft have now relented and produced a new security patch for XP (I wont comment on Horses and when to bolt gates). I hope they now realise the foolhardiness of their abandonment and step up to their responsibilities by re-instigating support for XP.

AS for the scum-bags who used this exploit I do hope they are caught and go to jail for very many years, or catch a bullet. Preferably the latter.

An Expensive day in April.

The 30th April 2017 was a Bank Holiday Sunday in the UK and consequently the use of electricity was very low.

By chance it is also a Goldilocks day for wind and solar. Not too much wind but windy enough to provide a high output. The icing on the cake was that the wind speed was pretty constant across the day. Solar meanwhile has a nice day too with cloudless skies.

The day has been lauded far and wide as the day the UK was supplied with more power by renewables than by all other sources combined. When averaged over the day, the subsidised renewables (wind, solar and biomass) contributed 41% of the total energy used.

I wondered how much this Goldilocks day cost the UK taxpayer in subsidies.

The Electric insights website (Here) gives us a lot of information.

Here is a snapshot of the full day of generation from 30th April.

Knowing a few of the details of the subsidy regimes and the average generation per technology over the day we can get a rough idea of how much this golidlocks day cost, both for actual electricity generated and for wind, solar and biomass subsidies.

All of existing RE generation (bar the shouting) is subsidised by the Renewables Obligation (RO) or for smaller generators by the Feed In Tariff (FiT). CfD's (contracts for difference) are yet to apply to operational generators, but they are unlikely to reduce the total cost by much (if anything).

Bear in mind  RO and FiT subsidies are NOT the full price. The fullprice is (subsidy + selling price).

Currently one ROC is worth £45.58

Interestingly the RO for ground level solar (1.2 ROC/MWh) is almost the same as the latest total FiT price (generation + export) for small arrays.  Which means I will assume all solar gets the same subsidy of 1.2 ROCs/MWh (actually this is an significant underestimate of the subsidy due to a number of reasons - but I'll use this to err on the side of caution with this rough calculation)

Large scale wind has two separate ROC subsidies - one for onshore (0.9 ROCs/MWh) and one for offshore(1.8 ROCs/MWh). Offshore is far more productive per turbine than onshore while there are more onshore turbines than offshore. So a happy medium is to place the average ROC subsidy at 1.35 per MWh( (onshore + offshore)/2)

There is also some embedded wind which is subject to the FiT scheme. But per MWh this works out at approximately the same level of subsidy as our average for on-shore and off-shore.

Roughly working out the subsidy per technology for this single Goldilocks day:

The average power output over the day for wind was 8.8GW So the total energy generated was (8.8 x 24) just over 210GWh. Our subsidy  per MWh is (1.35 x £45.58) or £61.53 per MWh. So the subsidy on 210GWH amounts to £12,921930.

That is (as near as dammit) £13 million for the day

Obviously solar only works during daylight so although there was a glut at midday of around 5GW, when averaged over the day the output was a more modest 1.5GW or 36GWh. The subsidy cost is 1.2 ROCs per MWh.

That comes out roughly £2 million for the day.

Biomass power averaged 1.4GW over the day producing 33GWh of energy. Biomass gets one ROC per MWh.

The subsidy for this single day was just over £1.5 million.

So the total subsidy was £16.5 million.

How does this compare with the total generation cost?

Now the average payment (ex-subsidy) for all generators over the day was £32.43 per MWh and the average total power was 28.4GW.  So the total cost (ex subsidy) for all the electricity generated (28.4 x 24 x 32.43) was about £22 million

Bear in mind that my back-of-a-fag-packet subsidy calculation of £16.5 million uses the latest (and smallest) FiT rates.

It is pretty clear that when you include the hidden ROC and FiT subsidies this single day of 41% penetration by Wind, Solar and Biomass came close to doubling the wholesale price of electricity.

Yet on this sunny, windy, and expensive day in April, there was also an elephant in the room.

It is an elephant whose name environmentalists dare not speak. An elephant that is shunned, ignored or pilloried.

That elephant is the UK's existing nuclear power fleet.

One that April day it continuously provided about 25% of our power or 7.3GW. It does this day in day out 24/7. Not just when there is a Goldilocks day.

There were no emissions and for existing nuclear, there are no subsidies.