Still cooking

Despite a doubling of gas prices and a looming energy shortage in the UK, I am still cooking hot meals – unlike the lady in Texas (see last month’s Upfront). For a man with a hearty appetite, who would expect anything else? But while my appetite can never be questioned, it will be interesting to see if UK prime minister Tony Blair has the appetite to address the UK’s impending problems and push through what must surely be a plan for a nuclear renaissance.

Any energy review carried out by the government over the last few years has been firmly focussed on combating climate change. Although admirable, the UK government has and continues to strongly drive renewables but it is plainly obvious that the targets it set were over ambitious.

Instead of focussing purely on climate change, the government should have taken a clear stand on energy policy with the goal of striking a balanced fuel mix and securing energy supply. Britain currently generates 20 per cent of its electricity from nuclear, 33 per cent from coal and 40 per cent from gas. Four per cent comes from renewables and the remainder from hydro and oil.

A recent report compiled by a panel of 150 experts from all sectors of the energy industry said that the UK will face a 20 per cent shortfall in its power supply by 2015 unless action is taken now. By 2015, two thirds of the country’s nuclear power stations will have closed along with many coal fired power plants, due to the European Large Combustion Plant Directive. This is leading to an increasing dependence on gas.

With a cold winter being forecasted and a shortage of domestic gas, the UK’s precarious energy position has been brought to public attention and as a result, has now forced the government to launch a review. The review is due to be completed in six months and will consider all options including the role of current generating capacity (e.g. renewables, coal, gas and nuclear power) and new and emerging technologies (e.g. carbon capture and storage).

The current situation certainly highlights the logic of having a sound energy policy. It should not be left to market forces to dictate which fuel becomes the dominant source for power generation. Speaking at a Confederation of British Industry (CBI) conference in London, Mr Blair insisted that the new review would be an open, public debate. But he also hinted at the government’s intentions on nuclear. He told business leaders that Malcolm Wicks, the energy minister leading the review, would look specifically at whether to encourage private investment in new nuclear power plant.

No doubt to the dismay of a Greenpeace protester who forced the conference to be moved to another room, Blair went on to say that on its own, renewable energy would not be able to plug the gap.

Certainly some environmentalists would argue otherwise. And indeed wind power in particular has a promising future. A recent report from Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute for the DTI showed that the UK has the best wind resource in Europe. Their research found that recorded capacity factor for onshore wind energy in the UK is 27 per cent compared to 15 per cent in the Germany and 20 per cent in Denmark, where wind farms are more widespread. The report also showed that wind resource was dependable and its availability was greatest at peak demand periods and in winter i.e. when it was needed most.

Eventually, the UK will reach its long term goals for renewables albeit later than planned but there will still be a need for large baseload capacity. Nuclear seems to be the best long term option for satisfying demand, meeting environmental targets and improving security of supply. The three main challenges facing new nuclear plants are: attracting investment, handling spent fuel and time.

If the government comes up with a clear policy which will be upheld by future governments and perhaps extends Renewable Obligations Certificates to nuclear, then investment will come. The waste issue will perhaps be the stumbling block since the government will have to deal with public opinion. Yet even if these hurdles can be overcome, the immediate challenge is time.

By 2011, six of the country’s 12 nuclear reactors will have reached the end of their planned operating lifetime. Any new nuclear plant will take around seven years to build from the time of approval. With gas supplies dwindling at the current rate, that may be a little longer than we have.

Nevertheless, with temperatures already approaching freezing, fortunately there is still no sign of the reported potential gas rationing. And so, my cooker stays hot and I remain well fed. Besides, there is nothing like a hot meal on a cold winter night.

Junior Isles
Publisher & Editorial Director

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