Nuclear meltdown for Blair’s emissions

Labour’s campaign to lead Europe in the battle against global warming faces serious embarrassment.

Labour’s campaign to lead Europe in the battle against global warming faces serious embarrassment, as its commitments on cutting the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions seem to be fast becoming unachievable.

The government is committed to cutting the country’s emissions of CO2, the main global warming culprit, by 10% against 1990 levels by 2010. However, total CO2 output from electricity generation – the biggest source after transport – seems certain to rise by the end of the decade.

The reason is that 3,000MW of CO2-free base-load generation will be lost by then, as all of the UK’s remaining first-generation Magnox nuclear power plants are shut by 2008. A similar quantity of new non-fossil capacity would have to be in place to avoid a commensurate increase in CO2 emissions – not allowing for the additional ‘green’ generation needed to cover the projected increase in electricity demand and effect the planned CO2 reductions.

New nuclear capacity

The construction of new nuclear capacity is a subject of discussion once more after 10 years of pariah status. The DTI acknowledged last week in an early response to the government’s Energy Review that new nuclear plants could be economic. But those close to the industry recognise that nothing further will be built by 2010.

To achieve that, the process – involving protracted planning procedures – would have to get underway now. With the Energy Review unlikely to be completed before next summer, and a consultation exercise likely to follow, no proposal for a new plant could possibly be advanced before 2003. With a two-year planning process and a six or seven-year construction period, even this wildly optimistic scenario would fail to deliver by 2010.

This puts the onus on the expansion of renewable sources of energy and combined heat and power, which achieves ‘lower’ emissions per unit generated through its greater efficiency (around 80% against 56% for the best conventional generation).The centrepiece of the government’s strategy to promote this sector is its planned Renewables Obligation, which will come into effect next year and force electricity suppliers to buy an increasing percentage of their requirements from renewable sources (3% in the period to March 2003 rising to over 10.4% in the year to March 2011).

The government launched the statutory consultation exercise on the RO last week, but the proposals raised doubts that they would achieve their aims.

For example, the Environmental Services Association, which represents the waste and secondary resource management industries, criticised the exclusion of schemes that produce energy from the incineration of mixed waste. It said these could have made ‘an important contribution’ to the recycling targets. A bigger concern is that planning constraints will continue to impede the development of wind power, the renewable that could make the biggest contribution. The RO proposes regional targets but gives no clear idea as to how these would be enforced in the face of planning opposition.

No real action

Renewable Energy Systems, the UK-based developer of wind projects around the world, has long complained that the British planning system is an insuperable impediment to the expansion of wind power in the UK and said this week it remained the problem to address.

‘We could achieve 10% of total electricity supply from wind by 2010 under the current system if the planning issues are resolved by government,’ said Ian Mays, RES chairman. ‘We’ve heard a lot about setting regional targets but seen little action.’

Editor’s note: There has been some movement this month towards expanding the country’s renewable energy capacity. Scottish Power announced it is planning to build the UK’s largest wind farm of 140 turbines outside Glasgow. The £150m project, which still needs planning permission, will produce 240MW, enough to power 150,000 homes.

The Mayflower engineering group has said it hopes to find work building and maintaining offshore windfarms. The company is to spend £20m on what it claims will be the first construction vessel for the industry.