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There is no rhyme or reason to energy policy

Why are our politicians now regarded with something approaching despair? Just look at energy policy. There is no rhyme nor reason to it. 

I start from first principles: if you believe there is a problem called global warming – and the evidence is weak – then the least you can do is to tackle it effectively and economically. Current energy policy does neither.

Wind and solar power simply cannot be described as low carbon when fossil fuelled power sources have to be on tap to fill the gap when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun sets. UK CO2 emissions still persistently refuse to fall yet our vacant ministers insist we need a lot more of offshore wind and solar power even though they are the most inefficient and expensive forms of power generation.

Not a single wind turbine or solar panel would be erected in the UK but for massive subsidies paid by the consumer. This gives a government-imposed turn to the price screw. It has made electricity in the renewables-mad Germany and Denmark the dearest in Europe.

And why? Because our politicians have signed up like sheep to European Union renewables targets that are steadily eroding European as well as British competitiveness.

Throw in a mystifying belief in energy efficiency and so called “smart” meters and you have an energy policy that is a spectacular failure. By all means let us use energy efficiently, but don’t kid yourself it will render new power stations redundant. For one thing, the more efficiently you use energy the cheaper you make it and therefore use more of it. That is the story of our industrialisation.

As for “smart” meters, there is next to no evidence that they will change the average person’s behaviour. And you will not reduce demand significantly without a whole new outlook on life – unless, of course, you force people to save through excruciating prices or use “smart” meters just to turn off supply.

In spite of all this nonsense, Britain will not make the slightest impact on global CO2 emissions when more than 1,000 cheap coal-fired power stations are planned for this world while we close ours. You would never imagine that over the past 50 years we had demonstrated that nuclear power is the one sure route to secure, low carbon energy and then effectively destroyed our nuclear industry.

You couldn’t make it up. Meanwhile, the threat of blackouts looms.

Bernard Ingham is secretary of Supporters of Nuclear Energy

Readers' comments (5)

  • In response to Bernard Ingham’s article above, it is important to get some facts straight. Firstly, to his statement that “the evidence is weak” for global warming, this is incorrect. The concensus around global warming being real, and it being man-made is very strong. It does not need repeating here.
    Mr Ingham goes on to say that renewables are not low carbon because ”when fossil fuelled power sources have to be on tap to fill the gap when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun sets”. This is a simplistic view of the world, stated here to serve his purpose. The truth is that geographic diversity of wind infrastructure means that the wind is always blowing somewhere. International interconnection is also a legitimate mitigation for intermittent sources, still to be exploited at scale, and demand management is a further sensible and necessary option as deployment of renewables increases. Demand management is also sensible to ease the burden on the transmission system, and will prove very cost-effective as an investment strategy. Other renewables available to the UK market have very high levels of predictability, specifically tidal stream and tidal barrages. Anyway, at the present time, the carbon cost of the so called ‘spinning reserve’ is minimal, and it is typically provided by relatively low-carbon gas powered generation that can be brought online in a matter of minutes.
    Mr Ingham states that no wind turbine would stand if it were not for the “massive subsidies paid by the consumer”. In the future, no coal fired power station would exist if the true cost of the climate change impacts were charged to the generator. There has never been a level playing field in this regard, historically because for generations we were oblivious to climate change, but we no longer have that excuse. Now we that we know, the subsidies for renewables are certainly justified, and the taxes on carbon generation must be increased (or we must apply a cap on carbon emissions).
    The Renewables Obligation paid to wind projects in the UK amounts to just 3.2 pence per household per day at the present time, or about £12 per annum. Given that this is making us the world leader in offshore wind, has created one of the fastest growing industries in the UK, and is providing us with low carbon power, it sounds like good value to me.
    Mr Ingham has got one thing right, however. He says of electricity that “the cheaper you make it (the) more of it (we use)”. The rebound effects around energy efficiency are well documented, and this is a real issue when the energy we use has a carbon cost. The solution to this is to implement a cap on our national, and on global carbon emissions. A national cap will work only if imported carbon is accounted for at the border, otherwise our real emissions continue to rise as apparent emissions fall. [Actually, this is going on at present, as UK emissions have been falling within our borders, but our imported goods actually turn that decline into a significant rise in the period since the Kyoto agreement, in the order of 20%].
    A global cap on carbon is the most likely solution to keeping global warming down to 2 degrees. It will drive investment in to renewables, into nuclear and into carbon capture and storage. This last point is important as it provides a mechanism for the oil and gas lobby to mitigate the damage to their businesses in a legitimate fashion, investing in CCS and then using it to help ease the transition to a low carbon economy. Mr Ingham would be well served by doing a bit more homework before writing such negative comment about renewables. There is not only space but a necessity for all the low-carbon technologies to co-exist as we undergo a global scale transformation. Bring on the carbon cap please!

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  • I'm appauled that an organisation such as NCE would allow this article to be published. Whilst it is offered under the title "Opinion" I would have thought a respectable organsation would also monitor articles published to ensure they are factual, and comments made are at least somewhat quantifiable or realistic.

    This article appears to me the monotone moaning of a troglodyte who hasn't actually taken time to investigate or consider the technologies and energy policies, both UK and European. It is just so very easy to rubbish the work of DECC, Government and the use of renewables and the like - but when will Mr Ingham offer something of an realistic alternative, and by that I mean one which does not depend on highly volotile foreign imports such as Gas or Coal?

    I'm also amazed, given the incredible scope for Civil Engineering within the renewables sector that this article is considered a worthy publication at all. Surely the role of this organisation is to promote civil engineering to the most likely and potential sectors. If NCE believe renewables do not provide any opportunites for civil engineering, then fine - but I'd suggest reconsidering and removing Mr Ingham from the contributors list in future.

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  • The basic thesis of Sir Bernard Ingham is that there is no coherent energy policy in this country and in that he is correct. I will set aside that the root cause of such a lack of government policy dates back to the late 1980's. Successive governments have trusted in market forces to deliver UK energy needs over the last 25 years. As the article is limited to electricity and the impending threat of power cuts, which by the way, is endorsed by Royal Academy of Engineering paper 'GB electricity capacity margin'. A paper prepared at the invitation of the Prime Minister's Council for Science and Technology, a paper that seems to be taking little traction with government or opposition. We are currently only constructing one power station which can be relied upon to deliver a secure supply of power, meanwhile we continue to close power stations as required by the EU Large Combustion Plant Directive (LCPD) and mothball CCGT plant because of market conditions.

    Does the government not re-call the lessons of history of the impact of power cuts on the life of a government? If we continue as we are the UK faces a serious shortfall in generating capacity towards the end of the decade.

    Fortunately the fashion and fad policy of building wind farms as the answer to our prayers for a green sustainable solution to our long term power needs is at last being seen as it is, totally flawed. 'The wind is always blowing somewhere', therefore presumably we will need to build windmills everywhere. In fact, it is not true, in January 2009 weather conditions were such that for a continuous period of 10 days barely 1MW of electricity was generated from wind, just 11 months before a high end peak demand of 60MW was experienced. But still we plan to build huge numbers of windmills (predictions vary between 35 & 60GW by 2030) for which every GW will have to be duplicated by secure sources of supply. All of which will have to be subsidised in some way for the free market to keep the power stations in rotating reserve. Such duplication of generating capacity is madness, please see 'Electricity Costs: the folly of wind power' by Ruth Lea - Civitas January 2012. Besides demonstrating wind farms are uneconomic, Ruth Lea also demonstrates that wind farms in fact add to the overall carbon footprint.

    The global cost of coal is low, so why are we not energetically investing/re-directing our efforts into clean coal technology to become a world leader in the technique? Which we can profitably export to the world. Come to that why are we not investing such energies into the safe extraction of shale gas?

    Meanwhile the government is trying to persuade the the French & Chinese (the Germans have taken their bat & ball home) to invest in a massive new nuclear build over the next 15 years. In spite of George Osbourne's headline grabbing visit to China last year there is no certainty of the construction of Hinkley Point 'C' commencing, ever. EdF will not be making their mind up about whether to commence on the project until June. Unbelievable, that we are so totally in the hands of foreign investors (some government owned) for the future security of our power supply, the very life blood of the growing economic recovery.We are not masters of our own destiny.

    In a recent ICE energy debate the Rt Hon Stephen O'Brien commented the need for leadership in this issue, as they were closing comments I was unable to ask where that leadership was coming from. As for the life of me I cannot see where, when I look at both sides of the House of Commons.

    Therefore I agree with Sir Bernard Ingham's opinion that there is no rhyme or reason to UK energy policy and his right to express it.

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  • Bernard Ingham’s contention that Britain’s competitiveness is eroded by our commitment to renewables is rubbish when you consider the doubling of the wholesale price of electricity required to pay for Hinckley Point C. Certainly energy policy should tackle climate change effectively and economically, and UK energy policy has neither political rhyme nor technical reason. Simply replacing 1960’s coal fired steam power with 1970’s nuclear fired steam power is equally lacking in rhyme or reason. Only foreign state-owned companies can take on the financial and technical risks involved in building these grand projects. Where is the scope for free market competition we were promised would improve efficiency and bring down energy prices?
    Britain’s power supply needs to adapt to an entirely different demand pattern to that of the post-war period. Energy demand is no longer dictated by the location of coalfields and iron ore deposits. A decentralised resilient, sustainable supply system capable of reacting swiftly to changing demand patterns is needed. In addition to providing resilience, regional energy supply systems provide a catalyst for regional growth.
    According to DECC, in 2012 domestic and transport sectors consumed 69% of UK total energy demand. Despite new technologies to level demand, and improvements in the environmental performance of housing stock, conversion of road transport to electricity in the next two decades will result in these sectors' continued domination of electricity demand. Climate change and the needs of new towns and industries require a resilient system that can adapt to change not provided by large scale nuclear stations feeding into a single national grid system.
    We have the capability to build small scale nuclear plants in the nuclear submarine facility at Barrow-in-Furness. Modularization into standard factory built components would reduce time spent checking and licensing each individual plant and allow rapid deployment to fulfill base load demand of cities, large industries and the rail network. Small scale would require less capital investment per installation, quicker return on investment allowing more competition and bringing down prices hopefully, at last, realizing the government’s unproven dogma that free market competition brings efficiency. These options are being developed in the US, champion of free market capitalism, why not here?
    Onshore and coastal renewables can provide affordable solutions for rural communities and small towns, developed by non-profit community groups supported by local authorities at district and town level. District micro grids, feeding into a core national grid network, eventually linked into a European super grid, would provide energy security and resilience. Regional and local energy systems would provide the catalyst needed to regenerate communities beyond the M25 Widespread investment in a range of small to medium-sized projects would employ and enhance the UK's skilled engineers and attract scholl leavers to the profession.
    Why are we dithering?

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  • I do find it a bit embarrassing when the engineering profession's self interest in big infrastructure overrides our human obligation to do the right thing. This is the impression given by the opinion piece and, as an engineeering professional, I would like to distance myself from it.

    Bernard Ingham's "facts" do not deserve more scrutiny other than to check his allegiance to the nuclear industry.

    The objective of SoNE is "...to promote an informed debate..."
    Perhaps a new sectretary would be good start.

    Controversial and blustering propagandists destabilize intelligent policy debate - I would prefer more of the latter.

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