Article

Black to the future

Forget about wind farms and nuclear power stations. The answer to Britain's looming energy crisis could be cheap, plentiful and planet-friendly coal ...The problem for the politicians is that there are conflicting imperatives and no consensus on what should be done - you would more easily achieve agreement on the existence of God. It is not so much a debate as an aural riot, voices shouting against one another like dealers on a trading floor. All claim to be driven by high principle. All promise "sustainable" energy and low carbon emissions. But no lobby ever changes another's mind, and all argue that the best chance for mankind lies in whatever technology they happen to be commercially, professionally or ideologically attached to. Various hard-hat divisions are gung-ho for coal, gas or nuclear. Greens bicker over wind (onshore and off), biofuels, tidal and wave. They pelt each other with wattages, price projections, bar charts, climate forecasts and abuse. Onshore wind power to the hard-hats lies somewhere between Blue Peter and a money-laundering scam. Nuclear to the bean-eaters is the final phase in the Fall of Man. Everyone speaks, nobody listens, and the government calls for yet more talks.

At 16 minutes after midday on October 17, 1956, at Calder Hall in Cumberland, the Queen pulled a lever and declared open the world's first nuclear power station. In a high wind that crackled the pages of her script, she spoke of the "limitless opportunities which providence has given us", and predicted that the peaceful application of nuclear power would be "among the greatest of our contributions to human welfare". When the cheering died down, men with watch chains spoke of "epoch-making" events, and "energy too cheap to meter".

Fifty-nine years later, in 2015, someone in the UK will flick a switch and nothing will happen. Eight years from now, the country will have only a fraction of the power it needs. Towns and cities blank out as the National Grid fizzles and dies. Pensioners die of cold, then putrefy in unchilled mortuaries. The only light comes from families burning their furniture. Streets after dark belong to armed gangs operating black markets in everything from clean water to butchered pets. Shop staff flee as customers brawl in the aisles over torch batteries and out-of-date Pot Noodles. The prime minister declares a national state of emergency but nobody hears him.

Fantasy it... more [truncated due to possible copyright]  

At 16 minutes after midday on October 17, 1956, at Calder Hall in Cumberland, the Queen pulled a lever and declared open the world's first nuclear power station. In a high wind that crackled the pages of her script, she spoke of the "limitless opportunities which providence has given us", and predicted that the peaceful application of nuclear power would be "among the greatest of our contributions to human welfare". When the cheering died down, men with watch chains spoke of "epoch-making" events, and "energy too cheap to meter".

Fifty-nine years later, in 2015, someone in the UK will flick a switch and nothing will happen. Eight years from now, the country will have only a fraction of the power it needs. Towns and cities blank out as the National Grid fizzles and dies. Pensioners die of cold, then putrefy in unchilled mortuaries. The only light comes from families burning their furniture. Streets after dark belong to armed gangs operating black markets in everything from clean water to butchered pets. Shop staff flee as customers brawl in the aisles over torch batteries and out-of-date Pot Noodles. The prime minister declares a national state of emergency but nobody hears him.

Fantasy it may be, but it's hardly more preposterous than the government's faith in miracles. Somehow, it seems to think, by native genius, good luck and the glad hand of beneficent world markets, the looming energy deficit will not take so much as a kettle off the boil. It invites us to have faith in the power of prayer. North Sea oil and gas are running out and world oil stocks are falling. The UK's last few nuclear plants are of interest only to demolition contractors; so are its older coal-fired power stations. A third of the UK's current generating capacity will be out of use by the middle of the next decade. International supplies of natural gas will be controlled by unstable countries on the wrong side of the ideological divide, while worldwide demand will soar. Sellers, not buyers, will rule the market. We'll be okay, though. We can cover the fields in windmills; burn straw and cow dung; dam a few estuaries...

The problem for the politicians is that there are conflicting imperatives and no consensus on what should be done - you would more easily achieve agreement on the existence of God. It is not so much a debate as an aural riot, voices shouting against one another like dealers on a trading floor. All claim to be driven by high principle. All promise "sustainable" energy and low carbon emissions. But no lobby ever changes another's mind, and all argue that the best chance for mankind lies in whatever technology they happen to be commercially, professionally or ideologically attached to. Various hard-hat divisions are gung-ho for coal, gas or nuclear. Greens bicker over wind (onshore and off), biofuels, tidal and wave. They pelt each other with wattages, price projections, bar charts, climate forecasts and abuse. Onshore wind power to the hard-hats lies somewhere between Blue Peter and a money-laundering scam. Nuclear to the bean-eaters is the final phase in the Fall of Man. Everyone speaks, nobody listens, and the government calls for yet more talks.

The problem is easily stated. On current trends, the world will need 50% more energy in 2030 than it does today, which is a lot more than it's got in the tank. Worse: energy-related emissions of greenhouse gases by then will be 55% higher, which means we'll fry our grandchildren if not ourselves. These, I should say, are the government's own figures, published in this year's energy white paper, not some doodle on a muesli packet by the People's Yoghurt Collective. To keep itself humming, and to compensate for the exhaustion of North Sea oil and the closure of power stations, the UK pretty desperately needs a strategy. For all its length (342 pages), the white paper is much more about "need to do" than "how to do". It leaves that to "UK companies", which will "need to make substantial new investment in power stations, the electricity grid, and gas infrastructure". On how that investment is to be assured, or even encouraged, it remains largely mute (carbon-trading schemes are its best shot).

Top of the "need to" list by around 2015 is finding another 30-35 gigawatts of power. If electricity were a solid substance you could visualise, you'd be looking at a mountain. A gigawatt is 1,000m watts - enough to meet the peak load of 130,000 average British households. Simple arithmetic says we'll be short of 4.55m homes' worth if nothing is done in time. And power stations are not all we need. To keep the furnaces hot, the government reckons that by 2020 we'll need to increase our "gas import capacity" by 15-30%. Which means doing deals with countries having "gas export capacity" that we can afford to buy. Norway can supply part of it, but that still leaves a lot to be met from other sources. As most of these - in the Middle East, North Africa, Russia, Iran - are not famous for their stability, reliability or goodwill to the British, and because we will be bidding for their limited output in competition with America, our European neighbours and the fired-up economies of India and China, buying gas is not going to be a simple matter of phoning in the weekly order. The term most often used to describe the likely outcome is "price-shock".

Keeping the power on is only half the challenge. The other half is reducing greenhouse emissions. Indeed, "environmental protection" heads the government's table of priorities, ahead of security of supply and affordable energy. It's as if forward and reverse gears have to be engaged simultaneously, with no loss of momentum or swerving off the highway. On current evidence, this will require a more skilful driver than the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Berr, the thinly disguised successor to that world champion procrastinator, the Department of Trade and Industry).

Statistics thud like dough into the brain, impossible to digest. The UK and EU between them have signed up to the inevitable think-of-a-number targets. Britain is supposed to produce 10% of its electricity from renewable sources (wind and tide, etc) by 2010, 15% by 2015 and 20% by 2020. At the moment we are managing just 4%. At the same time, it proposes (one can hardly say "plans") a 26-32% reduction in carbon emissions by 2020, and 60% by 2050 (both against a 1990 baseline). The European Union, meanwhile, is looking for a 20% cut in total energy consumption (not just electricity) by 2020. Hands up anyone who can pick their way through that lot and come out the other end with all boxes ticked and the lights still on.

Officials in the former DTI told ministers earlier this year that Britain had no chance of meeting the EU's 2020 energy target, and suggested they should use "statistical interpretations" (ie, spin the figures) to get out of it. There is, in short, an orthodoxy of hopelessness in which wriggling deputises for action. The only excuse offered by friends of the civil service is that ministers failed to understand the difference between "electricity" and "total energy", and that Tony Blair thought it was safe to back unattainable targets because the French and Polish would block them (they didn't).

Three ideological war zones stand in the way of concerted effort. The major battle, green dragon versus red, sets "renewable" against "conventional" power - good versus bad, or whimsy versus science, depending on which flag you salute. The other two conflicts, more messily, are strike-from-the-hills skirmishes between subdivisions of the greens and reds - onshore versus offshore wind; wind versus tide; tide versus wave; wave versus biomass; biomass versus solar; all these versus coal, gas and oil, and the whole lot versus nuclear. Some of these are nudged forward by government subsidies, carbon trading and tax breaks; others are driven by the market, or are hanging on to ground they already hold. Most are held up by shortfalls in investment or research, or by long delays in the planning system or difficulties in connecting to the National Grid.

Nor are these the only contradictions. When burnt as fuel, for example, municipal waste counts as a renewable resource and helps the government meet its renewables target. But this diverts stuff that might be composted, re-used or recycled, and threatens recycling targets. And here comes the EU, wanting 10% of all transport fuel consumption in Europe to be from biofuels by 2020. This sounds as green as springtime, but alas...

With world population increasing, and cropping areas being reduced by climate change, we can ill afford to take land out of food production to grow fuel for cars. Worse: when forests are felled to clear ground for biofuel crops (typically oil-palm), the intended reduction in carbon emissions not only fails to happen but is thrown into reverse. Forest trees absorb nine times more CO2 per hectare than biofuel crops do. There is no such thing as a free tankful, and it confronts us with the ultimate contradiction - an environmental policy that actually makes global warming worse. Ten million hectares of rainforest have been sacrificed in Sumatra and Borneo, and the 5.5m already lost in Indonesia will rise to 16.5m.

Back on the green and pleasant hills of Scotland, Wales and England, the two most divisive issues are wind and nuclear. Onshore wind farms have a good stiff breeze of green opinion behind them, but there is a green tinge to the opposition too - it is argued, with some vehemence, that wind turbines are noisy, ugly and disruptive to wildlife. The Renewable Energy Foundation (Ref) complains of a "widespread and unplanned industrialisation of the countryside", and "a developer-led feeding frenzy that is neither green nor sustainable". The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) warns that "decisions based on flaws in the current wind farm planning regime could spoil fine upland landscapes and leave areas of ‘ordinary' lowland countryside marred by multitudes of turbines". It will oppose large-scale developments anywhere near areas of outstanding natural beauty or national parks - which of course includes many of the upland areas where potential for wind energy is greatest.

Though it is withdrawing its mystifying claim that "the UK has 40% of Europe's entire wind resource", the British Wind Energy Association (BWEA) refuses to give ground. It supports with a blizzard of statistics its claim that, with a nationwide total of 5,000 turbines - a prospect that shocks landscape campaigners - onshore wind could provide 10% of Britain's electricity by 2020. There is a titanic clash over the economics. Critics argue that tradeable Renewables Obligation Certificates, introduced by the government to encourage carbon-free energy, have created an artificial market that disproportionately benefits onshore wind at the expense of others. The energy regulator Ofgem, the Carbon Trust and Ref are all demanding change; so, in its Blueprint for a Green Economy, published in September, did the Conservative party's quality-of-life policy group.

This is just one muddle among many. Every technology has its advocates and its raspberry-blowers. Like pantomime dames, the parties have thrown themselves into a yes-we-can, no-you-can't hissing contest. Given such a parade of prancing hypotheses, in which untried theories and unprovable projections glitter like sequins, it is difficult for us to suspend our disbelief.

We know the lights are going to dim; we don't know who's going to turn them on again, though we have our suspicions. Tony Blair, before he left Downing Street, set the nuclear hare racing again, and most people - supporters and opponents alike - suspect a new crop of reactors is now inevitable. Environmental groups, including WWF, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, have rejected the latest round of consultations as "a sham".

Conspiracy theorists believe the government's entire performance - the absence of leadership and lack of urgency; the disproportionate amount of support given to fringe technologies - is explicable only if it has been a deliberate ploy designed to leave nuclear the only viable option. If so, the conspirators have botched it. It will take an extended period of political foreplay before anything like a nuclear policy emerges; then the siting, planning, financing and construction of new power stations will take far too long to fill any shortfall by 2015. You need a long-term policy for that kind of thing; and the problem now is short-term and immediate. Like it or not, onshore wind farms will plug part of the gap; so will offshore wind. The Severn barrage - theoretically capable of supplying 5% of the country's electricity - yet again is under review, but faces opposition from environmentalists who fear damage to the ecosystem. Other renewables may contribute their mite.

In all this Ref sees only futility. Its policy and research director, John Constable, complains that the government, in pursuit of its environmental targets, has placed far too much emphasis on electricity. Energy is not just electricity, he says, and power generation is not the only source of greenhouse gas. Electricity accounts for only around 17% of the UK's energy consumption, and power stations contribute only 29% of its carbon. He argues that transport emissions are not only as damaging as those from power stations but are actually getting worse - vehicles may be getting more efficient, but the growth in number more than wipes out any gain from cleaner engines. Air travel, too, is increasing and - for all the talk of zero carbon - the government's housing target (4m new homes by 2020) will give the biosphere another big hit of CO2. Meanwhile, India and China are adding to the global overload exponentially faster than the UK's puny attempt to reduce it. China alone is adding two new dirty, old-fashioned coal-fired power stations every week. "Against this background," says Ref, "the present renewables policy seems practically irrelevant."

"In view of the fact that the UK produces only 2% of the world's emissions, it is axiomatic that our policy should aim to provide a qualitative rather than a quantitative example. It is only by providing an economically compelling lead that we can hope to draw the developing world with us... Self-harm in the UK will be a poor advertisement for clean energy."

So what can we agree upon? If we ignore the zealots who believe that either wind or nuclear could provide a full and permanent solution, then there is a consensus on two important points. No single technology offers a complete answer, so there will have to be diversity. And the mix will have to include conventional power stations. If we ignore the government and listen to the professionals, another truth emerges. As Dr Paul Golby, chief executive of the UK branch of the energy giant E.ON puts it, "It's five minutes to midnight and the clock is still ticking." If we don't agree a plan of action before the witching hour, then the 2015 energy gap will not be filled.

It's already too late for nuclear (though Golby insists it must have a role in the longer term), and it's beyond the scope of renewables to do the job on their own. If the lights are going to stay on, then the "substantial new investments" the government wants from UK companies will have to be made pretty damn quick. But no company is going to chance its millions unless it can be sure of a return - impossible without government assurances and, in the case of low-carbon technology, enforcement by law. Golby agrees that currently there is "no coherent energy policy that allows companies to invest".

"We have to make some big long-term decisions," he says, "and we need to make them quickly, because a third of our generating capacity will be lost in the next decade or so." This is the plughole around which uncertainty swirls. If the government expects industry to provide, but industry lacks the confidence to oblige, then the whole "policy" goes down the drain. "The broad dilemma," says David Kerr, who chairs the Institution of Civil Engineers' (ICE) energy panel, "is that the government have said they are determined to have a wholly market policy. Only time will tell if that will provide security. Some people take the view that that's too high a risk."

Given what is at stake - ie, pretty much the whole apparatus of life as we know it - time seems a particularly chancy arbiter. Every passing day now limits the options. What Paul Golby most dreads is what the white paper and ticking clock now make most likely - a renewed "dash for gas". In lieu of any determined effort to develop alternatives, gas is the default mode - Ref, too, believes it is now "all but unavoidable". The technology is proven (70% of our electricity is generated this way) and there is - just - time to build more before we have to switch ourselves off. But the risks are enormous.

It would mean placing our fate - economy, health, lifestyle, everything - in the hands of people who, at best, are ambivalent, and at worst hostile to our national interest. Vladimir Putin has already shown the potency of gas as a political and economic weapon against Ukraine, and neither Russia nor any other country with its finger on the valve is going to pass up an opportunity to assert itself. Starving us of gas would do far more damage than bombing the London Underground. It needn't even look like an act of war - just the normal operation of a market in which the UK government has voluntarily placed its trust. Free markets are economic Darwinism: they are genetically programmed to ensure their own survival, but otherwise are directionless and blind to government objectives. Markets produce winners and losers. What complaint would we have if we found ourselves among the latter?

Going down this route, says Golby, would be "foolhardy". Neither would it do much for the biosphere. "We have to remember," he says, "that gas is half as dirty as the average coal-fired station." Which is very dirty indeed, and which makes all the more surprising the enthusiasm that Golby and others profess for the fuel they think should drive us into the future.

Coal. The very same filthy fossil fuel, dirtiest of them all, that powered the industrial revolution and let global warming out of its cage. The very same that rotted miners' lungs, blotted out the sun and choked London with smog. The very same that still generates a third of the UK's electricity and which David Kerr describes, for all the above reasons, as an "undesirable trend". And yet coal has a lot going for it. The domestic industry may have been Thatchered into the ground, and 80% of our supplies may now be imported, but coal worldwide is plentiful and can be sourced from countries in Europe and the Americas which are far better disposed towards us than the gas merchants of the East.

But nobody wants to fill the air with smoke. Atmospheric pollution was a public enemy long before climate change became an issue, and there can be no going back to it. If coal is to resume its historic role, then it will have to clean up its act. And this is exactly what Golby and others propose. "Clean coal technology" (CCT) is not an oxymoron. Various processes that can be summarised as "carbon capture and storage" (CCS) have been designed to do exactly what the name suggests - remove or intercept CO2 from coal and store it deep underground. It can be done before combustion by a gasification process, or afterwards by stripping carbon from flue gas. The efficacy of the technique has been shown in small-scale trials, but high development costs are holding it back commercially and it's not something "the market" can afford to deliver.

Yet Golby, head of Britain's biggest gas and electricity company, is unequivocal: "I believe that this is one of the really critical technologies," he says. "Unless we can solve the problem of coal, we are going to lose the climate-change battle." It is a problem that extends far beyond the UK's ability to power itself sustainably. China and India are going to burn coal - more and more of it - come what may, and unless a way can be found to cut their carbon emissions, and those of every other coal-burning economy, nothing we do in Britain is going significantly to impede humanity's march to self-immolation. "It will require an international effort not dissimilar to the US putting a man on the moon," says Golby. "It will take tens of billions of pounds. Some of it will come from industry. Some will have to come from governments."

So what would it take to get it off the ground in the UK?

"The government would have to support the first one or two development plants." Ref, too, argues that the Renewables Obligation has placed too much emphasis on renewables and has diverted attention and investment away from technologies such as clean coal. Under-investment in energy research, it says, is "a national disgrace". Neither is it impressed by the government's intention, announced in the white paper, to launch a competition "to demonstrate commercial-scale CCS on power generation in the UK". Not only is this a waste of taxpayers' money, says John Constable, but it could actually retard investment by making CCS look like an immature technology in need of development. "We don't need to see whether we can capture carbon dioxide from power stations," he says. "We know we can. We don't need a competition. We just need to get on with it."

For many others, the principal lunacy of the UK's position is not that it ignores the potential for clean energy from imported coal, but rather that it ignores the wealth under its own feet. Accounts vary. One expert tells me that 75% of the coal that ever existed in the UK still lies undisturbed - a buried mountain of pent-up energy that could fuel the country for centuries. Another says the likelier figure is 98%. Either way, it's a lot of coal. The problem, of course, is getting at it. If it was easily accessible, then the whole energy equation might look rather different. Coal would still be king, and CCS would be a no-brainer.

But there is a powerful body of opinion that says not only that much of it is accessible, but that it can be extracted with minimum environmental impact - ie, without open-cast mining - and with great benefit to national security and the carbon economy. The key to it is "underground coal gasification" (UCG), a technique devised by the Scottish chemist Sir William Ramsay. The Coal Authority thumbnails it as "a method of converting unworked coal deep underground into a combustible gas", which, through CCS, contains no CO2. The result is "clean energy with minimal greenhouse emissions".

A few minutes' Googling will provide technical detail for those who want it - for a simplified account, see the diagram on page 83. It's enough to know that the plant is more like an oil rig than an old-fashioned coal mine, and so is much smaller and less intrusive; that it taps previously unmineable reserves, including those under the sea; and that the technology has been proved by trials in Europe, America and the old Soviet Union (which actually employed it for energy production in the 1970s - at least one plant in Uzbekistan is still operational). Most coal-producing countries, including India, China, South Africa and Australia, are working towards UCG, but the UK once again lags behind. It has not always done so. The old DTI for a while was a world leader whose guidance on UCG had near-biblical status.

But somewhere, somehow, there has been a change of policy or personnel, and the emphasis is now all on gas and nuclear.

This seems no less extraordinary to energy professionals than it does to laymen. "The government should be putting a big push at getting gasification technology on the road," says the ICE's David Kerr. "It's the most promising technology currently available," says Graham Chapman, managing director of the energy consultant Energy Edge. Since 2005, the campaign to promote UCG, both in the UK and worldwide, has been led by the UCG Partnership, an independent organisation in Woking, Surrey, whose members include oil and gas companies, banks, regional development agencies, universities and governments.

One of its two founding directors, Rohan Courtney, quotes the British Geological Survey, which concluded that UCG could unlock an extra 17 billion tonnes of indigenous coal - enough for another 300 years at current rates of consumption. (Compare this with the range of 200m to 2,000m tonnes estimated for "mineable" reserves). Like a schoolmaster delivering a favourite lesson, Courtney runs through the advantages at dictation speed. UCG does not suffer from the same negative public image as coal mining. It does not endanger lives underground; does not ruin the countryside; does not involve high transport and labour costs. Production, too, would cost less than either mining coal or buying oil and gas from elsewhere. We would have security of supply.

"We own the coal," says Courtney. "We would not be subject to market forces on the price of importing energy, high transport costs and the political risks of purchasing oil, gas or coal from a country with a different agenda." Instead of importing, we could export the technology. Best of all, with directional drilling, UCG can be used under the sea. Rich seams lie under the Firth of Forth and southern North Sea - at least five billion tonnes, and possibly much more.

At the current rate of progress, one cannot be optimistic that the Queen will reign long enough to celebrate the limitless opportunities of providence from an offshore coal-rig. The hills and seas will bristle with turbines. The Scottish Highlands will wear a new woolly coat of willow, grown for biofuel. Municipal garbage, straw, animal dung and wood-waste will be shovelled into furnaces. The arguments over nuclear power will rage on into the darkening night. A few of us in our homes will tinker with solar panels, wind generators and geothermal heat pumps. The price of gas will make us wince.

And all the time, as the power ebbs and, just possibly, flows, the climate poisoned by junkyard technology will be cracking its knuckles. Five minutes to midnight? If only it were that early.

Pipe dreams

GAS With North Sea gas supplies dwindling, the government says that by 2020 we'll need to import 15-30% more gas. Notable exporters include Russia, the Middle East and North Africa - not renowned for their love of Britain

NUCLEAR POWER Championed by Tony Blair, nuclear power stations and waste-storage facilities require planning

WIND TURBINES Many more new wind farms like one in South Lanarkshire will have to be built if the government is to meet its target of generating 10% of UK electricity from renewable sources by 2010. With three years to go, the figure is just 4%

BIOFUELS The European Union wants 10% of all transport fuel consumption in Europe to be from biofuels - fuels derived from biological material, such as hemp - by 2020. But land is needed to grow food for the world's growing population, and felling trees to grow biofuels makes global warming worse.


Source: http://www.timesonline.co.u...

OCT 14 2007
https://www.windaction.org/posts/11438-black-to-the-future
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