Memorandum from Ian Fells, CBE, FREng,
A Cloudy Energy Future
"For now we see through a glass darkly .
. ." 1 Corinthians 13.1
In 1982 Nigel Lawson, then Secretary of State
for Energy, gave a celebrated speech in Cambridge where he stated
"energy is a traded good . . . the job of government is to
remove distortions in the market place". He went on to add
gratuitously "searching for an autonomous energy policy is
like hunting the snark". Ever since then UK energy policy
has relied on a liberalised, competitive energy market "which
will ensure diverse and sustainable supplies at competitive prices".
There have been successes and failures, the price of electricity
has been driven downwards by draconian regulation until it is
much as it was in real terms thirty years ago, but R&D in
energy has been a major casualty and the "dash for gas"
is steadily eroding diversity of supply.
Abandoning control of energy policy to the market
place has raised a number of problems. The last decade has seen
the weather machine becoming steadily destabilised due to global
warming and, in particular, increased emissions of carbon dioxide
from burning fossil fuels. Unfortunately the market values the
environment at zero and will throw into it whatever it can get
away with unless stopped by legislation or encouraged not to by
the use of fiscal incentives. This involves substantial intervention
rather than the removal of "distortions in the market place"
called for by Nigel Lawson.
One of the planks of the PIU Energy Review (Performance
and Innovation Unit) is a move to a low carbon economy; no one
will disagree with this but some of the solutions presented in
the report smack of wishful thinking.
Ten per cent of electricity is to come from
renewable sources by 2010 and 20 per cent by 2020. The current
figure is 2.8 per cent, most of which comes from large scale hydro
or burning waste such as landfill gas. The PIU report postulates
that the increase will be largely provided by wind, both on and
off shore, and biomass; there are no large scale hydro sites remaining.
No engineering analysis of this proposition seems to have been
made; indeed, any attempts at "energy arithmetic" seem
not to have been attempted. For example, if all the wind farms
currently operating in the world were to be put on the South Downs,
assuming planning permission could be obtained they would generate
only 10 per cent of UK electricity! To produce just 5 per cent
of UK electricity would require two 2MW machines to be installed
every day between now and 2010, around half of them offshore.
The floating cranes necessary to install at this rate offshore
will have to be built, the undersea cabling also presents a problem.
No doubt a huge capital investment programme to provide the necessary
offshore infra structure can be mounted, but it is problematical
that the private sector will pay unless substantial price guarantees
The other problem with wind is its fickle nature;
on average, the necessary wind strength to generate electricity
is only available for one quarter of the time. It is unreliable
and back up to keep the lights on when an anticyclone is sitting
over the UK is necessary and should be factored into any economic
Accommodating any intermittent electricity source
into the grid distribution system presents considerable problems
and seems only to have been considered in the PIU report in a
tangential way. Denmark, famous for espousing the cause of wind
power and with around 14 per cent of wind electricity on its distribution
grid, has just cancelled three 150MW offshore wind farms as any
more wind power will cause serious destabilisation of their grid.
The new electricity trading arrangements (NETA) also perversely
disadvantage wind; no doubt this can be attended to.
As to biomass as a major source of electricity,
a little arithmetic shows that the whole of Kent would have to
be turned over to coppiced willow to replace half the output of
Dungeness B nuclear power station on the Kent coast.
Wind and biomass will undoubtedly play an important
part in supplying renewable power in the future but it is irresponsible
to project a role for them which is unrealistically high.
The report is remarkably downbeat about nuclear
power despite its excellent record in providing the safest substantial
contribution to energy supply that Britain has ever known. And
that is without putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. If
the current stations are de-commissioned as they come to the end
of their life, without rebuilding, we will have to replace 20
per cent of our electrical capacity by 2020, just about what renewables
will do if we meet the extremely ambitious PIU target. Then there
are the coal stations to replace, another 30 per cent of polluting
capacity. If we rebuild the nuclear stations we might just have
a chance of reducing carbon dioxide emissions with the help of
renewables but otherwise we will just replace nuclear with renewables
and mark time. Currently, carbon dioxide emission levels are rising
after a decade of reduction; they are not continuing to fall as
some ministers boast. This is the result of burning more coal
for electricity generation as gas prices have more than doubled
in the last two years and the older nuclear stations are coming
off line. Cleaner coal technology with carbon dioxide capture
could help but this technology has still to be developed.
The PIU enthusiasm for a carbon tax as an important
mechanism for reducing fossil fuel use is to be commended. But
nuclear would need, logically, to be exempt; the present absurd
situation is that the climate change levy is applied to nuclear
and large scale hydro, the two biggest providers of carbon dioxide
The availability of cheap natural gas from the
North Sea caused generators to switch from coal to natural gas
for electricity generation over the last decade, this had the
added advantage of reducing carbon dioxide emissions. It has also
had the effect of making us more and more dependent on natural
gas, just as North Sea supplies are beginning to decline. Using
DTI's own figures, we will be importing 90 per cent of our gas
requirements from Russia, Libya, the Middle East and Norway by
2020. Our electricity supply, if gas continues to supplant coal
and also replaces nuclear, will be 80 per cent dependent on imported
gas; it seems unlikely that we will build new coal-fired stations
unless the gas price goes through the roof; the old stations all
come to the end of their in the next 10 to 20 years. The PIU is
quite sanguine about this; after all, we are a trading nation
and will shop for gas around the world. There is the cost of the
five new gas inter-connectors to the continent to consider of
course but presumably the private sector will fund this if the
price is right.
The prospect of interruption of our electricity
supply by religious extremists, war or price disruption is almost
too horrendous to contemplate. Energy, and particularly electricity,
is the lifeblood of our civilisation; as communications and computers,
tube trains, lifts and lights fail as a result of actions outside
our control we quickly spiral down into chaos. At least we can
rely on coal and nuclear, provided we don't let them fade away.
A recent study by the Russian Academy of Sciences
concludes that post 2050 Russia cannot rely on its dwindling oil
and gas resources (the very gas that the UK is hoping to buy)
and they must pursue their nuclear building programme including
developing the fast reactor.
Transport, both road and air puts almost as
much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as the electricity supply
industry. The PIU are enthusiastic about hydrogen taking over
as the fuel for road transport. Fuel cells "burning"
hydrogen are at an early demonstration stage. But where is the
hydrogen to come from? Currently hydrogen is produced by reforming
natural gas or naphtha, which puts yet more carbon dioxide into
the atmosphere. Only electrolysis of water using renewable or
nuclear electricity will provide hydrogen without carbon dioxide
as a by-product. The additional electricity required to move to
a hydrogen transport economy would require a doubling of the electricity
supply system. To do this we need to start planning new nuclear
power stations now.
If the UK is to move to a low carbon economy
there are difficult decisions to be made now. Rigorous engineering
analysis must be quickly applied to the suggestions in the PIU
Energy Review to find out if they are realistically possible.
There is little point in going to consultation over a document
that contains a good deal of wishful thinking. What is already
clear by applying a little arithmetic, is that "Clean Energy"
is what is required and that means all the renewable and nuclear
energy we can muster. It is important that we try to get people
to use energy more efficiently but this has proved very difficult
in the past and changing social attitudes, getting them out of
their cars for example, is well nigh impossible. So we need to
solve the problem using new, and some old, technology. This will
require investment and free market policies will not deliver the
long term strategies required. We must move into a "post-market"