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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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  • By all accounts Britain faces shortages of generated power quite soon. Until a long term Electricity generating strategy is developed we will need home produced fuel to provide stability of supply.
    'Fracked' gas is just gas. If we need it then get on with it. Gas fired Power stations would last the 30 years or so until UK power is stable and future needs are protected by whatever means. Given that Wind is more and more showing itself as 'unfit for purpose' if produced offshore and entirely anti-social for onshore sites, we had better get moving. A Nuclear powered base generation capacity seems an absolute necessity. 'Naturally' powered devices will only become useful, as stated above, if high capacity, efficient storage processes are developed.
    Micro CHP sounds great, but I suspect if it has a ROI of more than c.7 years it will not be viable for home use.
    Many and varied are the views and many and varied are the solutions, and once again I will harp on that Britain is crying out for an independent panel of qualified Engineers, seconded on a fixed term from industry or education, to be the sole arbiter of the viability of 'UK plc ' engineering projects such as: Power Generation, Rail Projects and Franchises, Road building et al. The Panel will have sole responsibility for appointing successor engineers.

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  • "Britain is crying out for an independent panel of qualified Engineers, to be the arbiter of the viability of 'UK plc' engineering projects."

    Yes, ok JohnK, but you have to own the IPR and finance the proof-of-concept and then develop a commercial design. Who pays for it all? How are the projects selected?

    Since it is a "given" that offshore wind is "not fit for purpose" you wouldn't expect a new design to be considered by the panel - presumably?

    The Fraunhofer Institutes have successfully fulfilled that role for years and the UK has no equivalent bodies, which is why we are so bad at commercialising our innovation.

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  • Shale gas has the poential to

    1/ Be lower carbon than some sources
    2/ Be cheap
    3/ Provide the baseload that renewables miserably fail to
    4/ Cause earthquakes in Blackpool

    Please tell me when I find a downside.

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  • Two of your contributors above have accidentally hit on the answer to the "how to square the emissions from gas circle?" question.

    One contributor states "So by 2050 perhaps the boffins will have worked out how to obtain clean gas use". The other mentioned "Storage Integrated Renewable Generation".

    Your contributors will be glad to know that the necessary technology has already been developed, proven and mothballed. The records are sitting in the ex-British Gas R and D archive at Loughborough.

    A zero cost 54% biogenic Carbon fuel consisting of 80% mixed residual hazardous and non-hazardous wastes, Refuse Derived Fuel, and contaminated woody biomass, and 20% mixed coal, lignite and Tyre Derived Fuel can be co-gasified to produce high pressure (60 bar) Synthetic Natural Gas (SNG) at 76% net efficiency.

    54.7% of the total Carbon throughput is separated during the methanation process, at no additional cost, as high purity 150 bar supercritical CO2, and then sequestered.

    Large quantities of net negative emissions (-50 to -70gCO2/kWh) 60 bar SNG is produced at an output cost of 45 to 50 p/therm, lower than to-day's open market cost of fossil Natural Gas.

    Injected into the gas grid, and used in a downstream CCGT, this gives an implied cost of carbon negative electricity of £45 to £50/MWh, lower than to-day's cost of peak load electricity.

    The gas grid currently provides 250 times more energy storage than the electricity grid, already exists and has been paid for. Gas transmission cost is 1/15th the capital cost per MWkm of electricity transmission.

    'Green' Hydrogen (H2) produced by electrolysis of 'lopped' excess wind power can be injected into the methanation process, thus reducing the steam injection requirement, and producing more SNG (CH4) and less CO2. This increases net efficiency, and reduces emissions.

    Green Hydrogen production is inherently uneconomical as less of the same energy vector (electricity) is produced as an output than as an input, ie negative net efficiency. The loss of energy is not offset by the conversion of a low cost energy resources into a high value energy vector as occurs in a conventional power station.

    The negative Return on Capital Employed (ROCE) of the electrolysis plant can be offset be the increased ROCE of the SNG plant, which has had its net efficiency and ROCE increased by injecting Green Hydrogen into the methanation process.

    The technology was fully developed in UK between 1955 and 1992, and subsequently in E. Germany between the late 1980's and 2007. Key elements of the technology are used in the World's largest and longest running SNG plant with CCS at Great Plains in Dakota, and are currently being built in China under the 2010 to 2015 Five Year Plan. One such plant for Datang will deilver 5% of total UK gas demand. Phase 1 went live this year.

    The first key piece of engineering, the BGL slagging gasifier, originally developed in Germany during WW2, was purchased by HM Ministry of Fuel and Power in 1955.

    The second key piece of engineering, the HICOM combined shift and methanation process and catalyst was developed by British Gas Midlands Research Station in the early 1980's.

    The third key piece of engineering, the use of the BGL to co-gasify a wide range of mixed low grade renewable and fossil fuels, was successfully operated at commercial scale at SVZ Schwarze pumpe between the late 1980's and 2007.

    The last key piece of technology, the Timmins CCS CO2 recycle loop, invented by the late Cyril Timmins, the leader of the British Gas SNG commercialisation programme, and Keith Tart, the inventor of HICOM, has recently been succesfully integrated into the design of the British Gas coal to SNG scheme by 2 more senior ex-British Gas engineers, Andy Williams of GL Noble Denton Ltd (previously Advantica plc), the inheritors of the ex-British Gas Intellectual Property and R and D records, and Chris Hodrien of Timmins CCS Ltd, formerly of British Gas Midlands Research Station and Advantica.

    In short, the boffins have been busy providing the answer to providing clean low cost gas. HMG has forgotten that it sponsored the British Gas '30 Year Plan' programme from 1955 to 1992, designed to supply the whole of UK gas demand by SNG when North Sea gas ran out some time after 2000.

    Best wishes.

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  • Shale gas has no poential (sic) to be either low carbon or cheap. Points 3) and 4) are of little consequence.

    Bryan Leyland is sadly deluded. Small wonder nobody wastes their time telling him so.

    Tony Day: Your suggestion doesn’t qualify as an alternative for either “clean gas use” or “Storage Integrated Renewables”. Failed on both counts.

    Turn waste into biogas by all means, but if sequestration is required it’s a non-starter.

    Regarding SIRG, you missed the important bit - “before generator”. That sets it apart from all other storage technology because you have NO conversion/reconversion losses. No incentives for energy storage in the EMR. Crass stupidity on all sides.

    As for all these dummies that keep bleating about ‘intermittent’ wind being “useless”, how come it is being built then? There is no ROI if there is no electricity. Conventional wind is a variable power source. SIRG gives you firm, dispatchable electricity at the flick of an automated switch. Zero carbon power on demand - no fuel costs - no chemistry. What’s not to like?

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  • David Smart - "who pays for it". The same money as is currently being used as massive Subsidies for useless wind farms. Cancel all Wind Farm subsidies. If it is cost effective it will be built as a profit generator and if not, it won't, simple!

    The Technology Project Management panel would be independent, and manage HMG's money in a logical and sensible manner, clearly not what is happening today with short termist, politicised processes.

    Tony Day has put forward a (presumably) well researched set of proposals. It is unlikely any Government would have the Engineering know-how to interpret the meaning behind his proposals, hence the call for an Independent panel who would fully understand all the ramifications and potential for this type of thinking and have the authority to use government money to fund this type of project if the returns or benefits make it worthwhile.

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  • “In 2001 the European Court of Justice ruled that feed-in tariffs (ROCs for UK wind) are not subsidies because no firm receives payment from the government and the cost is passed on to ratepayers, not taxpayers; this is NOT an item in the government’s budget.”

    In contrast, tax breaks etc. for fossil fuels ARE subsidies; they’re an item on that budget.

    The Panel would never be given any (or certainly not enough) money by HMG. That is my point. Peter Mandelson, James Dyson and David Willetts have all looked enviously at the Fraunhofer Gesellschaft, but public funding is excluded from the agenda, so it never happens.

    You seem to assume that I don’t have “a (presumably) well researched set of proposals”. Why? Is it because you have convinced yourself (for some unknown reason) that wind farms are “useless”? There is no evidence for that belief.

    You are right. An independent, unbiased expert panel is absolutely essential to pick out the technical winners from the dross. I asked the DTI for just such expert assistance in 2005. The Assistant Director, Innovation Strategy said NO! - End of discussion.

    I’d go before such a panel and win their vote with ease. Then what? From where do you get the investment to manufacture disruptive technology? The incumbent industry will use every crooked trick in the book to prevent that and put you out of business.

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  • Note to the Editor:

    Dear Stuart,

    Your current poll is depressingly pessimistic.

    I want to vote for the rapid phasing out of gas by 2030, but it’s not an option.

    Why is that? Have we sunk so low we’ve lost all ambition?

    I’ve posted a simple solution, but not been asked one sensible question.

    This lack of curiosity is a sad reflection on 21st. century engineers.

    Best regards, Dave

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  • From

    Current usage is about 68,000 tU/yr. Thus the world's present measured resources of uranium (5.3 Mt) in the cost category around present spot prices and used only in conventional reactors, are enough to last for about 80 years.

    oopsy, that's at current usage, start building more, that number comes down (yes I know there are other, more dangerous ways of making your fuel last longer, while producing even more dangerous long-lived crud to poison the planet with). Nuclear: there's a technology that plans for the future... not to be anywhere near itself .... T

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  • QUOTE ABOVE - 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.

    One day, these solar, wind and wave powered solutions WILL be needed. But until you "shake the tree" you don't know whats going to fall out of it. Better to force the technological advancement now.

    The other issue is the Dash for Gas - seems some people will knock the government whatever they do? However, this does smack of something approaching an all-round strategy, which the government should be praised for. Better to have a back-up plan now, because the nuclear industry is trying to hold the government to ransom, because they think the fossil fuels can't be developed. So should the worst happen and "legal/green" power sources run out, we still have the fall-back option of gas, including the possible windfall of shale gas.

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