Category: Energy

Energy and British Politics

Political Room 2005 is filled with elephants hidden behind the flimsiest of rhetorical camouflage. For me, the bull elephant is the need for a practical energy policy for Britain. In the case of Labour, nuclear is the power that dare not speak its name – that is, until after any election. The Conservatives have pathetically abandoned traditional economic sense by trying to wear a floppy blue-green boater, while the Liberal Democrats are so wet you can shoot snipe off them. Yet, in The Ultimate Resource II, Julian Simon described energy as the “master resource”, arguing that, “if the cost of usable energy is low enough, all other important resources can be made plentiful.”

Political correctness is warping UK energy policy. The prime issue with respect to ‘sustainable energy’ is the maintenance of a robust supply that will fuel growth, avoid energy poverty, and expose our island the least to political dependency on imports from unstable exporting countries in the Middle East and Far East. The predication, through the doomed Kyoto Protocol, of policy on unpredictable environmental concerns is disastrous because it slows economic growth, dulls our competitive edge, denies much-needed energy expansion, and exposes us to political turmoil overseas. The result will be a Britain in which the lights go out by 2020, if not earlier, while billions of people in the developing world remain energy-starved.

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.