Energy balancing act

2 min read

The debate about ‘keeping the lights on’ has never been as high on the agenda as now, but all too often it has been conducted in black and white terms.

Nuclear energy is talked of as the solution to future requirements, or as an evil. Renewable energy is either the ideal green solution, or incapable of filling the gap in supply.

The question as I see it is not so much which energy source is ‘best’, but what the right mix of energy will be for the future — what is desirable, cost-effective and, perhaps most importantly, deliverable?

Although the government has yet to make a firm pronouncement on nuclear energy, we know that our future power will come from a number of sources. Energy minister Malcolm Wicks has talked about the need for a balanced approach.

There are, therefore, four critical areas that we all — engineers, politicians, businesses, energy producers and consultants — need to consider.

First, public acceptance. Whether nuclear is part of the mix or not, the UK public needs to be behind what is proposed, to facilitate future development. An information campaign will also be vital.

Second, cost. It is down to the engineering sector to keep these down. Companies with expertise across a range of disciplines can share knowledge and work together on multi-faceted projects to produce economies of scale. The UK’s new energy era will not be cheap, but neither should the bills mount up needlessly.

Third, a fresh look needs to be taken at energy efficiency and ways to cut down on waste, both domestic and business. More sustainable and energy-efficient solutions need to be incorporated into our national infrastructure to cut long-term demand.

Last, delivery. Do we have enough qualified staff in the UK to decommission existing nuclear power stations and build more? We need to look at changing the way that work is procured in the industry — where companies have a genuine commitment to training their staff for the future, this should count in their favour when deciding who wins contracts.

Efficient delivery will only be possible with a smooth planning process. Ministers must consider whether current policies are suitable for new-energy build, whether for nuclear, renewables or any other source. A balance needs to be struck between protecting our right to have an input into the planning process, and avoiding delays.

There are many answers needed to solve the current energy conundrum and no one organisation or individual has all of them. But one thing is clear. A balanced energy portfolio — quite different to the one we have now — is likely to supply our needs into the future.

Engineering companies need to apply themselves to help bring about the UK’s new energy era.

Dr Paul Dollin, Managing Director

Atkins Nuclear and Power

Aztec West, Bristol