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Feel the heat

Events: Civils 2004, 27-29 April, NEC Birmingham

Worried that renewables are no substitute for coal or nuclear power? NCE's energy question time at Civils 2004 sets out to tackle your fears and fuel debate.

If you ever want to hear engineers express polarised opinions there are few better topics to broach than energy.

Wind farms excite equally intense passions among those who shout them down as a time and money wasting red herring, and those proclaiming their zero emission power production and the consistency of offshore winds. For each engineer scandalised by nuclear's environmental legacy and cost there is an advocate of its rock-solid dependability as a base load energy source.

It will fall to David Anderson, chair of the NCE energy question time at Civils, to steer audience and panellists through this potential minefield. A team of six authorities on generating technologies, government policy, regulation and finance, and energy and environmental law will take questions from an invited audience. Expect heated debate.

Against the backdrop of rapidly declining contributions from nuclear and coal power, panellists are anticipating a grilling on major policy and delivery issues.

Can the government's 2010 and 2020 targets for renewable electricity generation be met?

Wind energy generators have been buoyed by the government's recent announcement that 15% of UK electricity must be sourced from renewables by 2015. This has given them certainty that the boom in construction of wind turbines will continue beyond 2010 - for which a 10% renewables target has been set - making it relatively safe to invest in new plant and infrastructure.

But with wind currently contributing less than 2% of UK electricity there is a mammoth amount of construction to be undertaken. This is to say nothing of the differential between the theoretical and actual output of turbines, which on average produce just 40% of their rated capacity. There are many who believe the 2010 target is pie in the sky.

How sustainable is the UK's gas supply?

With North Sea gas production waning, the UK is a net importer of gas, mainly from countries in the Near and Middle East. With political instability rocking many of the key gas-producing states, and international terrorism striking fear into Western hearts, many fear the UK's supply is horribly vulnerable.

The government maintains there are enough producing nations to prevent supplies being affected by a political fallout with one of them. An additional subsea Channel pipeline would assure the physical security of supply to the UK.

Is nuclear a viable option?

New, standardised designs exist and can rapidly be brought forward to construction, say nuclear power's advocates. They offer vastly superior operating safety compared to designs built up to the 1980s and would be relatively simple to decommission.

For large, base load production, nuclear is a zero carbon, surefire certainty.

But its detractors argue that with a history of industry secrecy, past links to nuclear arms production, the immense problem of how to decommission redundant reactors, environmental pollution and the unsolved problem of what to do with nuclear waste, it would be folly to start a new nuclear power programme.

Other questions on the radar include

Can coal fired power stations be saved from obliteration by European Union legislation such as the Large Combustion Plants Directive and carbon trading?

After being hammered down by deregulation, how much do energy prices need to rise to make energy attractive to investors?

How viable are renewables like biomass, wave, or tidal stream generation?

What role is there for combined heat and power in the UK energy mix?

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