Essay 1: Energy and British Politics
From Green gurus, like James Lovelock, to energy experts, the policies of our political parties are seen as utopian. The current Reith Lecturer, Lord Broers, has warned that UK energy policy makes over-optimistic assumptions about the potential of ‘renewables’, such as wind. He argues that “all of these energy sources should carry the costs of their overheads with them. If you have wind power, you have to have back-up from gas generation.” Kenneth J. Fergusson, President of the Combustion Engineering Association, develops the case, stating that “Britain should stop subsidising wind-mills (only building them to the extent that they are commercially viable).” Fergusson reminds us that “Britain is heading for a crisis in power supplies to which no amount of preferential treatment for renewable energy sources can do more than make a peripheral contribution for decades to come.”
Professor Ian Fells, a world authority, is equally trenchant – “it only needs a breakdown at one big power station and there is a real risk of the supply system becoming fragile because we don’t have the spare generating capacity we used to.” To replace a 1000 megawatt (MWe) nuclear station supplying 1/65th of peak demand requires over 30 miles of wave machines; for wind, inner London (plus a back-up from conventional or nuclear power); for solar power, half-as-much again; for bio-oils, the Highlands of Scotland covered in oilseed rape; and for biomass fuels, a willow coppice covering Wales. Yet, as Professor Fells reminds us, by 2020, we will have only one nuclear plant operating. Moreover, we will be importing 90 per cent of our gas from countries like Algeria, Iran, Iraq, and Russia, while we accept nuclear-generated power from France, which is about to re-assert its successful nuclear policy (59 plants and expanding).
Energy policy should aim to provide a reliable mix of energy generation to support economic growth, with the least possible dependence on imported fuels. We must recognize the wisdom of James Lovelock’s brave declaration that, for the mid-term, there is no alternative to nuclear power. As the Royal Society concludes, “in the short to medium term, it is difficult to see how we can reduce our dependence on fossil fuels without the help of nuclear power.” Nuclear power (17% of the world’s electricity supply) has the safest record of any major form of energy production. The radiation from a nuclear power station is less than that from a large hospital (and there are fewer superbugs too). China, Finland, France, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, Taiwan and the US, among others, including smaller developing countries, acknowledge the value of nuclear power for their future. China is building 40 new nuclear power plants by 2020, while Sweden and France are designing politically-enlightened policies with regards to the disposal of nuclear waste. Moreover, as Sir David King, the Chief Scientific Adviser, has argued, we must encourage long-term (40-50-year) research into nuclear fusion.
In addition, while being honest about the peaking of fossil fuels, we have to continue to support their efficient use, including ‘Orimulsion’ tars, but especially coal, which is due for a resurgence. On conservative estimates, there are 350 – 500 years of coal reserves in the world, and, with modern technologies, from advanced fluidized beds to gasification, coal is on an exciting road to clean energy. Our ultimate energy policy must comprise some mix of clean coal, natural gas, and nuclear power. There is no practical alternative. However, because of the problems of ocean acidification, we should support research into the long-term geological storage of carbon dioxide.
We must also be open about the limitations of ‘renewables’, including both intermittency of supply and their environmental downsides. Large-scale hydroelectric power necessitates the re-settlement of people, interrupts fish migration, and causes loss of habitat. Micro- and pico-scale hydroelectric systems become blocked and are able to make only a marginal contribution. Tidal barrages disrupt complex ecosystems. Geothermal projects mar sensitive habitats. Wind farms kill birds and bats and despoil rare wilderness.
We need further to be aware of the architectural damage to historic buildings caused by over-enthusiastic schemes for energy efficiency and solar panels, and to carry out more studies into the health problems of heavily-insulated houses and offices, from sick building syndrome to fleas and radon. Finally, we need to support realistic work on alterative energy sources and fuels, including compressed air, hydrogen fuel cells, sodium borohydride, and biofuels.
Can we please shed the political paranoia about ‘Saving the World’, and focus on practical energy? The failure of our political parties to be realistic about future energy demand could be catastrophic. I do not want to see the economic success of the UK falter because of ‘Green’ whimsy. Drop the cant and energize Britain.
[Loosely adapted from my ‘Comment’ first published in The Times in 2005]
Essay 2: Britain and Biofuels
A key supporter of biofuels, sponsored by the Nuffield Farming Scholarship Trust, and I met last year as joint-speakers at the Lincolnshire Agricultural Society’s Annual Spring Lecture on ‘Fuelling Farming for the Future’. This imaginative event was attended by over 250 farmers, all keen to share ideas on the role biofuels might play in re-invigorating British agriculture, which has suffered markedly over the last few decades.
Of course, it is important to audit the inputs needed to grow biofuels, which can often be higher than the environmental returns received. Nevertheless, there was wide agreement that, with innovative, positive farming, and the right Government support, biofuels could succeed.Biofuels come in two basic forms. First, there are the true biomass fuels, like willow and poplar, for generating heat and power. Secondly, there are the liquid biofuels for use in transport. These are of two types, namely biodiesel and bioethanol. Biodiesel was used by Rudolph Diesel in 1901, and it is made from mono alkyl esters of long-chain fatty acids derived from either natural virgin oils, as in mustard, oilseed rape, soybean and sunflowers, or re-cycled vegetable oil. Attempts to make biodiesel covertly from chip shop waste have led to sizzling jokes about the ‘Frying Squad’. Biodiesel is employed in diesel engines and the oils are converted to biodiesel by combination with an alcohol and a catalyst. Interestingly, the country has always turned to biodiesel in wartime.
In contrast, bioethanol is formed by ethanol-producing microbes that require either a sucrose or a glucose substrate. Key crops are thus sugar beet and sugar cane, but bioethanol can also be manufactured from starch crops, including wheat, maize and potatoes. Many regard bioethanol as a fuel for the future, because of its high energy content and its environmental characteristics, including reduced carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulate emissions. There are, in addition, valuable by-products, such as high-fibre protein additives, gluten meal, and amino acids for animal feed. And there is a further bonus for the farmer, in that off-grade, or damaged, crops – even mixes with weeds – pose few problems. Bioethanol is used to run petrol engines. At a 5% mix, there is no need to modify the engine. At 10%, the adjustments remain minor.
But now we come to a mystery. Although this is a government that says it believes passionately in the threat from ‘global warming’ and in the need to develop alternative sources of energy, it has done nothing to promote the successful initiation of biofuels. All forms of energy need a kick start to play their fundamental role, however tiny, in the economy, and, of course, this government is massively, and controversially, cross-subsidising intermittent wind farms. But with respect to biofuels, the situation makes little sense, especially when we remember that British farming is desperate to find new, environmentally-benefiting, often non-food, forms of production.
Total UK liquid-fuel use is about 37 million tonnes per year, which is largely imported. Local biofuels contribute a mere 0.7%. Yet, we have over 1.5 million acres of set-aside farmland. To raise biofuel take-up to 5% would require only 900,000 acres. But the rebate of tax on biofuel remains a miserly 20p, which contrasts bizarrely with 40p on LPG (Liquefied Petroleum Gas) and CNG (Compressed Natural Gas), both less environmentally-friendly. A minuscule increase to a rebate of 30p would see the industry stutter into life; a parallel 40p would witness it fixing carbon for England. And this is not just another farmers’ subsidy – it represents the peanuts required to start up what would become an independent sector.
Regrettably, we are already behind our EU competitors. Spain, for example, has tripled bioethanol production to 300,000 tonnes, and we are even exporting rape seed to Germany, where it is then turned into biodiesel to be re-imported to the UK. This is Alice-in-Blunderland thinking.
Gordon Brown (if re-elected) must act. We need an urgent increase in the rebate on biofuels to at least 30p, but preferably to 40p. We should also consider a mandatory 2% biofuel mix by January 2005, rising by 0.75% tranches to 5.75% by 2010. Above all, we must see more joined-up thinking between the five government departments involved in biofuel policy, from Defra via the DTI to the Treasury.
There is little to lose (even for the Treasury), but much to gain from improving the UK energy mix, energy security, the energy environment, and British farming. It’s time to support the renewable-energy growers, from willows to wheat.
Your Own Body Energy