Our Quarterly Rant: The fate of UK energy supply

Coal power generation accounts for about 20% of our total requirement. The UK has committed to remove coal from our mix of power sources by the mid-2020s. So what will fill the gap?
In the right conditions; power from wind, solar and hydroelectric generate nearly 20% of the UK’s requirement with corresponding reduction of ‘carbon intensity’ of our electricity supply. By their nature, these sources rely on the weather – and so are intermittent and require a backup of some kind. Although there is plenty of new wind power to come, we sit shamefully toward the bottom of the league table for renewable energy deployment. With the painfully slow progress of new nuclear and gas power construction, a major ‘energy gap’ looms when coal and ageing nuclear generators go off-line within 10 years.

Our DECC Minister had hardly stepped off the plane from the Paris climate conference before she announced an end to onshore wind development, huge cuts to solar, scrapping of carbon capture research and cessation of sustainability measures. In the same breath she announced enhanced support for oil and gas producers – and even subsidies for diesel power generation! DECC are saying one thing in public and moving 180° from this direction in reality.
It seems that coal power will be replaced by gas derived from dwindling domestic resources, imports – and shale gas. This will allow DECC to claim a reduction of CO2 output, albeit through replacing one fossil fuel with another. The amount of economically producible shale gas in the UK is entirely unproven and highly unlikely to make more than a fleeting difference to our strategic gas resources.

Nuclear power, a British invention, must be a major part of our future (zero carbon) power supply. We are financially guaranteeing the Chinese and French to design, build and operate new reactors. Do we really know enough about the Chinese economy, or our relationship with the Chinese state in 10 years, let alone 50 years, for this to be a safe, rational solution? Why we cannot trust British engineers to provide nuclear power, given the same degree of financial backing, is quite beyond me.
The potential for domestically engineered tidal power is untapped – and enormous. We live on a windy island in a large ocean, so tidal energy is always available and is zero carbon, secure, predictable, can provide thousands of UK jobs and has no waste product. Why are we not building them by the dozen?

A criticism of renewable heat and power technologies is their need for subsidy to incentivise uptake. It is not widely known, and certainly not broadcast by government, that nuclear and fossil fuel technologies are subsidised to a higher degree than renewables ever could be. In fact, just this week the government have granted £250M to the oil industry in Scotland to prop it up while oil prices are low. (the oil industry won’t pay this back when prices rebound – so why is the tax payer baling out oil companies?!).
The November budget announced (quietly) that the renewable heat incentive (RHI) would continue to be funded up to 2021 – although with a cut of up to 40%. This at least gives renewable heat providers a degree of stability – and we are already seeing an increase in demand for ground source heat pumps.

The ‘anti-renewable’ stance and continued delay of nuclear construction puts at risk our ability to generate our own power. We should not be in this position. We have all the engineers and natural resources we need to provide our own sustainable heat and power.

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