Whichever way you look at it, within seven years Britain will face a shortfall between the power it needs and its ability to supply it…
MYTH AND REALITY need to be separated over the question of whether the lights in Britain will go out in this complex situation of alleged climate change, power generation shortfall, energy supply and suppliers, changing technology, profit and greed and the unscientific cult politic of doom, gloom and Armageddon.
The British government forecasts a 3,000-megawatt-hour shortfall in generation by 2017, equating to the lights being out for less than 30 minutes a year. What’s actually far more worrying is that this figure assumes that new generating plants will be in place to make up for the 18,000 megawatts of generating capacity that will be taken out of service by 2017 – more than a third of current generating capacity. Any slippage in the schedule and we’d be lucky to escape with 30 minutes a day.
University academics, energy and generating-industry sources identify 2012 as the crunch year. The point about any blackout – 30 minutes, one hour, one week, whatever, is that it will not be clinical – switch off supply, switch supply back on. It means the system is at maximum capacity excluding breakdown, maintenance, unseasonable weather, and unplanned demand. What is clinically defined as 30 or 60 minutes becomes an out-of-control failure in the system which will lead to greater failures as there will be no reserves, no back-up.
So leaving aside the science fiction doom scenarios of the green or anti-industry lobby, let us analyse the state of generation in Britain. The European Union wants a third of Britain’s generation to be from renewable energy sources within the next 10 years – wind, solar, etc. This is unproved, uneconomic, unreliable, inefficient, expensive technology and, as far as the energy firms are concerned, uses unprofitable sources of energy.
European Union directives on how generation is produced, which are not based upon the efficiency, effectiveness or expected life expectancy of a power station but solely on the number of hours they have been running, mean that 60 per cent of Britain’s nuclear power stations will be shut earlier than planned.
Similarly, 40 per cent of Britain’s coal-fired power stations will close in the next 10 years. Drax, the country’s largest coal-fired power station, is based upon successful design but is nearly 60 years old. This government, since coming to power in 1997, has hedged any decision about building new coal or nuclear power stations. They have hidden behind the dash for gas – the cheap burn of North Sea gas or gas imports from Norway, Russia, North Africa and the Middle East. They have hidden behind grandiose ‘green’ pledges over wind farms, the latter only having seen growth and extension if huge subsidies have been poured into energy company coffers. Once the subsidies have stopped then so have the wind farms and investment.
Ofgem, the Office of Gas and Electricity Management, has now issued a rehash of every previous Office of Fair Trade monitoring report, stating that the combination of meeting environmental targets, dependency on imports and ageing generating stock will all threaten the security of supply of electricity and thus light and heat, in the near future. Ironically, these are the same results that the National Union of Mineworkers and the electricity supply trade unions were advising in the late 1980s when the privatisation of the energy industries was first mooted.
To build a new power station – be it coal or nuclear – takes around 7 to 10 years. If Britain is to escape long-term shortfalls in energy supplies and security of supply then the decision to build new generating capacity needs to be taken, not merely in principle but by deed, now. Ofgem estimates that Britain’s energy industries need an investment of £200 billion to ensure security and expansion of supply, surprisingly a figure agreed upon by the energy companies. What is not agreed upon is who should fund it – the two or three monopoly generators (RWE, E.ON, EdF) – or the taxpayer, us?
|One of Europe’s largest coal-fired power stations, Ratcliff-on-Soar, Nottinghamshire. Without it, the lights would be going out already.|
The government by indecision and contractual manipulation has ensured that there are no British companies capable or available to build nuclear power stations. All possible nuclear building rests with either US or French companies. There is in principle a decision to build eleven or more nuclear power stations. The sites have been identified: all are on existing nuclear sites – Dungeness, Sizewell, Sellafield, Wylfa, Hinckley, etc. What is lacking is the political backbone, something unidentifiable in the Brown government, to make the decision.
There are 60 planning applications to open new coalmines, a combination of opencast and deep mines to utilise the coal resources Britain sits upon. These applications, plus proposals for new power stations or refurbished coal-fired stations at Tilbury, London’s Docklands, Ferrybridge, Longannet, Cockenzie, Blyth, Kingsnorth – again utilising existing sites – are being blocked by the government for fear of the green lobby and because of an unwillingness to contradict EU directives over renewable energy sources. This political cowardice ignores the scientific evidence around carbon capture and storage technologies (CCS), clean coal technology.
Despite the Tory attempt to smother clean coal technology so brutally during their pit closure programme of 1985-1992, this unique technology, pioneered by Britain, has survived and now could eliminate the carbon emission problem from fuel. The use of coal and CCS in new or refurbished power stations would ensure security of supply, no dependency on gas, regeneration throughout Britain’s coalfields and – with the right level of investment – the only scientifically proved reduction of carbon emission from energy production.
Trials in Norway of extracting carbon from coal production and storing it in empty gas fields beneath the North Sea have been hugely successful. CCS schemes such as pre-combustion capture, post-combustion capture, oxy-fuel combustion and gasification have all proved that clean coal technology and carbon capture works.
The real battle is around politicians seeking cheap and quick solutions for no other interest than serving the profit returns of the energy companies. Short termism is about quick fixes, using oil and gas but ignoring nuclear and coal, and using fuels that have limited life spans – 50 years in gas and oil (subject to a real analysis of vast new oil reserves being identified in Venezuela, Iraq etc). But oil and gas have a proven if short-term profit record, as opposed to coal (with an estimated 1,000 years reserves) or nuclear.
Nuclear technology has to be the growth industry not only in Britain but worldwide. The only resolution to energy poverty and under development – as so clearly explained by Cuba, China, India and myriad other nations against the US, Britain, flat-earthists and energy company lobbyists recently in Copenhagen – has to be energy generation for all. Nuclear generation has to be part of the answer. Scientific research into nuclear fusion has to be part of that solution, as must a complementary mix of fossil, nuclear and renewable fuel sources, planning, coordination, long-term realism, and political power.
The question then arises, for whom? To refurbish Britain’s energy industry as it stands is estimated to cost in the region of £200 billion. To surround Britain with a forest of wind farms, blighting Britain’s coasts and offshore, will cost an estimated £30 billion for a technology unsound, unreliable and irregular in supply and which fails when the weather gets cold.
Turbine technology is seeing closure – Vestas, Isle of Wight, with its job losses and the turn-off in investment. The largest wind farm in the world – the London Array – looks likely to be abandoned and just become a shipping hazard.
To fully apply CCS technologies worldwide will cost billions but it is the only industrial solution to the energy-producing problems of a world that refuses to live in the dark ages or in darkness and cold. Industry to save the world as opposed to industry to line the pockets of a tiny group of monopoly energy cartels has to be the solution.
At the same time, we must deal with the question of the “price” of energy and who the exploitation of the world’s natural resources is really for. Energy for the people or energy as a commodity being sold to bloat the coffers of the energy companies? Energy as a fundamental of life or mere commodity? Energy as a football used as political, economic and military blackmail by the industrialised capitalist nations against the world?
In between time, British workers should call for a revolution in energy:
Energy for whom? “Electricity plus Soviet Power equals Communism”, as Lenin said.