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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)

  • David Smart - Can't find where I said that you don't have a well researched set of proposals. If you read it you will note I was referring to Tony Day's message not yours, and the use of 'presumably' is just in case such statements are not well researched. I don't know, hence the usage.
    As for your seemingly boundless support for wind generation, the numbers I have seen, far from being unknown, seem to indicate a less than optimum efficiency against manufacturers quoted figures for wind installations. Perhaps with your greater knowledge you can provide some comparative costs for wind vs other means of power generation.
    To say 'ratepayers' rather than 'taxpayers' is not informative. It is the consumer who is hurt by higher than needed electricity costs and it is they who should be protected here.
    I'm afraid I don't understand your last paragraph at all. It seems self contradictory to me, but as I'm beyond retirement age it may be simple stupidity on my part.
    Out of curiosity, for whom do you work? Your item seems to infer you are in the Government somewhere and capable of 'going before a panel'.
    The basic issue again is...UK plc is not self sufficient in either fuel or power at present. The reasons for this are now history and it is the future that needs our concentration. Current practice does not seem capable of fixing the problem. We need to be self-sufficient in both fuel and generating capacity. We are an island and apart from political issues, natural disasters could disrupt supplies to us with catastrophic effects. In my own view it will take about 30 years to properly manage a solution if we start now and in the interim a mix of technologies seems to be the practical way forward. This is notwithstanding any long term solution that may be implemented.
    As for the Technology panel, I am glad you agree, it does seem the logical way to disassociate public projects from political interference. Maybe this should become a voting item in a future election.

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  • Hi John, you may not have said it, but you implied that Tony's proposal looks (to you) to be better than mine. I was wondering why, and now you repeat your bias:-

    "your seemingly boundless support for wind"

    Actually, I am a severe critic of (conventional) wind, which is why my design proposals are transformational. I figure it is daft to stick billions of pounds worth of equipment into the sea bed, if it ONLY gives you a variable supply of electricity from wind. The logical outcome is - my design has integral energy storage, it incorporates a wave energy converter and it floats. It also discards the industry-standard HAWT in favour of a new low cost, robust VAWT; for very sound engineering reasons.

    So it is more accurate to say that I am an enthusiast for energy storage and wind and wave just happen to be the most suitable candidates from the sustainable (free fuel) options. But surplus electricity from tidal can also be stored. If we suddenly got wisdom (and investment) we could have 20GW - 100GWh of stored energy available to the grid 24/7 in the early 2020s. From then on all fossil fuel generator plant could be phased out. Other than for 'deep reserve', it's all redundant.

    Do you understand that capacity factor is not a measure of efficiency?

    "less than optimum efficiency"

    But anyway, the "numbers" you have seen are from the conventional designs that I criticise. Storage eliminates 'curtailment' AND covers for peak demand - a win/win scenario, I think you'll find. How else can that be done?

    The designs I propose will likely cost no more in capital per MW delivered than the wind turbines that are due to be deployed in Round 3, but with storage (and wave) a capacity factor of 70% is attainable. Therefore you don't need so many to do a better job.

    I'd expect capital savings of £40bn on total installed capacity, and £2bn every year on grid operations by the mid 2020s.

    I can't for the life of me understand why nobody expresses any curiosity. I bet there's no genius engineer out there with a few billion pounds to 'burn' who can see how the designs would work. Surely everyone knows that burning stuff to make electricity is inefficient (i.e. all thermal plant) - plus the fact that you pay for the fuel, plus the fact that the fossil variety will add to global warming AND then run out.

    What's not to like about 'cold' storage and self-sufficiency in electricity from here to eternity? But we have to manufacture this kit, not import it, otherwise the economy is still stuffed.

    I only mentioned the Court ruling to inform you that scrapping "massive wind subsidies" would not release funds to be spent on R&D. I again agree with you in principle that money is far better spent 'up front' on R&D than 'after the event' on production subsidies. Some Germans have noticed that problem as well:-

    "The current subsidies don’t encourage innovation as much as they make existing technologies profitable." That's really stupid, isn't it. The first country to solve that problem is on to a winner.

    The 'anti-wind' focus is mis-directed. They see 'low wind' as the issue. No, no. Tackle surplus wind output - then you get the answer.
    "But analysts dismissed claims that offshore wind power could provide baseload capacity". Naturally the analysts have no idea what happens when you add energy storage to the equation. Then you DO get baseload from offshore wind!!!!

    My advice is - don't kid yourselves that 100% renewables is unattainable. FIVE studies conclude that it's doable, even with nothing better than existing technologies. Put new storage into the equation and it's a piece of cake (technically) and costs less. NB: All five scenarios use 50% wind power!!!!

    As you're curious, I don't work for anybody and I don't anticipate making a penny out of my intellectual property. That's just the way the cookie crumbles and I don't give a toss. I do care that the ruling elites (public and private) are taking Britain to hell in a handcart.

    Regards, Dave Smart

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  • The only source of dependable renewable energy is tidal. But all forms of renewable energy require some form of storage including tidal. Talk about the Severn barrage gets bogged down in possible negative effects on wild life something which I do not believe is as bad as is claimed.

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  • The current Severn Barrage claims to time-shift generation by many hours, but then if you don’t use it you lose it, in effect. It is likely to cost £30bn for 3GW of controllable output.

    Offshore wind with integral storage could deliver 30GW for £30bn without any time constraints and done carefully, it would be beneficial for the marine environment too.

    Instead of a construction boom, manufacturing this kit in the UK would create jobs for life and an export 'boom'.

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  • Presumably you mean the current proposals for a Severn barrage

  • David,
    I'm not an expert on anything much, but I have an engineering background and was a senior Procurement professional for many years, hence a fair degree of cynic is inbred and I like to think I factor plain common sense very highly into any analysis I choose to have fun with. If a serious discussion ensues which prompts serious solutions to difficult questions then we all gain.

    I am a proponent of tidal power. The UK has some extra-ordinarily high tides and tidal flows which I feel sure could be expoited very effectively at a lower capital cost per useable KWH than most Wind installations. The Severn Barrage, whilst having an element of 'self-storage' inbuilt is I believe a non starter for many well published reasons, e.g. silting and wild life disruption. However a series of tidal powered generators across the Severn (& many other) estuaries would harvest just about the same power without the downsides. Simplistic maybe, but i was always taught, choose the simplest answer that provides the solution. Now touted as the 'KISS' principle.

    I have also seen, and approve of wind generators that have the actual generator at the base of the collector rather than the top, which to me seems to go against any common sense solution I can imagine. And propellors seem needlessly cumbersome when compared with vertical vane systems, as invented by Turkish farmers some millenia ago. Vertical vanes are also self-limiting wrt wind velocity, seem to resist damage better than propellors and are arguably cheaper and easier to make and install than the propellor type currently favoured.

    So it seems, from our highly interesting and informative exchanges, that we are actually very nearly on the same side here.

    My only major differing of opinion to your good self is that I believe we will always need a 'back-up' plan. If you look at all effective technological solutions, where information (in this case electricity) is moved and stored, some form of back-up is invariably required. Not to provide this carries too high a risk of allowing potentially catastrophic failure.

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  • “If a serious discussion ensues which prompts serious solutions to difficult questions then we all gain.”

    Love it. That’s what I’m always looking for, but rarely find!!

    Yes Stuart - project, proposal, whatever - understood.

    Hi John, I agree the Severn Barrage is a non-starter. The incremental deployment of tidal stream generators is a far more sensible way forward and I would go further and say we could choose the best design option right now. i.e. buoyant, tethered fences of several turbines. Why? Because less material is used in construction and they can be easily re-sited if there are any unforeseen effects on local marine life. And obviously you want to use widely dispersed sites to get a fairly steady power fed to the grid from different tide times.

    Marine designs should all adopt the same philosophy; ‘first do no harm’ - ‘reversibility’ - re-use, refurbish and recycle. The guiding principles of the circular economy.

    You hit on the simple fact that makes HAWTs the wrong choice offshore. They’re top heavy and it is highly desirable, for many reasons, that we should switch to floating installations asap. Try telling that to the incumbent industry. Technip have chosen the better route of floating VAWTs (have a google) and a Chinese/US group also favour smaller, lighter VAWTs. Most fans of wind say that nothing competes with the industry standard, but a little disruptive innovation works wonders.

    We have no difference of opinion on ‘back-up’. Energy storage is the raison d’etre of my design. See my post above - 10 Dec 2012 9:50 pm Even without my new design and setting aside my guesstimate of a £40bn cut in capital costs, the £2bn/year saving comes from an Imperial College study that assumes 15GW of energy storage in 2030. I argue for 20GW in 2020.

    As I tried to explain, if you cut out the peaks of surplus supply and deliver that power to satisfy peak demand, it’s win/win.

    The Energy Bill assumes there is no alternative to gas-fired ‘back-up’. That is insane, and all because the privatisation of electricity distribution did not foresee the need for energy storage in the system.

    “it’s a bit like a carousel”

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  • Floating installations of properly designed Wind generators seems a reasonable solution if the figures stack up. With the centre of gravity lowered by a base mounted generator a concrete flotation box anchored to the seabed could hold a number of devices.

    Floating 'fences' of tidal generators also seem credible but I worry that Estuaries, where a lot of such strings of generators would be sited are also the main channels for shipping. I fear a clash of aims here with both ships and generators vying for the deep, fastest flowing channels, hence my leaning toward seabed mounted devices below keel depth. These would still be relatively portable.

    i'm starting to run out of ideas on this and think I will leave it now unless I find a compelling reason to continue. Great to have this discussion with you David. You are clearly a highly qualified and motivated engineer with some radical thoughts about the future of energy. I wish you great reward for your efforts and trust that any proposals you have implemented include the neccessary insurance against worst case disaster just so I sleep easier.

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