Article

And, finally, there was heat and light

There is also the need to overcome outdated perceptions about different forms of energy, such as “coal is dirty”, “nuclear power is unsafe” and wind and wave can “save the world” (without doing any environmental damage). These perceptions are political bunkum, and it is depressing to see the Liberal Democrats, and even the Conservatives, pandering to such misinformation for cheap gain. Expect to hear lots of nonsense about Chernobyl, a nuclear plant that would never have seen the light of day in the West, even at that time.

After years of hot air and outdated ideas, Whitehall has hit on the right mix of energy for Britain's needs


IN ITS ENERGY Review the Government has at last faced up to serious problems in powering Britain for the next 50 years. During the past 40, governments have tried short-sightedly to pick winners in the energy stakes, be they coal, gas, nuclear or, as in the blinkered and overoptimistic 2003 review, “renewables” such as wind. Moreover, until recently, governments have been cushioned against energy realities by the resources of North Sea gas and oil. These are now squandered and declining, while our coal and nuclear power plants are ageing, so that by 2025 there will be, potentially, a 30 to 50 per cent shortfall in generating capacity.

Urgent action is required, and, although it has taken nine years, Tony Blair seems finally to have grasped that the only way to fill this gap safely and effectively is by adopting a complex mix of policies, one that encourages diverse forms of energy generation, coupled with improvements in energy efficiency. If no action is taken, it will be Hobson’s choice, and we will be increasingly dependent on up to 90 per cent imported gas from unstable states, with... more [truncated due to possible copyright]  

After years of hot air and outdated ideas, Whitehall has hit on the right mix of energy for Britain's needs
 
 
IN ITS ENERGY Review the Government has at last faced up to serious problems in powering Britain for the next 50 years. During the past 40, governments have tried short-sightedly to pick winners in the energy stakes, be they coal, gas, nuclear or, as in the blinkered and overoptimistic 2003 review, “renewables” such as wind. Moreover, until recently, governments have been cushioned against energy realities by the resources of North Sea gas and oil. These are now squandered and declining, while our coal and nuclear power plants are ageing, so that by 2025 there will be, potentially, a 30 to 50 per cent shortfall in generating capacity.

Urgent action is required, and, although it has taken nine years, Tony Blair seems finally to have grasped that the only way to fill this gap safely and effectively is by adopting a complex mix of policies, one that encourages diverse forms of energy generation, coupled with improvements in energy efficiency. If no action is taken, it will be Hobson’s choice, and we will be increasingly dependent on up to 90 per cent imported gas from unstable states, with little or no control over price. We will, effectively, become a second-class energy state, with diminishing political clout. Indeed, by 2020 the UK will represent only 1.5 per cent of world energy demand.

Attaining the right mix is not easy. The different energy companies are never good at seeing the overall picture. All of them, from gas via nuclear power to wind, overstate their cases, while opportunistically chasing taxpayers’ cash. Some of the bigger companies play many hands at once, and, as with Enron and wind power, it is revealing to uncover who holds the cards. In addition, Britain is now hoist on its own global warming rhetoric, and morally it has to be seen to be doing something about carbon emissions. The record is lamentable, with emissions rising since new Labour came to power in 1997.

There is also the need to overcome outdated perceptions about different forms of energy, such as “coal is dirty”, “nuclear power is unsafe” and wind and wave can “save the world” (without doing any environmental damage). These perceptions are political bunkum, and it is depressing to see the Liberal Democrats, and even the Conservatives, pandering to such misinformation for cheap gain. Expect to hear lots of nonsense about Chernobyl, a nuclear plant that would never have seen the light of day in the West, even at that time.

Mr Blair has been brave in issuing a review that openly acknowledges that the core of our generating capacity should be a mix of imported gas, clean coal and new nuclear power, while at the same time promoting renewables, combined heat and power, and local microgeneration (where sensible), along with increased energy efficiency. Inevitably, protagonists will want to reduce the debate to a ding-dong between nuclear power and renew ables. This would be a mistake, repeating old errors. Alistair Darling, the Trade and Industry Secretary, is correct to emphasise that the package has to be considered as a whole, and that a complex mix of coal, gas, nuclear, and renewables is the way forward. The only debate should be over the precise mix. My own choice would be 30 per cent coal, 30 per cent gas, 25 per cent nuclear, and 15 per cent renewables. However, the nature of the mix will depend on the market, the price of carbon, the price of gas and the liberalisation of the energy scene in Europe.

With respect to nuclear power, this could not be a better time to ask private industry to bid. The new plants are modular and simple in relation to older designs. For example, the modern Westinghouse AP 1000 has 50 per cent fewer valves, 35 per cent fewer pumps, and 70 per cent less cabling than its predecessors. The plant can be contained in a building half the size. This means that plants express a small environmental footprint (compare this to an extensive wind farm) and they are much safer, employing “passive” systems of control, not “active” human management. In the event of an emergency, the safety systems rely on natural forces, including gravity, circulation, and evaporation to shut itself down.

Inevitably this makes the plants cheap to make (about £400 million to 500 million), and they can be constructed in 36 to 42 months, with a productive life of 60 years. They are also highly efficient and will produce only 10 per cent of the nuclear waste of the past.

However, the main issue with the nuclear part of the mix must be to ensure that we choose just one system that can be serviced and maintained easily throughout the whole country. The European Pressurised Water Reactor (1,600 MW) would be sensible because we can share technical expertise with countries already committed to it, such as Finland and France.

The review, correctly, does not ignore coal, which still produces a third of our electricity and where scrubbing techniques, combined with the eco-friendly capture of carbon in old oil wells, could give the industry fresh acceptability. There is also an immediate need to stabilise gas prices and supplies in Europe.

By contrast, the push for renewables remains rose-tinted, with electricity companies having to provide a fifth of energy from such sources. There are unanswered environmental concerns over renewables, not least the potential ecosystem damage accompanying a tidal barrage across the Severn, and the biodiversity impact of one million acres of biofuels such as oilseed rape.

But, whatever happens now, please can we ignore the usual whingers and whiners and get on with the job of powering Britain. Give the energy market its head and allow it to work with all forms of generation. We must not go back to picking just one or two fashionable winners.

 

Philip Stott is Emeritus Professor of Biogeography of the University of London
 
 

 


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

JUL 13 2006
https://www.windaction.org/posts/3480-and-finally-there-was-heat-and-light
back to top