Nuclear lobby tries to generate support

Thursday, October 9, 2008

THE argument that nuclear should be part of any low- carbon solution to the UK's power requirements has been put forcefully by Westminster and, unsurprisingly, by the nuclear lobby. The counter argument – that it is, at best, a diversion from renewable energy – has been put equally forcefully by the likes of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth.

In its submission to government, the energy company E.ON puts the pro-nuclear case as clearly as anyone. "Given the scale of the reduction in emissions required by 2050 and beyond, it is essential that the UK invests to shift its economy to a low-carbon basis on a long-term sustainable basis," it says.

The same sentiment, of course, could come equally well from Greenpeace. However, E.ON goes on to focus on the importance of "security of supply".

Since nuclear power stations are in essence gigantic kettles, or steam generators, they are great for pouring a steady, reliable quantity of power into the grid. And since the UK will be retiring all of its existing coal-fired power stations and all but one nuclear power station over the next two decades, that will leave around a 35 gigawatt (GW) hole in the UK's power output.

The most realistic non-nuclear way of filling that gap would be to build a number of gas-fired power stations. However, E.ON points out, that brings with it significant risks of disruption of supply, since the UK is now a net importer of gas. Add to this the fact that replacing the current electricity generation from nuclear power in the UK with fossil fuelled plants would result in an additional 28 to 61 million tonnes of per year, and the nuclear option looks pretty good, E.ON says.

Greenpeace's solution, apart from calling for a continuing ramp up of renewable sources, is for government to take at least two radical new approaches. First, it wants to see a shift from the old style approach to fulfilling the UK's power requirements by establishing a limited number of massive, central generating plants (be they nuclear or fossil fuel driven), towards a decentralised, micro generation approach.

This would see much more effort put into small combined heat and power (CHP) systems and into micro generation technologies suited for small businesses and residences, such as ground heat pumps and small wind turbines. Second, it wants to see much more done to cut energy waste dramatically.

Neil Gray, associate director at the property specialist Colliers CRE, takes a hard-headed stand on micro generation. It is theoretically possible, he says, but there are considerable financial and regulatory issues in the way at present, as well as issues of scale. Combined heat and power plants are not yet the kind of thing you would install next to your house garage. However, on the plus side, he says that Colliers is seeing more and more planning applications for business units and parks containing some element of onsite generation.

This is being driven, he says, by two pieces of regulation. First, there is Scottish Planning Policy 6, which focuses on major power generation issues, but also contains some references to micro-generation and residential energy generation.

Second, there is Planning Advice Note 83, or PAN 83, which is a government advice note about reducing the carbon footprint of a build through the use of ground source heat pumps, solar panels and micro generation wind turbines.

"Scotland does not have the eco-town concept that England has, but the Scottish Government is keen to promote good examples of sustainability via the Scottish Sustainable Communities Initiative," says Gray.

However, in the current climate green issues are definitely sliding down the agenda, he says. He adds that builds with the new alternative energy generation capabilities tend to be demonstration projects.

Returning to the idea of a 35GW hole created by current nuclear and coal-fired plant closures, the British Wind Energy Association, the trade body for the renewables sector, made the point in its submission to the government's energy consultation that its members stand ready to do far more than meet the 14GW of gener-ation capacity for onshore wind and 14GW of capacity from offshore wind that the government has called for by 2020.

Calling on the government to overcome the planning hurdles for large wind projects, the BWEA says that wind will "soon be delivering electrical energy in quantities on a par with the traditional sources of nuclear, gas and coal, and it should be treated equally in terms of government attention and resource."

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