Mr. Miliband's White Paper

Mr. Miliband, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, has fronted the Government's latest White Paper on Energy.

The plans describe a transition to a low-carbon economy, with much less use of fossil fuel.

The paper sets out plans to generate 15% of the UK's electrical energy by 2020. It states that an increase in renewables means that we will be able to import less gas, despite decreasing production in the North Sea.

Mr. Milliband's announcements (on 16 July 09) were made on the day when Vesta, the only UK wind turbine manufacturer, said it would close its Isle of Wight plant with the loss of 600 jobs.

There are doubt in the energy industry that the plans will attract enough private sector investment to be carried through. A source at one of the big six energy companies expressed doubts about spending so much money on renewables. He went on to say that wind power costs five times as much as nuclear. He could also have added that it is intermittent (and debateably, not even renewable) because of the need to keep a spinning reserve of large turbines operating in case the wind drops.

There are three types of power station making up the generating capacity of a system like the National Grid.

1. Stations which are kept running all of the time, for baseload. The majority of this in the UK is met by nuclear.

2. Stations where the turbines are spun up to run during working hours. These include gas and coal.

3. Stations which can meet sudden peaks in demand (for example, during the surges caused by peak viewing on evening television), mainly met by pumped-storage schemes such as the one at Dinorwig. These are largely run by nuclear electricity, which pumps water to an upper reservoir at night, ready to run enormous water turbines for a short period the next day.

As old nuclear stations reach the end of their working lives, more fossil fuels are having to be used to make up the shortfall. This is becoming a very expensive way of providing baseload electricity as the prices of gas and coal increase.

An enormous problem is approaching. In 2016, 35% of our traditional coal stations will be closed down under an EU directive. That's over a third. We will have a serious energy shortfall, and that means power cuts unless corrective action is taken now.

Wind energy was highlighted by the Government in its White Paper as a significant contributor to providing our green energy needs.

This is a misleading statement. Yes, wind provides a big fraction of our green energy, but the statement gives wind energy a prominence not merited by the facts. It implies that wind energy can replace most of the energy shortfall caused by closure of the older coal plants.

Let's look at some figures to understand the scale of the problem.

The UK generates about 75 GW of power, with wind maximising at about 2 GW on windy days. Let's consider the London Array, a massive windfarm coming on-stream in 2012. When the wind is blowing between 12 mph and 45 mph, it will produce between 0.01 and 0.6 GW, depending on the windspeed. Halve the windspeed and you get one eighth of the energy. One third of the windspeed and you get one twenty-seventh of the energy.

On how many days in a year will it be producing its maximum power of 0.6 GW? This is London, remember, not the north of Scotland.

New nuclear stations (which provide about 1.6 GW each, all of the time) are unlikely to appear very quickly; they take about 4 years to build (see below)*, but there are few companies with the expertise to build nuclear stations (I think there are only three in the world) and they already have full or nearly-full order books. There is also the problem of approving the plans for each station; the public inquiry for Sizewell B took six years!

Unsurprisingly, several of the large energy companies have announced cuts in the amount they are prepared to invest in wind.

We need more attention to be focused on maintaining security of supply. If we follow a sensible energy policy (more nuclear, and more energy efficiency) then the carbon emissions targets will largely look after themselves. But most estimates in the industry predict that the earliest date for any new nuclear station being operational will be 2017. A year before that, one third of our gas and coal generating capacity will have been switched off.


* ENGLAND -Sizewell B, a one-off design, took 15 years. The paperwork took longer than it takes many countries to build nuclear power stations.

AMERICA - plants now operating: average construction time of 66 months, or five and a half years, for those plants completed by 1979.

FRANCE - The French build nuclear stations in about four and a half years.

JAPAN - they were building nuclear stations in 40 months 15 years ago.

On page 7 of The Commons Environmental Audit Committee's report is the following:

"Regarding timescales for introducing new nuclear stations, international experience with standard designs (France, Japan, Korea, China) indicates typical construction times of 5yrs for the first unit with timescales for subsequent units in a series of the same design being 36-48 months depending on the design, local circumstances and whether built in pairs or as single units." (taken from Global Energy Issues, vol. 14, 2000).

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