Generation gap

Unless we act now and make security of energy supply a priority, the UK will soon face a generation shortfall, warns Ian Fells

Security of energy supply must now take priority over everything, even climate change. UK imports of gas and oil are accelerating, just as the fragility of supplies from Russia and the middle east becomes more apparent and the UK heads towards the loss of one third of its generating capacity over the next 12 years.

A total of 23GW (30 per cent of generating capacity) will need to be replaced by 2020, and from 30GW to 35GW by 2027. The impending crisis in power generation could lead to a dramatic shortfall as early as 2012.

This arises from the closure of ageing nuclear and coal-fired stations. The default position is to build new gas-fired stations as they can be completed in four years, but only 4.5GW [of generating capacity is] under construction. In terms of security of supply and energy costs this is unsatisfactory, but new nuclear stations can’t be brought on stream earlier than 10 years.

Furthermore, this will derail attempts to reduce CO2 emissions, which will continue to rise.

Renewables have a role to play, but unrealistic expectations have elevated them above their capabilities. In the medium term a strong case can be made for replacing inefficient, polluting, old coal-fired stations with new coal-fired ones. They will be less polluting than the stations they replace and, if carbon capture and storage (CCS) can be demonstrated to work, it can be retrofitted.

Coal now provides 34 per cent of the UK’s electricity. This would give us an important element of security as coal is partly indigenous and partly imported from reasonably stable parts of the world. Considerable effort should go into demonstrating the feasibility of CCS. And if the collected CO2 is pumped into failing North Sea oil wells to give tertiary oil recovery, it will increase the contribution the North Sea can make to UK oil supplies, providing a further contribution to our energy security.

Other measures include a significant increase in gas and electricity storage. Germany has 70 days’ supply of gas as against the UK’s 14. Depleted gas fields in the North Sea can be used for gas storage. As a matter of urgency, security of electricity supply should be further increased by linking the UK with Norway, Germany, the Netherlands (now building the 1GW BritNed) and France (an additional link). This could be achieved within two or three years using UK technology — in time to help with the anticipated shortfall in electricity generation capacity.

Nuclear power has been allowed to decline in the UK, despite its central role in providing CO2 free electricity. The government has done a belated U-turn and now wants nuclear as an essential part of the energy mix. In the meantime, it has sold off Westinghouse, one of only five builders of nuclear power stations in the world, and one with a large and growing order book — a significant error of judgment.

The situation can be rectified, but it will take time and money. In the longer term, like the rest of the world, we will have to move to generation IV reactors, which are breeder reactors and use uranium 60 times more efficiently than today’s thermal reactors. If we take this route we could effectively multiply the world’s dwindling energy resources by ten.

Tidal power can be harnessed by giving the go-ahead to build a Severn barrage, which would provide five per cent of the UK’s electricity. This should be looked at in comparison with offshore costs. Both will be needed to approach our EU obligations. Other barrage sites around the coast, such as the Mersey, should be examined with the prospect of pumped storage in mind.

Considerable investment in the National Grid will be needed if the transmission and distribution networks are to accommodate the development of new-build and distributed generators, many of them renewables. Scotland in particular, with a high density of wind, wave and tidal resources, faces connection difficulties. Offshore projects will lose viability if onshore connections are not upgraded. The Scotland/England 2.2GW interconnector will have to be substantially strengthened if the renewable energy coming from the Western Isles is to be sold to England.

Skills shortages in electrical and nuclear engineering must also be addressed urgently.

energy transmission and distribution company Areva is trying to recruit 11,000 new engineers and technicians in Europe. This is proving very difficult as up to 40 per cent of British Energy staff are due to retire within the next 10 years. The new National Skills Academy for Nuclear is to be commended, but it will be rendered ineffective if there are no universities offering nuclear engineering degrees. The industry is expected to need 1,000 new graduates a year for the next 15 years.

From a global perspective, the conviction that ‘peak oil’ and ‘peak gas’ theories, which predict worldwide supplies will peak in the next few years, and then go steadily downhill, is gaining ground. This fuels the growing belief that gas from the middle east and Russia may not be available to satisfy the growing demand from Europe and the UK over the next decade (before a new strategy of new-build nuclear, renewables in quantity from a Severn barrage and coal-fired stations with CCS come on stream). Competition from China and India further diminishes our ability to lever access to affordable, secure hydrocarbon supplies.

We have drifted into a situation resembling a slow-motion train crash, and South Africa has already hit the buffers with disastrous effects on its economy. Energy is the lifeblood of growing civilisations. Without it we slide into anarchy. Fortunately, there are hi-tech solutions if we care to take them.

Edited extracts from ‘A pragmatic energy policy for the UK’, a report by energy industry expert Prof Ian Fells