Saturday, 02 August 2014
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We need facts not nationalistic sentiment or party politics

Rarely are arguments unbiased when it comes to the energy sector. A belief that wind farms spoil the countryside or a Chernobyl-driven fear of nuclear power far too often makes its way into the debate on what sources of energy we should be investing in to keep the lights on while preventing catastrophic climate change.

Of course the solution can’t just be founded on the basic cost of power generation, and questions of safety, security and impact on our local environment have to be addressed. But these issues shouldn’t be allowed to obscure our access to the facts about the technology and economy of different energy sources – something that is happening far too often.

In January, a report alleged that two generations of ministers have misrepresented the evidence for new nuclear power stations, basing their arguments on an assumption in favour of nuclear rather than examining the facts first.

This morning we hear claims that energy bills are likely to rise due to a growing dependence on increasingly expensive gas, because industry is going ahead and building twice as many gas-fired power plants as the government previously estimated.

And in a somewhat bizarre turn, four former directors of Friends of the Earth directors yesterday warned that we were handing control of our energy supply over to the French government by building new nuclear power stations.

The scientific, environmental and political communities are all divided over what our future energy mix should look like, and how much faith we should place in gas, nuclear and renewables respectively.

With time rapidly running out to move away from fossil fuels, it’s more vital than ever that we are given a clear picture of the true costs, benefits and disadvantages of these technologies.

While warnings about backing ourselves into a corner, where we are forced to pay one company for our energy at whatever price they set, should be heeded, appealing to an odd sort of nationalism isn’t helpful. Especially as it’s one of our closest allies we’re talking about, not Russia or Iran.

Our existing nuclear sector is already largely French-owned. In fact foreign companies control a high proportion of our power generation and distribution and without major government intervention there doesn’t seem to be much alternative.

This is as true for renewables, which you’d expect Friends of the Earth to favour, as it is for more polluting forms of generation: our wind farms are mostly run by companies in Scandinavia or Germany, where the turbines are also manufactured.

There is potential for the UK to lead the world in carbon capture and storage and in marine generation, but these technologies are at too early a stage to compete with wind and nuclear for our medium-term plans. We should attempt to strengthen British industry and secure our energy supply where it makes sense to do so, but we can’t lose sight of the most important factors.

Our ultimate aim has to be to provide a secure, low-carbon energy supply in the most cost-effective way possible. The argument about how to do this should be based on facts, not pressure from industry, party politics or nationalistic sentiment. There is a great opportunity for British companies as we reshape the economy but it can’t come at the expense of our long-term energy goals.


Readers' comments (34)

  • Why is The Engineer saying our aim is a low-carbon economy?

    There is absolutely no proof that carbon dioxide, a gas as vital as oxygen to life of Earth is warming the planet. As CO2 levels have continued to rise, there has been no net warming since 1995.

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  • There's over 100 years' worth of evidence of the greenhouse effect and plenty to show warming in the last 17 years. Start here http://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/syr/en/mains1.html and here http://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/syr/en/mains2-4.html

  • Maybe it is the generations of the innumerate which have led us to this path but it is sad that all the nuclear expertise in the UK will wither away because no-one will take the decision. And all the options have been blighted by an outbreak of nihilist nimbyism.

    FoE are well meaning but generally misguided. Are they the same people as the nimbyists? They have had a point as one of the earlier champions of non-fossil fuels - remember the issues about acid rain? However supporting unreliable wind farms over marine-sourced and nuclear generation shows just how little they understand the long term needs and consequences of not having our own indigenous power supply, engineering and manufacturing capacity to support it. Let alone the balance of payments issue when we have to import gas to fuel the uncontrolled outbreak of gas-fired plant.

    Hats off to France for being one of the few countries to grasp this issue.

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  • Thank you!! I have just blogged about the very thing, after being shocked at how readily people on these pages espouse such rubbish as "if it can't survive unsubsidised, cut it off" without looking at the hard evidence and research on the politics of the energy economy, energy subsidies (especially of carbon and nuclear) and the study of Energy Return on Energy Invested (ERoEI).

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  • If the best anti-nuclear agrument Friends of the Earth can come up with is that it will be French-owned, they have lost the argument and all sense of reality.

    It seems whatever the government, industry or agriculture wants to do these days there is an immediate, vociferous, often violent reaction in the form of anti-everything rent-a-mobs, to the point that we will stagnate unless some hard decisions are taken. We need to just get on with nuclear power replacement. Forget about public enquiries / judicial reviews / environmental campaigns / save the frog / whatever - we don't have the time. JFDI as the text generation would say.

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  • As you say, facts! One cannot conflate dispatchable and non-dispatchable capacity as Bloomberg's White Paper did. Extraordinary!! They estimate that all the retiring capacity (30 MW by 2016) is dispatchable while 2/3 of the new build is wind and PV. In other words, 2/3 is perfectly useless, during periods of high demand.


    Exactly how much of the licensed CCGT capacity that has planning approval will get built in time to avert a mid-decade capacity short-fall will surely depend on a satisfactory and final resolution of the EMR. I see the "environmentalists" are challenging this in court, claiming that the "carbon floor price" and the proposed "contract for differences" represent a subsidy for new nuclear!! They could "win". In any case, the date for resolution may be far away.

    Oh what a tangled web we wove when our Government "led the world" by bringing CO2 emission reduction into law and then signed up to the 20-20-15 targets without first checking out its financial and technical feasibility!

    I am not pessimistic because I wish to be! But it is time some small boy pointed out just how naked the "energy infrastructure" emperor is!

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  • Nuclear all too often is presented as another renewable by association like Iraq and Al-quaida being mentioned in the same sentence over and over. There is a finite amount of readilly accessible fuel for nuclear and still after more than 60 years no effective way of dealing with the waste generated or the decommissioning of old reactors. Such massive investment in a discredited and unpopular technology when we should be looking to the endgame - a totally renewable future.

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  • It's a shame that even the comments largely ignore the tenet of this piece, what is required is full and HONEST facts about the TRUE costs of energy. depending on which lobby you support, many have decided what our future energy mix should be - without the facts that the article calls for. The large energy companies have held sway over every governments decision making for decades, it's time to get away from the debate about subsidies for renewables, for example, as nuclear and fossil fuels have been massively subsidised for decades anyway. Lifetime operating costs for ALL renewables already are much lower than Nuke and FF IF you take into account decommissioning and clean up costs for both. The stranglehold of Big Energy must be broken up, and, in my opinion, all utilities (excepting telecoms) should be renationalised because privatisation has patently failed to reduce costs and provide national energy security. £5.3billion profits this year, inspite of a reduction in both gas and electricity wholesale costs and a large reduction in consumption over our mild winter, retail costs still continue to spiral upwards, up over a third in the last 3 yrs. The current shambolic government, despite protestations to the contrary, are still handing huge advantages to these mammoths who then deliberately feed misinformation to the masses to maintain their strangleholds. Honest government, without the kickbacks and post-government jobs for ministers, would help considerably.

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  • From my house, in Brittany, where I am writing this comment I can see about 20 generators using wind.
    Since they were erected about 5 years ago they have only stopped turning on about 20 days max each year. Only when there is absolutely no wind at all.
    What is their TRUE efficiency?
    Facts please.
    They are doing tests on marine generation at Brest, using the strong currents that exist between the offshore islands and the mainland. Totally invisible.

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  • As usual, too much talk and not enough action. No politician, of any colour wants to be seen as the one who said yes, but ignoring the urgency to do SOMETHING NOW will leave us all in the dark. GET ON WITH IT.

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  • The answer is simple - THORIUM NOW -and nationally owned with no greedy directors and shareholders fingers in the till. No one should be allowed to hold the country to ransom as at present.

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