A standard criticism of wind and solar power is that they are intermittent energy sources and depend on blowing wind or shining sun in order to produce energy. Because of this, traditional power plants like coal, gas, and nuclear are still required as baseload sources that can be relied on to generate 24 hours a day. This relationship is changing as renewable energy storage improves, baseload renewable sources like geothermal and hydropower are further incorporated, and smart grid technology enhances deployment. In the U.K. this week the tables have temporarily turned as wind power is replacing an unanticipated lack of nuclear generation from the nation’s grid.
On Monday, EDF Energy announced it was shutting down four of its U.K. reactors, or around a quarter of its total nuclear generating capacity, after a defect had been found on the boiler spine of a reactor. The company decided to take the “conservative decision” to shut down three other reactors, though no radioactive release or injuries were reported. The reactors are expected to remain closed for about two months. EDF, a French state-owned utility, said the current closures should not effect the U.K.’s energy supply thanks to the low-demand summer season and “a lot of wind power that is being generated right now.”
While new onshore and offshore wind farms are emerging in the U.K. at a regular clip there hasn’t been a new nuclear power station in a generation. This recent abrupt and simultaneous closure of four plants highlights the challenges facing an aging fleet. The four EDF reactors under investigation were commissioned in 1983 and are officially scheduled to be taken out of service in 2019.
“If this fault is as a result of the aging of the unit, this has potential implications for the operational life of these four units and, potentially, others as well,” Antony Froggatt, a nuclear analyst at Chatham House, a London research organization, told the New York Times.
On Sunday the U.K set a new record for wind power generation, with wind accounting for seventeen percent of national demand. On Sunday night wind generated an average of five gigawatts of power over an hour-long period, far more than coal’s 3.2 gigawatt contribution. Natural gas and nuclear generated the bulk of the supply, providing 30 percent and 27 percent respectively. According to recent government figures, the U.K. generated around 15 percent of its power from renewable sources in 2013, an increase of nearly one-third from 2012’s 11.3 percent. Wind power showed the biggest increase, rising from six percent to nine percent. More than 900 wind turbines were installed in 2013.
Wind farms in France and Ireland could soon benefit from the U.K. government’s commitment to wind. U.K. ministers want to extend financial incentives to companies building wind, solar, and even nuclear plants in France and Ireland that would otherwise be uneconomical in the immediate short-term but make sense as long-term investments to reduce greenhouse gases and improve energy security.
EDF Energy Renewables is EDF Group’s U.K. renewable energy development company. According to the company website, EDF Energy Renewables currently has enough electricity to power 298,200 homes across the U.K. The company is also active in North America, and recently announced a 96 percent stake in a 175 megawatt wind project near Chicago that comes with a 20-year Power Purchase Agreement with Microsoft Corporation.