New dash for gas muddies UK’s energy future

Features editor

The latest announcements on energy policy make it harder than ever to work out where the UK’s electricity supply is going to come from by the middle of the century, and how we’re going to meet the targets for decarbonising power supply.

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.