Select Committee on Welsh Affairs Written Evidence

Written Evidence from Paul Spare


  I have prepared the submission below answering the main points in the order of the listing. I shall concentrate on the supply of electricity since it is my considered opinion it is the most critical energy source. It cannot be replaced for most application, it cannot be stored and it affects almost every function in an advanced society, eg financial transactions, food supply/distribution, health and education services, water supply/sewage, domestic life and heating.

1.   Future Energy Needs and Provisions

  The population of Wales is about 3 million and electricity consumption about 5% of the UK total. Electricity consumption is therefore likely to be about 22 TWh by the end of the decade. Although there have been many save-it an economy campaigns in the last 30 years, they have had a negligible impact on consumption. It continues to increase in Wales as in England and most European countries at about 1-2% per annum.

  The main sectors in which Wales can provide a respectable proportion of its own requirements are:

    —  Electricity from nuclear plants;

    —  Coal;

    —  Wind power;

    —  Hydroelectric;

    —  possibly wave power.

  Coal, nuclear power and hydro plants have made very substantial contributions in past decades and should be utilised in similar ways in the future.

2.   UK Government and the National Assembly for Wales

  The National Grid control and distribution system has worked very well for the last 50 years and must continue largely unchanged. The responsibilities of the Assembly should therefore be subservient in most respects to the policy for the UK, although there could be some second tier issues handled by the Assembly.

3.   The current and future portfolio of energy provision in Wales

  I should like to offer my submission on the above topics in a slightly different order.

(a)  Nuclear Energy

  The Wylfa Magnox plant on Anglesey has been operating for over 30 years. It produces about one third of the electricity used in the Principality. The Magnox nuclear plant at Trawsfynnydd was closed about 10 years ago and is part way through decommissioning. Wylfa produces less than 1% of the CO2 produced by the equivalent coal plant. It will probably be closed in less than 10 years. A similar vary large reliable source of greenhouse gas free generation is needed if the CO2 emissions from Wales are not to increase very substantially,

  It would appear highly desirable to undertake feasibility studies for a second nuclear plant at Wylfa to begin generating when Wylfa closes. The infrastructure required for continued generation is there, the highly experienced and motivated workforce is available. A second plant will provide high quality, secure and safe employment for a range of occupations until well past the middle of this century.

  The annual electrical output from Wylfa is approximately:

  1,081 x 1,000 x 0.8 x 24 x 365 = 7.6 x 109 kWhr = 7.6 TWhr.

  A typical 1.5 MW wind turbine produces about produces about 3.3 GWhr per year (8,760 hours and 25% of full output). It would therefore take about 2,300 large wind turbines to achieve the same quantity of carbon-free generation. Such turbines would have to be backed up by substantial fossil-fuelled plant to cope with winter anti-cyclones or other periods of poor performance.

(b)  Clean Coal

  Coal use in the UK is about 30 million tons indigenous and about the same imported. On a pro rata basis, about three million tons of home produced coal would be required from Wales. This could be achieved, but would require new collieries to be opened. There are at present no full size power stations that qualify for the description "clean coal'. Development is proceeding very slowly and new commercial power stations are affected by the same uncertainty about the electricity payment system that is preventing all large power station construction.

  The "clean coal" processes in any case do not include carbon capture. The additional complexity that this will cause to the plant, the lower thermal efficiency (and higher fuel consumption) and the extra costs make it extremely unlikely that large coal-fired plants will be commissioned within the next 10 years.

(c)  Hydro electricity

  The citizens of Wales can be proud of the important contribution that their hydro electric plants make to the operation of the electricity supply system in the UK. Plants such as the pumped storage systems at Dinorwig and Festiniog, plus Maentrog, Rheidol, Dolgarrog have worked with the nuclear power stations at Trasfynnydd and Wylfa to demonstrate the immense value of pumped storage in operating the UK grid system.

  There would seem to be little appetite at the present time to build additional large hydro plants. I would urge the Committee to review this decision. Hydro electricity is the only low-carbon, controllable alternative to nuclear plants. If neither large hydro nor replacement nuclear plants are built in Wales, then CO2 emissions will rise from their present level to those of some of the non-nuclear states in Europe, such as Ireland. The UK is committed under the Kyoto protocol to reduce total greenhouse emissions over the period 2008-12 by 12.5% relative to 1990.

(d)  Liquefied natural Gas

  UK reserves of natural gas have reached a plateau and the period of inexorable decline. In the 35 years since conversion from burning Towns Gas began we have reached the point where about 75% of homes in the UK now depend upon gas for central heating. These households need secure supplies for decades to come. The process of producing Towns gas could be resurrected, but would require tens of millions of appliances to be replaced or converted. More seriously however, it would require millions of tons of coal and even then, current environmental standards would probably make it prohibitively expensive. The only practical option is to import natural gas by pipeline or in liquid form (LNG) by tanker.

  When I was a scientist at the British Gas Midlands Research Station in the 1970's, colleagues who working on LNG storage were most concerned about LNG safety issues. If much larger quantities of LNG are to be imported, suitable port storage facilities must be provided and only in exceptional circumstances should it be stored near residential areas,

(e)  Wind Power

  Wind power is normally considered as the first choice renewable source. The largest wind machines have a Declared Net Capacity (DNC) of 2 MW. However, there are very few machines of this size operating and some technical problems have emerged—one of the two in the UK was taken out of service after a lightning strike. It is also unlikely that 2 MW machines would be acceptable in many sites, because of their massive height and requirements for solid structural anchorages. It is therefore prudent and conservative to assume an average machine size of 1.5 MW in calculating the number of machines required far into the future. If technical advances do not continue and smaller machines are used, the numbers will have to be increased to compensate. The 1,000th turbine was commissioned in 2002.

  A 1.5 MW turbine operating continuously for a year would produce 13 140 000 kWh. Wind output is intermittent but, if it is assumed that 25% availability is achieved continuously, through an appropriate geographical distribution (20% is European average), the number of machines can be calculated. As calculated above, to replace Wylfa would require about 2,300 turbines.

  Installation offshore is more costly and complex than on land, requiring tubular piles 30 metres long to be driven into the sea bed. I know of no means of removing them at the end of turbine life.

  There have been many studies by professional engineers in recent years warning this Government and its predecessors that renewable energy sources have significant drawbacks, in particular suffer from the risk of "common-mode' failure in unfavourable weather conditions. The last week has provided convincing evidence that the renewable schemes in which the Government has such confidence for our future energy supplies are revealing this failing.

  For almost a week in mid-November, there has been a freezing anticyclone over England, Wales and most of Scotland and it is forecast to continue for many more days. Demand for gas and electricity is reaching levels close to the winter peak, causing gas prices to reach 80 pence per therm. The output from the 1,000 + wind turbines in the past week has hardly risen above zero.

  Our electricity grid distribution system requires engineers to match instantaneous supply and demand every second of the day. Wind turbines are uncontrollable, responding only to the natural forces of the weather. Wind turbines require backup equipment to accommodate their unpredictable diurnal and seasonal output variations. To maintain grid voltage and frequency within limits, it will be necessary to have large fossil (or possibly nuclear) plants operating as spinning reserve for a high proportion of the year. These plants will have their turbo-generators synchronised to the grid frequency, but be operating in a highly inefficient manner as they will be consuming fuel only to overcome losses. They will be wasting their fuel and producing no useful output, with all their full staff and overhead costs. All of these must be added to the costs of wind power, because it is the turbines that are forcing these fossil or nuclear plants to operate inefficiently.

(f)  Bio mass

  Biomass plants (power stations burning firewood) are now being proposed for future power supplies. They should achieve higher availability—80%—than other renewable energy sources. To generate two TWh per annum (10% of Wales electricity) would require 260 MW of such plants (at 80%). The calorific value of the coppice biomass material will be at best about 33% that of crude oil. An output of 1,000 MWe requires about 1.4 million tons of oil per year and 0.4 million tons of oil to generate 280 MW. Therefore 1.2 million tons of wood would have to be incinerated to generate 280 MW.

  The Forestry Commission has estimated the maximum production of wood from coppicing to be 6.8t/acre per annum—17 t/hectare or 1700 t/ km2.

  ..  1.2 million tons of wood would require about 710 km2 of dedicated land

  The environmental damage is not restricted to the appearance of the coppicing. The transport of 1.2 million tons of wood would have very severe adverse effects on the rural communities, agriculture, the roads and the wildlife. If there were six power plants rated at 50 MW, each would require 200,000 tons of fuel annually, or about 100 lorry loads per day. The scheme would require a fleet of about a hundred vehicles, all of which would be burning diesel, be producing CO2, CO and other noxious gases and be causing rural traffic dangers.

  The plants themselves produce waste gases. Air quality in the UK has improved dramatically over the past 40 years through four main effects.

    —  Closure of small local coal-fired power stations;

    —  Expansion of the nuclear programme/imports from French nuclear stations;

    —  Replacement of coal by north sea gas;

    —  Replacement of steam engines by diesels.

  The proliferation of small wood-burning plants will bring problems with the control of emissions and pollution that were last experienced 40 years ago. It must be recognised that EC regulations will require them to comply with environmental impact assessments, Best Practical Environmental Option (BPEO) studies, effluent discharge authorisations, QA procedures and verification arrangements.

  The routine monitoring of small plants would place great stress on the Environment Agency and other regulators. Instead of one large MW plant having a single control system, run by specialists, there will be multiple plants operating independently, with unqualified part-time staff, making management failures and prohibited releases more likely. Regulations always cause greater proportionate costs on small organisations. Current plans for wood burning involve plants less than 10 MW, so as to blend into the rural landscape, but even some of these small schemes have been rejected, as planners insist that generating plant is not compatible with a rural situation and is sited in an industrial area. If developers are forces to use very small plants, >50 plants would be needed, all emitting waste gases, generating ash and producing liquid effluent for regulators to monitor.

  If ash production is only 2% of fuel supplied, there will still be 20,000 tons for disposal every year. What landfill sites can take such wastes? What toxic or carcinogenic substances might they contain—polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons? What are the implications for watercourses? What BPEO studies have been carried for waste disposal?

  Government commitments to increase species diversity will be nullified by the planting of several hundred square km of monoculture crop. These large areas of a single species will present an ideal breading habitat for pests and viruses that do not trouble nuclear or large fossil fuel plants. Biomass would also be vulnerable to changes in weather patterns, such as flooding and droughts. After prolonged drought there could be very serious fire risks to neighbouring villages. How will productivity be maintained without the use of artificial aids such as fertilisers and insecticides?

  During the Foot and Mouth epidemic, large areas of the countryside were closed and all stock and vehicle movements banned. If such an event were to happen again, wood harvesting would have to stop. There would be a choice between electricity and Foot and Mouth containment.

(g)  Wave and Tidal

  Wave power has been proposed as being well suited for generating electricity in an island nation. The waves and tides appear extremely dependable. Schemes have been investigated with public funds since the 1970s, but have proved difficult to scale up to industrial size. To generate 2 TWh per annum from wave plants would require 900 MW of plant (assuming an optimistic 40% availability). The prodigious quantities of energy in the oceans are diffuse and unpredictable, extending from dead calms to storms that can destroy ships and demolish structures of the scale of the Eddystone lighthouse.

  The former government agency ETSU has suggested an average energy potential of 1 MW per 30 metre wave front around the UK coasts. In March 2002, the Professional Engineer journal included an item about Ocean Power Delivery (OPD) and their plant called Pelamis, of which an example design 150 metre long would produce 750 kW ie 1 MW per 200 metre. In April 2003, there was an item in the same journal reporting a new design of plant operating horizontally (Dragon wave power converter), claiming that a device 300 metres long could generate 7 MW. This equates to 1 MW per 45-metre wave front.

  Based on this third value, a 900 MW plant would require wave machines 40 km long. This makes no allowance for fixed structures or spacing to permit access and ships to pass. If it weighed 100 ton/metre, it would have a mass of four millions tons. The environmental implications of such massive structures are large. Such structures are similar in size to oil platforms joined together. Oil platforms, however, can be built in docks on dry land. These would have to be assembled or constructed out at sea. The dangers of construction, operation and maintenance are not considered when these schemes are put forward. Would they survive the worst storms? What experience is there?

  Smaller plants have been tried. The 2 MW OSPREY wave plant lasted two days off the coast of Scotland before being wrecked in 1995. (This is hardly surprising, as in the 1944 Normandy invasion, one of the two Mulberry harbours weighing about 1.5 million tons was buffeted and wrecked in a summer storm in the English Channel after only 10 days use. This was the subject of a recent BBC film.

  There are other ideas for using the energy in the waves. An experimental "oscillating water column" station designed at Queen's University, Belfast, has been built on the island of Islay. Waves rise and fall in an air-filled chamber, alternately pushing and sucking air through a pipe. The pipe is connected to a dual-rotor turbine that always spins in the same direction, driving a 180 kW electricity generator. This device is the size of a small house and yet the same power could be produced by four-litre IC engine.

  Wave machines have the potential to produce unprecedented local environmental damage. Their function is to extract large quantities of energy that normally arrive and are dissipated on the shoreline. By definition almost, they will affect the way the sea interacts with the coast. Many of these schemes will alter complete local ecosystems through seabed damage, silting, loss of habitats etc. Before decisions are made, extensive computer and scale modelling must be undertaken to ensure that irreparable harm is not caused to our coastline. Why are environmental pressure groups not demanding such studies?

  The Severn Barrage scheme has been considered for several decades and has been considered by the PIU. It would cost £12,000 million to build but would provide 7% of UK electricity (ca 25 TWh) and last for 120 years (Ref 9). The impact of this development would be enormous and would affect up to perhaps 100 km2 of the Severn estuary and catchment area. The effect on the river flow, tides, local habitats and microclimate would be unprecedented. It would in effect be the largest hydro plant in the UK and as such would face the united opposition of many environmentalists and pressure groups.

  It is possible that other smaller schemes, requiring less investment and offering a shorter return on the capital could be developed. To generate at the TWh level would require a very large number of schemes and Wales is poorly provided for in this respect.

  The only major tidal power scheme operating anywhere in the world is in the Rance estuary in France, where a barrage with 240 MW of turbines was completed in 1966. This produces less than 1 TWh per year. Nine such plants would be needed in the UK. Is it credible that all the suitable tidal sites apart from the Severn could be planned, designed, approved and constructed in a little over 15 years? The consequences of changing any one of these could be irreversible environmental damage to bird and fish populations.


  Many professional engineers and scientists associated with energy supply, found this emphasis on renewables surprising, although the many risks and disadvantages of renewable systems, described in their submissions, had been given little weight in the analysis by the PIU.

  Some of the engineering and scientific bodies whose studies had identified these problems are:

    —  The Royal Academy of Engineering;

    —  Institute of Energy;

    —  Institution of Chemical Engineers;

    —  Institution of Electrical Engineers;

    —  The Government Chief Scientist, Professors James Lovelock and Frederick Holliday.

  In addition, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee review of the low-carbon economy concluded that renewable power without nuclear was not a viable and secure option.

  For 25 years, Sweden has been attempting to replace its nuclear plants, but no adequate renewable replacement has been found, so that Swedish electricity is still 45% nuclear. Barsbeck nuclear plant has been closed, but as renewables cannot replace its output, electricity is imported from coal-powered plants in Denmark, so that Swedish CO2 emissions are increasing again. Nevertheless, the White Paper put its faith in the expansion of renewable supplies for UK electricity.

28 November 2005

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