27 February, 2006

Government warms up its argument for nuclear power

Since I last talked about UK energy policy, the government has released a consultation document (available here) entitled 'Our Energy Challenge - Securing clean, affordable energy for the long-term'. It weighs in at 77 pages, mainly because it spends much of it’s time repeating itself, but offers a good insight into the argument the government is likely to be making as it tries to convince us that nuclear power is the one, true way.

The report, starts off by reiterating the goals laid out in the 2003 Energy White Paper 'Our energy future – creating a low carbon economy':

  • To put ourselves on a path to cut the UK’s CO2 emissions by some 60% by about 2050, with real progress by 2020;
  • To maintain the reliability of energy supplies;
  • To promote competitive markets in the UK and beyond, helping to raise the rate of sustainable economic growth and to improve our productivity; and
  • To ensure that every home is adequately and affordably heated.

With reference to the first goal, the report is quick to boast that “The UK remains one of the few European countries on track to meet its Kyoto commitment to address climate change”; however, it also presents figures which should severely curtail any smug laurel resting. Between 1991 and 2000 there was a relatively steady drop in CO2 emissions from 210-180 Mt/yr, due to the switch from coal- to gas-fired electricity generation in the 1990s. Since 2000, however, emissions have remained relatively flat (although still below our Kyoto target of 12.5% below 1990 emissions levels).

To make things even worse, emissions are currently projected to stay at similar levels out to 2020, which can hardly be described as ‘real progress’. There are several causes for this current and projected stasis:

  • Improvements in energy efficiency have not necessarily led to a fall in emissions. Both the energy intensity (the ratio of total energy use to GDP) and carbon intensity (the ratio of carbon emissions to GDP) have both been falling relatively steadily for the last few decades (both falling by 15-20% since 1990), showing that less energy is being used, and less CO2 is being generated, for the same economic output. However, it seems that people and businesses treat efficiency savings as a means to use more energy for the same outlay; therefore energy efficiency measures do not reduce overall energy usage, but rather moderate the growth in demand.

  • Increases in emissions from the transportation sector (which are pretty much treated as a given) cancel out reductions in other sectors, such as industry.

  • Changes in our electricity generation mix. On current trends, closures of coal and nuclear power stations will produce a 20 GW shortfall in our power needs by 2020. The thinking seems to be that only some of this shortfall can be taken up by renewable energy sources, requiring us to make up the rest by building more gas-powered power stations. Although replacing coal with gas generation will reduce emissions, replacing nuclear (which is treated as a zero emissions technology) with gas will increase emissions, so the overall effect is close to zero.

This situation is not just worrying from an environmental perspective. The increased reliance on gas at a stage when our own reserves in the North Sea are starting to wane also raises concerns in the ‘energy security’ arena, because we’d be relying on overseas suppliers (mainly Russia, the Middle East and Africa) to supply most (possibly 90% by 2020) of the fuel for our power stations as well as the domestic heating market, which also primarily uses gas. Economically, this is a compromising position to be in.

These facts combine to produce what will undoubtedly be the government line following the ‘consultation’. If we are to cut emissions, and if we are to enjoy more energy security, we want to avoid moving to such a heavy reliance on gas in the next two decades. Reducing energy usage is impractical, so we need to change how that energy is generated. Renewables can’t cut it (contrast the 20 GW shortfall predicted for 2020 with the 500MW of renewable wind capacity added to the National Grid last year). Nuclear is proven technology, cuts emissions and means that we are not hostage to the whims of overseas suppliers. To reduce emissions further we can combine this with carbon sequestration – pumping our CO2 into empty oil and gas reservoirs rather than releasing it into the atmosphere.

Well, it’s a strategy. But, as I’ll try to show in my next post, it’s a pretty stupid one.

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