Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Rambling thoughts on wind and power generation, part 3

As I stated in part 1, our nation is faced with two significant energy problems.
  • Global warming
  • Energy security
In the first and second parts of this post I concentrated on wind power. In this part I will talk about energy security.

So what is energy security? As is often the case, the term covers a series of issues. Firstly, it means that we have to have continuity of the raw sources of our energy. In the case of traditional power stations, it means we need uninterrupted supplies of gas, coal and oil, allowing us to generate power for end-users at an economic price. This is a problem as much of our gas and oil comes from countries that whose governments are far from stable, and supply is subject to the whims of their governments.

Secondly, it means that we have to be able to generate enough power to meet our requirements. It is no good having enough oil and gas if our generation and refinery capacity is too low. This is an issue as power stations built in the seventies and eighties reach the end of their lifespan.

Our politicians and media are concentrating almost solely on global warming, and little on energy security. This is a problem as energy security poses a much more significant threat to our way of life than global warming. Prolonged brown-outs (reduction in voltage to conserve power) and blackouts (power cuts) were common in the 1970s.  Unfortunately many people (including the National Grid chief) say we are heading towards blackouts by 2015. The Economist has a very good article about this. Some experts I have talked to say that blackouts will occur in some parts of the country in the next year or two.

It takes many years to bring a new power plant on-line, and we need to be planning for the problems now. The Labour government cynically kept on kicking this issue into the long grass, and it is now far too late to prevent it from happening. I hope I am wrong, but one of the issues at the next election will be a looming energy crisis. And the coalition government will be getting the blame for Labour's cowardliness, especially in relation to power generation.

However, the coalition are not blameless. They are continuing the last Government's plans that make it uneconomical for companies to build new power plants. Several Trent Valley power stations (e.g. Willington) were going to be rebuilt, but many of these plans have been thrown into doubt by the economics. Compare this with wind farms, which receive massive subsidies from the public. At the same time, our existing power stations are being targeted by green activists, making it harder for councils and the government to grant planning permissions for new build plants.

The ideal would be for us to rely on a varied combination of power sources. Wind power would be a part of this, as would tidal, hydro and wave. However, with the best will in the world these renewable sources will come nowhere near matching our requirements.

All politicians (indeed, anyone) who profess knowledge on this subject should read and digest David MacKay's book 'Sustainable Energy - without the hot air'. It is available free on-line, or a hard-copy version can be bought from Amazon. It is so easy to come up with soundbites about this subject, but MacKay's book honestly describes the complexity of the issues in a readable manner. What is more, he tries to show how hard it is to meet the country's energy requirements from each source. I do not agree with everything within, but it is undoubtedly a vitally important read.

So what steps would I like to see the government make to improve energy security?
  • Firstly, the Government should set a per-capita target for power requirements in twenty years time. 
  • Secondly, they should work out what proportion of this energy should come from each source.
  • Thirdly, they should make it economical for the power generators to build that capacity.
  • Fourthly, we should invest in research and development of other energy sources (e.g. new nuclear designs and wave power).
  • Fifthly, we should reduce the usage of oil and gas in power generation. We have to reduce the usage of gas from Russia and oil from the Middle East.
Power generation should be seen as a critical issue for our country. Many people say that the free market should be allowed to just get on with it; that may or may not work. What is not working is the current situation, where the government are interfering with the markets and forcing them onto a path (wind) that could never supply enough power to the country. We either let the markets rule, or control them more. The current halfway house is a farce.

1 comment:

Alan Sloman said...

I think your three articles are a "must read" for anyone thinking around this topic, David.

I shall point people from my blog to them.

Thank you - a great, well informed read.