Thursday, 24 July 2014
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New dash for gas muddies UK's energy future

Forget Schroedinger’s Cat. Never mind about what happens to perceived time near a black hole. Don’t worry about the philosophical implications of quantum fluctuations in a vacuum. If you want a truly challenging thought experiment, one that will make your brain feel like it’s trying to push its way out of your ears and will make you doubt the nature of reality, try to figure out how Britain’s electricity will be produced in 2050.

Coming hard on the heels of last week’s Energy Bill, which set out new stimulus for renewable energy, and news the week before of new investment in embryonic carbon capture and storage technologies, we’re told today that in his (heroically misnamed) Autumn Statement, the Chancellor is to announce new tax breaks for shale gas exploration and plans for the building of up to 40 new gas-burning power stations. It’s very tricky to see how this squares with the UK’s binding commitment to cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 80 per cent of 1990 levels by 2050, which implies that electricity generation will have to be effectively decarbonised.

Between 27 and 37GW of new gas-powered generation means that something like half of the country’s electricity will come from gas. Well, it’s certainly not the worst option: if you’re going to burn a fossil fuel, gas is clearly the cleanest choice, in terms of both associated pollutants and carbon emissions.

It’s also undoubtedly good news for whoever in the hard-pressed construction sector gets to build these new stations. Gas technology is well developed, mature and cheap, with UK companies such as Rolls-Royce in the forefront of suppliers of equipment such as turbines.

There is an argument, put forward in The Economist today, that building new gas capacity creates some useful breathing space. It lowers emissions by replacing old plants with more efficient, newer ones, it makes the most of the availability of a cheap fuel, while giving the renewables sector the time to develop, optimise and test a new generation of more efficient, lower cost wind, marine and solar technologies. However, for those firms looking to invest in non-fossil fuel generation in the UK, what signal does a new ‘dash for gas’ send? If we’re uncertain what the generation landscape is going to look like in the next decades, what will they think? Both Horizon Nuclear Power and EDF will be represented at tomorrow’s Nuclear Industry Association Energy Future conference and they’re sure to address these questions.

There’s a possible analogy with using gas to generate electricity and buying processed convenience food. It’s cheap and it’ll certainly keep you going, but there’s a good chance it’ll wreck your health in the long run; much better for you to shell out a bit more, buy dearer fresh produce and cook from scratch. That’s certainly the message that the Department of Health puts out. But when it comes to energy, it seems that the reverse argument is being followed: go for the cheap option, despite the damage that it might do.

Moreover, is the dash for gas prejudging what shale gas exploration might find, and the ability of the industry to extract it? Reserves are not certain, and they’re not in easy places to exploit, politically speaking. There’s likely to be stiff opposition to fracking wherever it’s proposed. If we can’t extract gas from the UK’s shale, then a new generation of 40 gas power stations will leave us even more dependent on imported fuel than we are already.

It’s without doubt the most confusing conjunction of politics, economics, industry and science that the UK faces at the moment, and we at Engineer Towers are often reduced to just shaking our heads and wondering what on Earth is going on. If nothing else, new gas stations will mean that the lights stay on, but we’d love to see a coherent explanation of just how everything will fit together in the coming decades, with a set of figures that add up. Because at the moment, it makes quantum mechanics look simple, intuitive and straighforward.


Readers' comments (27)

  • If you want to use renewables such as intermittent wind power, then it is necessary to provide back up power, such as gas. This does mean that the cost of wind power is wind turbines + gas power stations.

    A discussion of the UK Government proposed limits on biomass (up to 1 GW only?) would be a useful topic for discussion as well.

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  • This looks like the usual short-term outlook one has come to expect of governments of all shades. Nobody, it would seem, looks more than 5 years ahead. 2050 is a long way away, certainly more than one parliamentary term, so why worry about it now?

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  • Our editor is obviously Journalist first and Engineer second. He is demanding all the answers to the future, before we have all the answers available to consider! We have not yet even proved that fracking under UK will produce usable gas quantities!
    Journalists are only one place below Politicians in my estimation

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  • Which begs the question, why are you reading this?

  • Fear not! The current Government is being run by a bunch of apprentices who are learning as they go. You may be aware of the continuing urgency to get Broadband to every area in the UK so that we can use our computers or hand held thingys to "see" the world and purchase food and goods. Well these items need electricity to work but it seems that the various departments controlling us have not yet realised that you must first generate the electricity! However, it is a known fact that gas can be treated to burn more completely thereby reducing emissions which may allow a safer operation for the electricity generators. So by 2050 perhaps the boffins will have worked out how to obtain clean gas use.

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  • When we've burned all the carbon & all the furniture & still not built the nuclear stations we so obviously need for bulk power, then as the lights go out, the strikes will force a government to make a long-term decision.
    This will happen in my grandchildren's lifetime and they deserve better from us!

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  • "If you want a truly challenging thought experiment, try to figure out how Britain’s electricity will be produced in 2050."

    Been there, done that. Not at all challenging. Reality is just the same today as it's always been. The laws of physics don't change that much, do they.

    Electricity will be produced in 2050 in much the same way as (it should be) in 2020. i.e. from Storage Integrated Renewable Generation. Dependable, simple engineering that STORES energy from wind and waves. Then you dispatch electricity only when it's in demand, not when the wind blows and the waves roll in. No-brainer. No problem. No back-up needed.

    The elephant in the room is energy storage (before generator). Trouble is, Osbourne and his ilk aren't even in the room yet.

    No coal, no CCS, no more than 12GW of nuclear, the rest will be a mix of renewables. The only role for gas is deep reserve, which may never be used after 2030.

    Gas plant isn't so 'cheap' that investors will build it, when there's no prospect of using it after 2030. Moth-balled old plants are excellent for that role.

    On the other hand, quantum mechanics makes my brain ache.

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  • For once, the government is behaving sensibly.

    The world has not warmed for the last 16 years even though carbon dioxide levels have increased. This proves that carbon dioxide does not cause dangerous global warming.

    None of the climate models predicted that warming would stop so the only rational conclusion is that the climate models are worthless.

    The only stupid thing about government policy is continuing to squander vast amounts of money into uneconomic and ineffective onshore and offshore wind farms and even more uneconomic and hugely ineffective solar installations.

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  • I wonder if an alternative of subsidising the replacement of gas heating boilers with micro CHP plants has been properly considered. In a way this would be carbon friendly as it might bring about a more efficient use of the gas. It could be applied to commerce hospitals, schools, flats and the like, followed by individual houses (possibly just those with a garage unless the boilers can be made near silent, e.g. fuel cell technology).

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  • I hate to say it as an engineer in the renewables sector, but I reckon nuclear is the best stop-gap until low/zero-carbon technologies can be proved to fill the gap. The frustration is that there is already a multitude of technologies out there that are under-utilized, and the impression is that the history graduate who is making the decisions neither knows nor cares about them.

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  • Water Wheels Driving Generators
    Today we all talk about wind wave and solar but no one seems to remember the large mills in the past were driven from one water wheel that drove everything in the mill.
    I’m thinking not just one but lots of them on all rivers where the fall allows even create the fall on some plus design them floating so as to accommodate floods.

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