LEADING ENERGY experts representing all forms of fuel generation were pitted against one another at the ICE this week in a heated debate over 'Energy for the new century - the engineering dilemma'.
On the same day that Tony Blair gave £50M a year to the new Carbon Trust for the development of low carbon technology, and announced a £50M windfall to support offshore wind and biomass energy generating systems, the industry warned of an impending generating crisis if the Government's emissions targets are to be met.
Speaking for the nuclear industry, David Anderson of British Energy warned that the 25% contribution made to the grid by the nuclear industry in 1999 would be almost zero by 2020 without further investment.
Anderson expressed the view that the industry is in a period of rapid transition, with gas now dominating the market with a 40% share, a complete reversal of the situation just four years ago when coal and oil accounted for 38%. This, he claims, is in conflict with the Government's desire for flexibility and cost control.
He went on to claim that high dependency on gas was an environmental disbenefit, offering no political stability given the location of the major natural gas sources. Rather, he said, 'Nuclear power is a friend of the atmosphere. It is a proven technology. . . waste disposal is not a technical challenge but one of public perception.'
Anderson's views on gas were shared by Fred Dinning of Scottish Power. Dinning, speaking on behalf of the coal industry, accepted that carbon dioxide emissions from gas were half those from current coal fired stations, but emphasised the risks associated with gas. 'Just look at the sources: Russia, Libya, the Middle East and Nigeria - where is the problem there?' he asked.
This meant there was an 'inevitability about coal', he said, pointing to the widespread nature of the reserves globally, and particularly the high quantities in developing countries.
Dinning was equally positive about coal's future in the UK, dismissing as unrealistic a recent study by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution that calls for a 60% reduction in CO 2emissions by 2050 by drastically cutting down on use of fossil fuels. 'Coal can be avoided, but at a cost, ' he said, and this cost would be a reduced standard of living that the public would find unacceptable.
Coal's perceived environmental problems could be solved, he claimed, with technology already available for removing sulphur, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter. The technology is also available for 'real saving opportunities' in CO 2, and more research into methods such as chemical exchange and membrane technology will see further improvements.
Advances are also being made in efficiency, with a new coal power station in Holland incorporating a gasification cycle achieving 45% efficiency - on a par with most gas fired plants.
Technology and economics are not the problems, said Dinning. Public acceptance and the political context are. This is the same problem faced by nuclear energy, and is where gas would seem to hold the trump cards.
Representing the gas industry, Richard Towers of Gas Strategies played down its perceived advantages and instead focused on its claimed disadvantages. He dismissed the claim that gas was inherently unreliable by suggesting that pure economics would always drive supply.
However, he could not deny that a massive investment would be needed in infrastructure should the supply from international sources need to be stepped up further, with industry figures showing that demand will outstrip our indigenous supply twice over by 2020.
Infrastructure constraint is also an oft-quoted limiting factor for renewable energy, along with conflicts over land use issues and intermittent supply.
However, speaking in support of renewables, Gaynor Hartnell of the Confederation of Renewable Energy Associations, pointed out that these problems can all be overcome and that the gross potential resource is almost limitless.
She also said that costs were falling and with new funding from the Government were comparable to gas. But the problem remains that while the gross potential resource may be limitless, predictable resource is a different story.
This leaves a major headache for the industry, according to Michael Roberts of the Institute of Energy. 'Even with 10% of energy supplied by renewable sources, the saving in CO 2will be barely 5%. This looks pretty small compared to the increase in CO 2emissions that will result from the end of nuclear power.'
So what is the solution? Roger Vaughan of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers summed up by suggesting that all suppliers have fundamental problems but offered the final thought: 'We have spent all night talking about generating electricity, but only 20% of power use is as electricity'.
With this in mind his priority is not energy generation, but efficiency. This, he said, was where savings could be made.