Papering over the cracks?

Tim Probert examines whether the United Kingdom has finally laid the groundwork for hitting its ambitious renewable energy targets with the recent release of the energy policy ‘White Paper’.

The UK likes to think of itself at the forefront of the climate change agenda but its government has often written cheques that the facts cannot cash. On 23 May, the UK government finally published its long-awaited, much-delayed White Paper, mapping out its strategy that it hopes will achieve its energy ambitions proudly trumpeted in recent weeks.

Renewable energy took top billing. London has awoken to the fact that the UK’s record in renewable energy – accounting for a dismal four per cent of total output – needs to be urgently addressed by removing key planning barriers to large-scale renewable projects.

It officially targets 15 per cent of all energy produced to come from renewable sources by 2015. A key strategy to this end is the founding of the Energy Technologies Institute, which, with a budget of some à‚£600 million ($1.2 billion) over ten years, will be devoted to low carbon research and development.

Wind power companies were promised support by way of renewable energy certificates (ROC); subsidies to the tune of à‚£34-60 per megawatt-hour produced for onshore wind farms, while offshore wind farms will receive 1.5 ROC per megawatt-hour. Wave, tidal and solar generation will receive two ROC per megawatt-hour.

Biomass was also a major part of the White Paper. It offered more ROC to biomass energy projects using “energy crops” such as miscanthus and willow than those using other forms of biomass, such as straw and waste. A key measure is the removal of a cap on the amount of co-firing of coal with biomass that will qualify for support under existing schemes, which will open the door for major thermal generators to increase the volumes of biomass used.

Other ‘green’ measures include the extension of the UK’s carbon trading scheme to around 5000 companies. London has also created a task force to examine the regulatory framework for carbon capture and storage (CCS) and will launch a competition in November to demonstrate it on a commercial scale.

All these measures are timely and welcome, but did the White Paper go far enough? Many have said that the White Paper is but a small step in the right direction and there are still serious doubts over whether the targets are realistic; that UK subsidies are still not aligned with its power requirements and renewable and/or cleaner energy projects may simply go elsewhere.

The CCS competition is a case in point. Although not a headline-grabber when first announced in March, it is one of the most crucial parts of the White Paper and indeed the entire European carbon mitigation agenda, but it has got off to a bad start before it has already begun.

British oil major BP has abandoned its plans to build a pioneering, $2 billion-plus carbon capture and storage facility in Scotland, blaming delays in state subsidies. The oil company, in a joint venture with Scottish & Southern Energy, had spent close to $60 million during the past 18 months preparing to build a gas fired power plant that would use the Miller oil field in the North Sea to store carbon dioxide (CO2) and in turn generate some 475 MW of electricity.

BP said the Miller site was an attractive option as it was “coming towards the end of its life” and already had a pipeline running to it which could be used to pump the CO2. However, the company had already pushed back a closure date on the basis that it might receive government funding, and could no longer afford to keep it open now a guarantee could not be made.

The announcement, which was MADE on the day London published the White Paper, came as somewhat of a embarrassment to the British government, but BP stressed that it appreciated an open competition process had to be conducted especially when public funds were being offered to the winner.

Carbon mitigation is one problem for the UK, energy security is quite another, and more pressing. It remains difficult to see how it will be able to responsibly renew and expand domestic energy capacity, which will be steadily lost by the decommissioning of 15 of its 16 nuclear plants by 2023.

Nuclear new build seems the obvious answer, and it is on the agenda, but political pressures from environmental groups have stifled the Labour Party’s attempts to implement its strategy, with Greenpeace going so far as to take Tony Blair’s government to court, and winning, to throw out the 2006 Energy Review that paved the way for a new generation of nuclear reactors.

But rather than simply stonewall such policies, perhaps it is time that environ-mental groups face reality and reassess their attitudes to nuclear energy and fossil fuels. There is no getting away from the fact that in the real world coal and atomic power have to play a leading role in the energy mix, in the UK and the rest of the world.

At this stage, it seems likely that consumers will bear the brunt of the clash between the need for power and the need for carbon mitigation. An old-fashioned efficiency drive, reminiscent of the war and post-war years of the 1940s, could be on the horizon, faced with the prospect of higher charges for power.

The UK may not be plunged into darkness (although this is one sure-fire way of hitting carbon mitigation targets), but its people may have to dig a little deeper for victory. Nonetheless, it is an exciting time for power engineers the world over charged, with the ultimate challenge, perhaps, of saving the planet.

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