David Banks: No excuse for dumping excess energy

Radio Four’s Inside Science programme revealed that excess engery is just being dumped. David Banks ponders what can be done about it

Wind turbines
Wind turbines

In our house we call them “Ulrika Moments”: earth-moving, seismic shifts which in my case invariably occur in the bedroom and cause me to shout out with pleasure.

I am often unaware of these rum goings-on until I am made to endure the bitter, morning-after pill of interrogation from my gimlet-eyed sleeping partner.

“Were you dreaming about that Swedish TV blonde again last night?” she once dem­and­­ed, glaring at me over our morning tea.

“You sat bolt upright at three this morning, shouted ‘Ulrika!’ and then went back to sleep with a silly smile on your face. What was all THAT about?”

I hastily (and rather cunningly) got out of THAT one by explaining that ’Er In Bed had broken my dream: the word I had shouted was “Eureka” in Archimedean excitement at having discovered a method of storing renewable energy that would otherwise have gone to waste.

Naturally, like every other Ulrika Moment I’ve had, this one was only fun while my eyes were tight shut.

Come the dawn, my mile-long solenoid wrapped in copper wire to capture all that wind power from Klondike’s turbines had, like my imaginary relationship with Ms Jonsson, be­­come an unworkable dream.

The excuse for this clueless journalist’s poor grasp of physics is shared, disturbingly, by 639 of our 640 MPs, who while away weeks at Westminster producing hot air and poor decisions on the subject of cold air and wind turbines. Equally worryingly, no member of the Cabinet has a science degree. There is no doubt, however, that we do need to find means of storing wind and solar-produced power.

For those sorts of facts I plagiarised Radio Four’s excellent Inside Science programme (see, I TOLD you I’m a journalist).

The latest programme revealed that, on a single day last August, so much excess power was produced that, while the blades at 28 Scottish wind farms continued to turn, the National Grid “pulled the plug”, effectively paying the energy companies a total of £2m for power that would never be used.

Such outrageous information is grist to the mill for the Byreman and that barmy band of brothers whose main argument against turbines runs: “What happens when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow?” Light the blue touchpaper and watch the Byreman blaze!

But greater scientific minds than ours are working on storage solutions. Instead of dumping excess energy, argues Dr Tim Fox, energy expert at the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, why not use the power to pump water uphill, filling manmade reservoirs which would, during power shortages, run back downhill onto turbines, producing hydroelectricity?

What’s not to admire about such radical thinking?

Half a dozen Kielder Waters along the Pennine Chain offering tourist facilities AND round-the-clock power.

Love them or hate them, renewables will have to play a part in producing power for a nation which is perilously close to maximum output.

Three years ago, peak winter demand still left 26% power in reserve; this winter we will have less than 5% in the reserve tank, and there is serious talk of planned blackouts.

It will be a reminder of Edward Heath’s battle with the unions back in the Seventies which produced power cuts and a three-day week for many.

My solution, now as then? Snuggle down under the duvet to keep myself warm.



David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
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