UK Using Diesel Generators To Avoid Blackouts From Too Much Wind, Solar Energy

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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Britain’s grid is in shambles and the government is subsidizing diesel generators to get enough backup power online to support the country’s growing reliance on highly variable wind and solar energy.

The United Kingdom has prided itself on being a leader in green energy, but now it may spend more than $670 million subsidizing not-so-green diesel generators to keep the lights on, according to the Financial Times.

So far, the country has 1.5 gigawatts of diesel power registered for subsidies, according to FT, which is enough to power more than 1 million homes per year. Diesel subsidies are so appealing even solar panel farms are using them to make money and keep power going when the sun isn’t shining.

“All diesel operators have to do is buy in diesel units in shipping containers from China and plug them into a grid connection,” Dave Jones, an energy expert at the firm Sandbag, told FT. “The low capital cost means that they can undercut things like gas.”

Interestingly enough, the move to diesel power comes amidst a severe energy supply crunch. Britain is closing old coal plants no longer compliant with national and European Union climate policies, which has taken lots of cheap baseload power offline.

The problem is there aren’t a lot of cheap alternatives to coal in Britain. Natural gas is expensive and green energy requires taxes to make them financially competitive with traditional energy sources. With winter coming, the UK is facing tough decisions about its energy future.

Concerns about grid reliability came to light Wednesday when the National Grid begged for more power generation capacity to come online after “multiple plant breakdowns” caused a supply crunch.

“This is part of our standard toolkit for balancing supply and demand and is not an indication there is an immediate risk of disruption to supply or blackouts. It indicates that we would like our power held in reserve to be higher,” National Grid said in a public statement.

The grid needed more than 500 megawatts of additional capacity to come online — for reference, that’s equivalent to asking three or four coal-fired generators to come online.

High energy prices and grid reliability problems have largely turned Brits away from green energy. The country’s conservative government has even pledged to phase out green subsidies in response to political backlash against higher taxes on citizens’ energy bills.

“By the mid-2020s, we would like to see the government retreat as much as is possible from [renewable energy] subsidies, the current administration is aiming to be more discriminating about the types of low-carbon technology it wishes to support,” Stephen Lovegrove, the head of Britain’s Department of Energy and Climate Change, said in October.

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