The low carbon future?

The UK’s Energy White Paper sets out a vision for a ‘low carbon economy’. Can this goal be met through renewables and energy efficiency alone, or will nuclear need to play a part? Siàƒ¢n Green reports.

“Our country needs a new energy policy,” said UK Trade and Industry Secretary Patricia Hewitt while unveiling the government’s ‘White Paper’ on energy: Our Energy Future ” Creating a Low carbon Economy. “We need to make sure we have secure energy at affordable prices, but we need to use energy more efficiently and urgently address the impact we make on the environment.”

The White Paper, released in late February, is the UK government’s attempt to achieve the goal that many governments around the world want to achieve: to create an energy market that balances low prices and investment needs, that offers secure and stable supplies in the long term, and that has minimal environmental impact. Is this too much to ask?

The UK’s electricity market has had its fair share of problems since liberalization in the early 1990s: the pool trading system was found to be ineffective in promoting competition; a moratorium on new gas-fired plants; now there is thought to be too much competition in the new electricity trading arrangements (Neta). The financial security of generators is being threatened, and nuclear generator British Energy has been brought to its knees. Renewable and CHP generators are unhappy about current trading arrangements.

Nevertheless, the White Paper does not address these short-term issues: it is designed to address the long-term sustainability of the UK’s energy markets, and the government has decided that reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions is the way forward.

It is clear from the White Paper document that the overriding driving force behind the new energy policy is the need to address climate change. “Climate change is a clear and present danger,” says Hewitt.

Also behind the policy is the fact that the UK will become increasingly dependent on energy imports, and that there is a need to update the country’s energy infrastructure, in particular, distribution networks. The goals of the policy are therefore: to cut carbon emissions by 60 per cent by 2050; to maintain the reliability of energy supplies; to promote competitive energy markets in the UK and beyond; and to make energy affordable to all.

Renewable energy will play a large role in achieving these goals, according to the document. The policy aims to increase the share of renewable energy in electricity generation to 20 per cent by 2020 (the current target is 10 per cent by 2010), increase subsidies for renewable energy, and reform planning rules to make permitting for wind farms easier.

In all, renewable energy will account for 3-5 million t of the expected 15-25 million t reduction in carbon emissions by 2020. Other measures include increasing energy efficiency in households, commerce and industry, and establishing a carbon trading scheme by around 2005. There will also be support for clean coal technology, CHP and fuel cells.

The White Paper was welcomed by energy regulator, Ofgem which praised the government’s focus on carbon reductions and its commitment to the development of emissions trading. It noted, however, that, “One of the biggest challenges to realising the potential of green power is to develop electricity networks capable of transporting that power …. Ofgem is already working actively with industry to ensure that Britain’s electricity networks develop efficiently and are fit for the task ahead.”

Strategies for cutting carbon emissions
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While many environmental campaigners welcomed the White Paper; some claimed that it lacked substance on how the goals and targets would actually be achieved. Friends of the Earth said: “The White Paper will hopefully sound the death knell for nuclear power.”

In spite of the well-publicised problems of British Energy, the government has managed to skirt carefully around the issue of nuclear power in the White Paper. This is interesting, especially considering that nuclear power generates one-quarter of the UK’s electricity without emitting any carbon. The UK’s existing fleet of nuclear plants will be approaching the end of their lives in 2020.

The White Paper stops short of announcing a moratorium on new nuclear build, but merely states that: “Although nuclear power produces no carbon dioxide, its current economics make new nuclear build an unattractive option and there are important issues of nuclear waste to be resolved.”

The government therefore says that it is justified to focus on energy efficiency and renewables and to put off until later the decision on the future of nuclear power. It admits, though, that new nuclear build might be necessary in the future if the carbon targets are to be met.

The nuclear industry is naturally disappointed by this sitting-on-the-fence, although it is perhaps taking a private sigh of relief that the government stopped short of following in the footsteps of other European countries by announcing a moratorium on new nuclear plants or even forcing an end to nuclear power in the country altogether. “At a time when greenhouse emissions are rising in Britain, [the White Paper] proposes to continue to allow the nuclear industry … to run down,” said Sir Bernard Ingham of the Supporters of Nuclear Energy, He called the White Paper “incompetent, irrelevant and frankly dangerous”.

British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. (BNFL) chief executive Norman Askew has pointed out that the road to more renewables will be an expensive one. The government admits that the switch to renewable energy will push up household electricity bills by up to 15 per cent by 2020 while industrial electricity prices will rise by 10-25 per cent.

This, surely, is not in line with the stated goal of affordable energy. To address the issue of carbon emissions and global warming is applaudable; to exclude nuclear from the equation is not. If new nuclear build is not an attractive option, the government should be working now to resolve the issues of current economics and waste disposal.

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