Friday, December 02, 2005

How to plug the Energy Gap to 2050.

It has been concluded that providing the U.K. with energy up to 2050 will require a suite of energy sources, including nuclear power. This inference is the outcome of a two day conference held in London in October 2005, which I attended. A subsequent report was written by John Loughead (Executive Director of the UK Energy Research Centre), of which an overview was presented to the Royal Society on November 10th. I will now give mention and some thoughts to the following points arising.

Fossil fuels will provide the primary energy source for the next 50 years.

(1) Coal. It is thought that coal will likely remain fairly cheap, and so finding improved ways for using it as a clean fuel source is a priority. Nonetheless, there is no getting around the fact that burning coal produces CO2. Carbon capture and sequestration (pumping it underground or onto the ocean floor) might play some part in ameliorating the impact of coal use, but the technology has yet to be demonstrated on the full scale, and concerns remain about its long term safety (i.e. how confident can we be that the CO2 will stay put; or might it suddenly erupt, causing chaos to the climate), which will certainly delay its actual implementation.
In principle, coal might be "gasified", especially in seams which are not feasible to mine, to produce e.g. methane and hydrogen as fuels, but questions arise over issues of practicality and safety (e.g. a large emission of methane, with an instantaneous radiative forcing potential around 100x that of CO2, would not be good!).
(2) Oil. This is of prime importance to transportation. Hydrogen is sometimes spoken of as an "alternative fuel" but it is not a primary source rather an energy carrier, and has to be made using a primary fuel, often natural gas, or by the electrolysis of water which requires electricity generated using a primary source. Debate remains over just how much oil is available for exploitation, but it is expected that a peak in oil production "peak oil" will occur between now and 2050, and some believe that it will occur any time between now (2005, so we might be there already) and 2010 (which is not far off).
(3) Gas. Supplies of natural gas are extensive, and "peak gas" is not expected before 2050. There are concerns, however, that the U.K. is no longer a net exporter of gas, but will rely increasingly on imports of Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) from potentially politically complex and unpredictable regions such as Russia, hence security of supply is an issue.
(4) Nuclear. The matter of nuclear power has never been more contentious than it is now. It is argued that nuclear fission is a "mature technology", so we know what is involved, but the costs, in terms of new construction and the decommissioning of nuclear power plants (NPP) at the end of their working lifetimes, and of the disposal and long term storage of nuclear waste, are likely to be enormous. It is clear that all but one of the currently operating U.K. NPP's will need to be decommissioned by 2025, and probably replaced by new, since an alternative which provides 22% of the total U.K. electricity would be hard to implement in the short term (e.g. renewables). There are problems of supply of essential component parts, however, e.g. there are only two suppliers to be found worldwide who can supply the complex pressure vessels required by modern fission reactors.
(5) Renewables. Under the most favourable circumstances, it is thought that renewables might provide up to 40% of the U.K.'s electricity by 2050. Nonetheless, substantial investment and clear government policy is required to achieve the improved technology and its manufacture to bring, e.g. solar, wind, tidal, into economic parity with existing energy sources.
(6) Demand. This is a feature oft overlooked during discussions about energy provision, and yet it is surely key to addressing the considerable problems that face us. A simple rationing policy would prove instantly unpopular (a real vote-loser) since most of us wish to preserve our current (no pun intended) standard of living. We are, therefore, talking about "energy efficiency", of making the best use of what we have. The Oxford Environmental Change Institute are working on Ultra Insulated Houses (e.g. "The 40% House" project), which they think will ultimately evolve to the level where artificial heating is not required. Background and e.g. body heat, contained within improved building design, would be sufficient to provide a comfortable living environment. There are presumably issues of ventilation etc. to be addressed.
Even before this ideal is achieved, buildings generally could be so constructed to render huge reductions in the amount of energy required to heat them to the standards we expect. The same institute have concluded that the U.K. could provide up to 60% of its electricity through renewables, which does make me think that a judicious combination of efficiency and renewables could go a long way to "plug(ing) the energy gap to 2050", the title of this article. However, there is a vested infrastructure built around fossil fuels, both political and economic, which might put up some resistance to change. Clear government policies are mandatory on all these issues: we need guidance from our elected leadership as to which path we should follow as a collective nation.

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