The UK government's energy White Paper sets ambitious aspirations for supply. Last month the industry met at an ICE conference to hammer out how they can be achieved. Bernadette Redfern reports.
TARGETS OF a 60% reduction in carbon emission by 2050 and for 10% of energy supply to come from renewable sources by 2010 will be a huge challenge for the power generators.
Generators using coal and gas will have to make their technologies cleaner, and renewable generators such as wind must simply lift production. But it is a massive task.
Renewable sources currently contribute just 3% of the UK's electricity supply, way below the 10% target. Indeed the UK has one of the worst records in Europe when it comes to exploiting renewable resources.
But all is not lost, says British Wind Energy Association vicechairman David Milborrow. He believes wind energy can meet 8% of the 10% target by 2010.
On top of the 81 sites concentrated in Wales, Scotland and the Pennines which provide 560MW of power, consents have been granted for more farms that will generate a further 1,332MW. With electricity generation costing around 2.5p/kWh (3.9c/kWh) from onshore wind farms, the price is competitive with coal and gas. But offshore is still expensive at 5.5p/kWh (8.5c/kWh).
Milborrow believes that significant price reductions can be made by using larger machines which would produce more energy per turbine; larger farms which spread the cost of cable connections to the shore and cut maintenance costs; and building farther offshore to exploit higher winds.
Intermittent wind is seen by many to be the real downfall of this type of power generation.
Milborrow thinks this is misplaced concern. He says that the step changes brought about by sporadic winds are not big enough to cause serious problems and much larger disturbances are caused by tea breaks during popular TV programs.
'Chris Tarrant [presenter of TVshow Who wants to be a millionaire? ] is more of a threat to the National Grid system than wind intermittence will ever be, ' he says.
However, more research is needed to exploit the possible price reductions for offshore generation and that will take time, says Milborrow. Current and consented wind developments only make up 1.4% of the power supply market today.
Providing 8% would require a fourfold increase.
The need to reduce carbon emissions is of massive concern for the UK's second largest energy provider - coal. To stay in the marketplace coal will have to clean up its act, if supplies do not run out first.
There are two possible solutions, explains Mitsui Babcock director of technology Mike Farley: making coal burning more efficient and capturing the carbon emitted.
The burning efficiency of existing power stations can be improved through a ú100M (US$155M) upgrade. Retrofitting an advanced supercritical boiler and turbine would allow steam to enter the system at a higher temperature and pressure, improving efficiency and cutting CO 2emissions by 15-25%, Farley says. The high capital cost would be offset by fuel savings and extended plant life, holding electricity prices at 2p/kWh (3.5c/kWh), he claims.
But technology for CO 2capture is less well advanced. In theory carbon can be removed directly from industrial plant exhausts and stored in reservoirs like saline aquifers or oil wells. Research is under way in the US where fossil fuels fulfil 85% of the nation's energy needs.
It is clear that technology could be developed which would allow the UK to meet white paper targets, says ICE energy board chairman David Anderson. The problem is funding.
'ú60M (US$93M) is made available in the energy White Paper for innovation, and that's simply not enough, ' says Anderson. 'To achieve a diverse fuel mix Britain has to start using renewable fuel supplies, but with electricity prices being so low and without more formal government targets there is not enough incentive for innovation to shine.'
This means gas is likely to remain the dominant source of power in the UK, a situation that worries Anderson.
Worldwide supplies at today's reserve to production ratios stand at 377 years in Iran, 269 years in Nigeria and 240 years in Libya. The low cost of gas production makes it the natural choice to fill the gap left by nuclear decommissioning. The UK has no new nuclear power stations on the horizon and by 2023 Sizewell B will be the only power station remaining.
But exhausting our own gas supply will see the UK move from net energy exporter to importer, making us more vulnerable to political and market fluctuations, says Anderson. At the very least he wants more pipelines constructed to allow diversification of import routes.