Friday, March 28, 2008

Tyranny of the Installed Base

The ESB got a lot of publicity for their announcement yesterday that they will invest €22 billion over the next twelve years in a plan which "will establish ESB as a world class renewables company, makes emissions reduction and energy efficiency central to its ambitious targets". Now €22 billion is a lot of money to you, me and our next door neighbours, but let's keep it in perspective: it's less than the amount Irish consumers borrowed just to buy houses over the past sixteen months. Frankly, €22 billion over 12 years is simply not enough relative to the scale of the task that we face.

More worrying perhaps is the ESB's politically correct plan that:
By 2020, ESB will be delivering one-third of its electricity from renewable generation. This will include over 1,400 megawatts of wind generation, in addition to wave, tidal and biomass. To promote this, the company will invest in emerging green technologies.
Now I'm all in favour of renewable, clean technology: let a thousand wind turbines bloom and all that. But it simply isn't enough. First of all, most of the ESB's 1,400 megawatts is going to come from wind generation. The token genuflection towards wave and tidal is just that: a wishful prayer to imaginary abstractions that simply don't exist yet. If you don't believe me read the European Commission's Technology Map report that was prepared as an input into its Strategy Energy Technology Plan. Ocean power is up their with nuclear fusion: a great idea whose time has not yet come and won't for the foreseeable future.

So back to wind: and that's the scary bit. Go to Eirgrid's web site and click on the Wind Generation Chart. Then use the little calendar application to pull up data for Saturday, 16th February 2008 (that's right, last month). During the entire day of the 16th February, our installed wind generation capacity of over 1,000 megawatts was unable to supply even as much as 80 megawatts of electricity - or 8% of capacity. And in 12 year's time ESB wants to expose one third of its generation capacity to wind. You see the problem?

As I've noted before, we face daunting energy challenges - demanding radical innovations in how we generate, distribute and use energy. The ESB's politically correct bromide does not rise to that challenge, rather it dodges the big issue: nuclear power. In the short term we can hope that one or more East-West interconnectors with the UK mainland grid will keep our lights on when the wind doesn't blow (after 2012 anyway). But the UK faces its own energy challenges - and there is no guarantee that they will have any 'spare' capacity to send our way in ten year's time.

Matt Cooper has a thoughtful opinion piece in today's Irish Examiner setting out the case for nuclear power in Ireland - or at least the need to debate it. But in the end I think we will be victims of what in the IT sector they call 'the tyranny of the installed base'. In other words, if you and all your colleagues are used to IBM hardware and Microsoft software then it's hard to change to something else. In the case of energy, we face the tyranny of an installed base of coal and gas fired power stations and an expanding wind sector. We need them - but we also need the base load, non-fossil fuel, non-wind dependent certainty of nuclear power. We'll get British nuclear power over the interconnector to begin with, but ultimately we'll have to generate our own.

Unfortunately that's when our problems will really start. Ireland's biggest problem regarding nuclear power is that we don't already have it. In other words, we don't have the engineers, suppliers, know-how and networks that would help us expand to meet demand. It takes more effort (energy if you will) to get from nought to sixty than from sixty to one hundred.

And by the way: only one company - in Japan - has a near global monopoly on manufacturing key components of nuclear power stations - and they have back orders out to 2015. Maybe we should place our orders now and have our debate in the meantime? The queue's only going to get longer. A lot longer.


  1. Good post. I had a thought on wind energy the other day. I have sailed many times in both the med and the west coast of ireland and there is a particular difference in the wind that may have large ramifications for wind generation. The difference is not the average wind speed but the wind regularity. On continental landmasses the winds are primarily some form of katabatic wind, i.e. they are caused by the interaction of sea and land. This makes them very regular and dependent - to the point where the locals have given them names depending on the timing and direction, mistral, bora etc.

    Out here on the perimeter there is very little land so all our wind is based on what arrives accross the atlantic which is almost entirely random. So while our average speeds might be competitive - the sheer unpredictability and randomness means that there will always be days like feb 16th.

    The point being - how do we base our electricity on a geography that makes it entirely unpredictable and irregular?

  2. I've never heard that point made before - thanks for the info. My limited sailing experience has been on the east coast so how would I know?!

  3. Another problem with Ireland and Nuclear is the size of the country and the nature of our electricty grid.

    For instance about 2-3 nuclear power stations equal to the new finish one could power our entire country. Now Nuclear power stations have an uptime in a good day of about 60% so that would mean if one station goes down. we would lose 1/3 ish of our power. To bring that in power in from britain and distribute it quickly is a massive task and require alot of investment in undersea cabling and the like. It is far more complicated then Matt Coopers article suggests.

  4. Interesting point about the uptime of nuclear power Simon. I don't think anyone is proposing 3 nuclear power stations for Ireland (at least not yet).

    One nuclear powerstation providing a supporting base load along side gas, (clean) coal and wind + an interconnector should suffice for the foreseeable future. I'm more worried about the forecast wind capacity of nearly 3,000 MW by 2014 (according to Eirgrid) and the 'opportunity cost' that will entail in terms of the more reliable generation capacity we could have otherwise installed.

    We need wind: but the risks associated with that kind of installed capacity with such unreliability is a concern.

  5. Due to the problem of wind intermittency, no conventional generating capacity can be closed down and more will probably have to be provided.

    EON Netz in Germany operate the largest network of wind turbines in Europe and the company has twice warned that between 80% and 90% of their installed wind capacity will have to be backed up by generating capacity from conventional power stations. This statement reads:

    "Consequently, traditional power stations with capacities equal to 90% of the installed wind power capacity must be permanently online in order to guarantee power supplies at all times."


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