Is the UK doomed to face dark days in the future?



In many respects the UK government’s energy policy is both progressive and ambitious, but has there been too much rhetoric and not enough action to prevent Britain’s lights going out in the next 5-6 years?


In a number of recent television interviews Ed Miliband, the British Secretary of State for the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), has repeatedly denied that the UK could face serious problems with its electricity supply after 2015. Others disagree, so is he right to be so bullish?

Without doubt the recession has produced a slump in electricity demand. According to Drax, the UK’s biggest coal fired power station, demand from British industry has fallen by an unprecedented eight per cent this year. However, it would be unrealistic to believe that demand will be at this lower level in six year’s time. Certainly the government is banking on the fact that economic recovery will be well advanced by 2015.

The 1000 MW Ironbridge power station opted out of the LCPD and is scheduled to close in 2015
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However, the concern is not about demand, it is about supply. By the middle of the next decade the UK could be facing a shortage in its baseload power supply because many of its remaining nuclear power plants will be closed down as they reach the end of their operational lives ” nuclear power currently provides 20 per cent of supply.

Furthermore, a significant number of coal fired power stations will also have to close in because of stringent emissions control legislation such as the European Union’s Large Combustion Plant Directive (LCPD). Plants such as E.ON’s 1000 MW Ironbridge and 1940 MW Kingsnorth power stations, which opted out of the LCPD, will close in 2015. And that is not to mention the potential impact of any binding agreement on carbon reduction that may come out of the COP”15 meeting in Copenhagen.

I am not saying that since the Labour government came to power nearly 13 years ago that it has sat back and done nothing to address the issues facing the UK power industry. In fact its energy policy has been recognized as ambitious.

However, the problem is that the UK government, has been far too slow in transforming those words into actions such as greater government support and a better regulatory framework to encourage the industry to do so. One case in point is nuclear. Since 2006, it has risen swiftly up the government’s energy agenda, culminating in the recent announcement from DECC that it has approved ten locations as suitable sites for a new fleet of nuclear power stations and that the first of these plants could be operational by as early as 2018.

The theory is that French utility EDF, which purchased British Energy, operator of eight nuclear plants in the UK, will build four, while Horizon Nuclear Power, a new joint venture between E.ON and RWE a further four. However, the government’s plans to build a new generation of nuclear power stations to fill the energy gap even by 2020 are wildly optimistic.

The UK is not the only country seeking to build a new fleet of nuclear. power stations. Italy has re-committed itself and Germany is looking increasingly likely to lift its ban. Can we be confident that German utilities would build in Britain in preference to Germany?

Coal fired power generation currently provides around 30 per cent of the supply, but there have been no new plants built in the past 30 years, so the loss of any existing plants will have a significant impact on supply.

After much dithering, in April of this year, Miliband gave the go-ahead for new coal power stations to be built, but with the caveat that they had to be able to capture and bury at least 25 per cent of their greenhouse gases immediately and 100 per cent by 2025 ” understandable in our environmentally conscious world. The problem is that carbon capture and storage realistically remains at least ten years away from being commercially viable.

The government also has an ambitious renewable energy target ” by 2020 it hopes to produce around 35 per cent of electricity from renewable sources. It is currently at five per cent.

Emphasis is being given to offshore wind and last year the UK did overtake Denmark as the world’s biggest offshore wind generator, with an installed capacity of 590 MW. However, even if the target was met, which seems unlikely, can we seriously rely on renewables to provide the UK’s baseload electricity?

But are we worrying unduly? Is it possible that Miliband’s optimism comes from the fact that in the worst-case scenario Britain could quickly build a load of gas fired plants run on cheap Russian gas to get the country over the ‘hump’. But even that is not certain.

Gazprom, the Russian supplier, has been seriously hit by the credit crunch, and has shelved plans to bring various new fields on-stream. Without these fields, it is not going to have vast amounts of gas available to export in six years’ time, and neither will it be cheap.

So should we be worried that the lights may dim or even go out in post-2015 Britain? I for one will make sure that I have a good stock of candles just in case.


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