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Power to the people

Comment Energy supply

The soon-to-bepublished report into the UK's energy supply by Tony Blair's Policy and Innovation Unit think tank should make interesting reading over the next few weeks. And it looks set to fuel the fierce nuclear power debate for months if not years to come.

The confused state of the nation's electricity supply policy has been consistently highlighted by the ICE/NCE State of the Nation report card which perhaps went some way to prompting the current review. This review is therefore most welcome.

Power generation is a very knotty problem and one that raises huge emotions in both the public and the profession. Yet for too long the issue has been dodged, fudged or parked in the 'too difficult' basket. Demand for electricity in the UK is growing and the nation's stock of generators is aging. We cannot afford to put off the decision as to what to replace it with for much longer.

We all know the basic constraints and arguments by now.

The continued use of fossil fuels is not only unsustainable but will make it impossible for the UK to meet its obligations under the Kyoto agreement. Generating companies must deliver 10% of power from renewable sources by 2010. Nuclear power provides a long term solution to supply, yet the cost of dealing with nuclear waste will make the price of electricity uncompetitive.

Yet, as this week's article (see page 16) points out, there are many more arguments, and they get increasingly complex.

Should nuclear power be considered as a renewable source as it generates no greenhouse gases? Do over-zealous planning controls undermine the potential of renewable power generation plants? Is new, clean nuclear technology really just around the corner?

Fortunately, none of these questions is too difficult for civil engineers. We are ready and waiting to help the UK stride forward into the next era of clean, cheap, sustainable power for all.

Nice thought. Certainly we may have the technical answers and talk a good game when it comes to the cost and risk assessment for constructing and operating various types of plant. But we have yet to come up with sensible, unbiased answers to the all important human issues - answers that the public will understand and believe.

For instance, is it realistic to take load off the national grid using roof mounted solar power?

Can waste incineration plants really be operated safely in residential areas? How much of the countryside needs to be covered in windmills and what happens when the wind drops? Can nuclear waste be safely stored and processed? And you can add to this list questions surrounding the delivery of practical ways of reducing energy consumption at work and in the home.

As a profession, we have to organise these ideas and offer the nation the solutions. This will call for clear thought to break through the existing framework of preset responsibilities and vested interests. We must start thinking about people's lives rather than just numbers and technology.

Like the highly successful civil engineers a century ago, we must rekindle the notion of society as our client. The issue of how we will satisfy the demand for power in the future is as challenging as anything faced by Bazalgette, Stephenson or Brunel. It is vital that now, as they did then, we take the lead.

Antony Oliver is the editor of New Civil Engineer.

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