Monday, July 03, 2006

Energy Efficiency to Limit Nuclear.

The U.K. may avoid implementing a vast programme to construct a "new" generation of nuclear reactors under plans to force power companies to reduce energy use and encourage the public to cut their fuel bills. The Trade and Industry Secretary Alistair Darling said that "tackling the 'waste' of power would ease pressure on resources." While this alone would be insufficient to entirely eliminate the need for "new nuclear", it would reduce the number of new reactors needed to be built during the next three decades. Under current schemes, the existing generation of reactors, around 30 in all, are due for decommissioning by 2025, and new facilities must be brought on stream at least by then.
As Darling points out, nuclear remains unpopular in a NIMBY sense. Almost no one wants a nuclear power station near to them. It appears that perhaps only two or three reactors will be necessary, in sharp comparison with the 20 or so originally planned. Darling's "energy review" is due out this month, and will promote alternative sources of energy, particularly wind-farms, among the means to collectively keep the lights on once the existing nuclear plants are switched off. As a means to encourage uptake of renewable energy, the bugbear of planning enquiries for all major power projects are expected to be shortened, to prevent local residents pouring legal-treacle over the machinations of such plans which are invariably unpopular with some (noise, skyline-pollution, fears for safety, and all the usual suspects trawled-out under the NIMBY flag). While this sounds as a positive step, there are occasions when lengthly planning mechanisms are useful and necessary. For example, in the area bordering the River Thames in and around Reading, a number of projects have been vetoed when they involved building on a flood-plane. Such unchecked construction can create worse detrimental environmental impacts than "bad" energy provision, in terms of flooding particularly and pollution, and a system of "brakes" should be in place to be applied as necessary.
The shift in emphasis could be construed as a "U-turn", since it was but weeks ago that Mr Blair was speaking all out in favour of a leviathan nuclear revamp. There is an odd conundrum facing this issue, since the message of Sir David King, Chief Scientific Advisor to the government, is essentially "go for it", to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from fossil-fuel fired power stations, while the Sustainable Development Committee (SODS), chaired by Sir Jonathan Porritt, is far more cautious. It did appear that Mr Blair was listening hardest to the former side, but the new energy report would suggest a rather more muted stance, and one more closely in line with the SDC's conclusions. Either voice is only one of informed suggestions and advice rather than bawled orders - it is the government that holds the final decision. Interestingly David Cameron is taking a "renewable" stance, and Labour may fear being "out-greened" by their strongest adversary, as the next general election beckons.
Labour and the Conservatives do appear to be singing from the same hymn sheet on one issue, namely to support proposals for micro neighborhood power stations, which would use heat generated in producing electricity to supply hot water for nearby homes. They are presumably referring to CHP (combined heating and power) systems, which it is thought could eventually meet up to one fifth of the U.K.'s energy needs - i.e. for electricity and space heating.
The overriding message is "energy efficiency", which is endorsed by the Institute of Public Policy Research who argue that energy use could be cut by 30% through such measures. Energy companies could assist the process by supplying their customers with energy efficient bulbs, loft insulation and "smart" meters which provide a warning when energy is being wasted. Indeed, if efficient lighting systems were adopted globally, the world could knock around 10% off its electricity bill (i.e. production demand). In addition to easing the stress on fuel, this would make a considerably greater contribution to cutting global CO2 emissions than has been met so far by implementing solar and wind power.
Encouraging energy companies and its citizens to use less energy in the first place has got to take pride of place on the list of energy commandments written by all governments. Only then can we judge precisely what the level of necessary energy production during the coming decades is, and so make informed decisions about how to ensure (or replace) an adequate supply of energy sources such as oil and gas, for which we have become increasingly dependent on foreign imports.


Anonymous said...

I find it strange and disappointing that the appeal for greater energy efficiency (which is always a good and laudable thing) is accompanied by an appeal to use the savings to reduce nuclear power plants.

Shouldn't we be investing those energy savings in reducing the number of COAL power plants? That will have the greatest benefit for the environment, and the greatest reduction in human suffering and death.

Why don't we save some energy so we can ditch some coal? (then oil, then gas...)

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

I guess "nuclear" is a hot political pawn, and both sides (Labour and Conservative) are playing it off against each other regarding public opinion. Nulcear has less friends that opponents in opinion polls! However, my own position is (1) we maximise energy efficiency, so to do with less "energy" overall. Then (2)we provide electricity and space heating and energy for industry etc., probably using a mix of (I'm with you - thorium fuelled) nuclear, renewables, and, if the governments of the world are serious about limiting CO2 emissions, using any windfalls (up to 50% might ultimately be saved) from "efficiency" to cut fossil fuel use for electricity generation. CHP systems and solar applied on the local "micro" scale could do much to supply overall domestic energy, and for some commercial enterprises too.
But we need a proper balance sheet worked out, with real timescales not just rhetoric, first.
(3) The remaining problem is fuel for transportation, and as I have written a number of times in these postings, and comments to them, that would best be achieved through "fuel efficiency" - localised lving, to cut down on the necessary carriage of goods and people - and linking local communities "pods" through electric tram systems, such as work well in European cities (Prague is a good example). That kind of meso-scale ifrastructure could be powered using electricity from nuclear - or other means, e.g. tidal and offshore wind, where that facility does not require an immense and inefficient "national grid".