How the “greenest government ever” has conspired with global warming deniers to produce a 2nd dash for Gas

Been mega busy at work, which prevented me from updating this blog. And what a story I missed! A story that was strangely absent from much of the mainstream media.

Figure 1, Anti-Wind Farm Nimby’s

You may recall all those stories a few weeks ago about John Hayes saying that he believed enough was enough” when it came to onshore wind. However, a pair of Guardian journalists have now revealed how there was more going on that originally thought. They filmed and recorded conservative MP Chris Heaton-Harris admitting that he had set it up for well known climate change denier James Delingpole to stand in the Corby by-election for Louise Mensch vacated seat, against another Tory candidate (oddly enough Delingpole was standing on an “anti-wind farm” ticket, even though there are currently no proposals to build any within that constituency!). Further, Chris Heaton-Harris campaign manager (another Tory party member) went to work for Delingpole on this campaign, meaning he was working against the official tory candidate, little short of party treason.

Chris Heaton-Harris admitted to the journalists that this whole fiasco was merely a act of political street theatre approved by John Hayes and others in Number 10 to allow him to make his aforementioned anti-wind farm statements. As this whole saga came to light before the by-election it almost certainly had something to do with the defeat of the Tory’s by labour with a comfortable majority.

Of course the Tory’s toff’s have since denied everything (despite the blatant evidence to the contrary, i.e. a video recording of it all!). And naturally they have escaped punishment of any kind (other than perhaps a few wedgies in the locker room of the Bullingdon club), which sort of suggests they were acting with the full consent of Cameron and Osborne.

The dash for gas part deux

Figure 2, Gas!

Naturally this débâcle has called into question the real motivations behind the recently published UK energy bill. As Damian Carrington (also in the Guardian) points out the debate behind this bill was driven more by ideology than facts. In essence the chancellor Osborne appears to have set the UK on a course to renege on its previous commitments towards reducing carbon emissions. It also amounts to an audacious gamble as the new policy assumes that gas will remain plentiful and cheap into the future, both of which are far from proven. It would, in short, seem that the worse fears of environmental campaigners has not only been met, but exceeded. And of course, natural gas and fossil fuels are only ever “cheap” if you ignore the massive defacto subsidies that they receive.

Figure 3, Energy subsidies world wide (excluding nuclear) [credit: The Guardian based on IEA data]

Did someone say Shale Gas? As I’ve previously shown, much of the rhetoric with regard to shale gas is vastly overblown. Of course there is a place we can get natural gas on the cheap, but that lies the other side of the Ural mountains  and thousands of miles away.

A UK dependant on imported Russian gas sounds like a risky strategy  from a geopolitical standpoint. Also, as the pipeline from Russia runs through Europe I think we can rule out any withdrawal of the UK from the EU (as favoured by many Tory’s), as there is simply no way now the UK could now afford to allow decisions about such a vital umbilical cord to be made by a EU government that is committing towards low carbon energy (and thus might decide it doesn’t need the pipeline from Russia any more, or upgrade it and use it for other purposes, such as shipping hydrogen around!).

Figure 4, Various estimates of the potential Carbon Footprint of Natural Gas

Furthermore Shale gas has likely got a much heavier carbon footprint than conventional gas (possibility worse even than coal). So a policy of mass gas dependency is not compatible with avoiding dangerous climate change and leaves in tatters the Tory and lib dem promise  as “the greenest government ever”. They may well go down in history as the dirtiest government in UK political history.

So in essence Osborne’s and Cameron’s choice of gas may well amount to a massive unhedged bet (a £200 Billion bet according to Damian) against the naysayers being wrong….oh! And if you’re a UK gas and electricity customer, you’re paying, tails they win heads you lose.

Figure 5, Flooded Forecourt from the 2007 floods, Oh the Irony!

And as if to undermine the threat posed by climate change, while the UK recovers from floods, the insurance industry threatens to deprive many Britons of their flood insurance. While many tories may not believe in climate change, the insurance industry is terrified of it, notably that it will result in much higher rates of claims against them. The government has so far as the insurers are concerned, not done enough to reduce the impact of flooding, be it through better flood defences, stopping people building housing in vulnerable areas and of course taking action on climate change. So again, it is us the bill payers who will shoulder the resulting costs.

Wind and Nuclear, the melting pot that won’t mix

Figure 6, UK TPES (Total Primary Energy Supply) by source [Credit: IEA, 2009]

The lib dems promised to fight hard against the Tory’s and that contrary to what John Hayes says the roll out of both onshore and offshore wind will continue until 2020. However, I would note the lib dems have repeatedly promised to stop Tory policies on welfare cuts, the 50p tax , tuition fees, etc. and every time Nick Clegg’s been forced to go cap in hand and say sorry, so I’m doubtful they’ll succeed.

Figure 7, UK Electricity Production, by source [Source: DECC, 2010]

However, both parties had not only committed to major reductions in carbon emissions but also promised that if any new nuclear plants got built, that there will be no subsidy for new nuclear plants. That plan also seems to be in tatters as it is clear from the government’s statements that generous subsidies will be granted to the next generation of nuclear reactors, as I discussed previously on this topic.

This is arguably the worse possible news, as it seems the government has dumped renewable energy all in the same bucket along with nuclear and hoped that they’ll all mix together nicely. But they won’t! As I’ve previously pointed out different energy sources have their own particular niches and struggle to work outside of those roles.

Figure 8, The Explosive Growth of Wind energy worldwide [Source: REN 2012 Report]

Take wind power. The UK is best advised to use them for baseload power generation. Estimates suggest up to 20% or more (exactly how much more is a figure that is disputed, at least as far as a scenario that doesn’t built any additional storage capacity is concerned) of electricity could be sourced from wind, solar or other “variable” renewable sources. Within these limits, the “intermitency” issue should not cause any major complications, so long as the grid is properly laid out and operated. But of course a policy of wind, wind and yet more wind will never work without the infrastructure to support it.

Figure 9, The Japanese Electricity grid [Source: Info Plaza Japan, 2009]

By contrast nuclear has the opposite problem. Again, as I’ve pointed out before, nuclear reactors like to be on all the time, while the grid demand varies. Most countries (the Japanese grid is shown above as an example, the Canadian one below) only use nuclear for baseload, or perhaps some of the “load following” demand. While modern plants are a bit more flexible than nuclear plants of the past, there are still limits to what you can do with a nuclear reactor.

They cannot handle the full range of the intermediate load ramp, particularly the winter range. Furthermore there are economic factors to consider, as using reactors for such roles reduces their output to the grid (since the reactor spends a good deal of its time pumping out only a fraction of its maximum output simply because the grid doesn’t demand it and so that it can hold the remaining output in spinning reserve) and of course electricity customers only pay for the power they use (i.e. if you’ve just doubled or tripled the cost of every kWh coming out of that plant!).

Figure 10, The average annual load cycle for the Canadian Grid, note that this is from the 80’s so much of the “baseload hydro” wedge, should arguably be called “baseload Renewables” [Source: Aubrecht, 1995]

Also nuclear reactors cannot provide the crucial peaking power load. These two roles can be fulfilled by either thermal power stations plants (gas, coal, biomass or potentially in future hydrogen fired) or hydroelectricity.

Now while personally I think nuclear is simply too expensive and just more trouble than its worth, its important to remember if you are advocating nuclear reactors to be aware of what nuclear reactors can do and what they can’t do. Unfortunately it seems to me that many Tory’s are in favour on nuclear (even though they are also often skeptical of climate change! nice article on this in Scientific American) purely because many on the left are against it….perhaps we should try reverse physiology, which might explain what George Monbiot is up too!

Beyond the grid – hot stuff!

However, we need to look at the bigger picture, only 20% of the UK’s energy demand is electricity. The rest is a mixture of other demands, mostly heat and transport fuels, both of which have very heavy swings in seasonal demands.

Figure 11, Monthly variation in Gas Demand UK, note the difference between the winter peak and summer time baseload [Credit: EIA, 2012]

Probably the easiest way of meeting this heat demand in the short term is to encourage the use of biomass and solar thermal (where possible) and elsewhere use CHP. As the CHP plants will also be generating electricity during winter at the very same time that the winter load hits peak they also make a good fit when it comes to electricity generation too, not to mention a big energy saver. Heat (from CHP, geothermal or indeed even waste heat from reactors) is also useful in terms of running Liquid Air Energy Storage systems, which can help to store energy from renewables for the grid.

Indeed, it is this issue of energy efficiency that seems to have been ignored. The best way of reducing carbon emissions is by using less energy to begin with. Indeed, whether or not the UK ultimately needs any nuclear power stations for a low carbon grid (or how many) boils down to how much energy use can be reduced by via better energy efficiency and how much CHP can be installed on the grid. Wind energy can also figure at this point as a source of energy for hydrogen production, fuel that eventually takes over as the primary energy source for those thermal power stations and CHP systems.

However, the government’s decision to mix all the “non-fossil fuel” sources into the same cauldron threatens to undermine things. This is of course not helped by the Tory obsession with nuclear. Hitachi, who recently bought into the UK Horizon nuclear project have admitted it will be not until the 2020’s before any new nuclear power stations are completed in the UK, but by then the UK will be down to either 3 or but a single nuclear reactor. Between now and then some 6-9 GW’s of nuclear power will be turned off, leaving an enormous gap in the UK grid.

Figure 12, The closure plans for the UK’s nuclear fleet [Credit: De Podesta, 2012]

While some of this gap can be filled with wind, solar and other forms of renewables, not all of it can, not without the right financial support and grid infrastructure, or more of the types of renewable energy that aren’t subject to intermittency issues (notably Hydroelectric, geothermal or Tidal lagoons and tidal stream turbines). I also worry that the Tories will attempt to keep a spot on the grid open for their little darling nuclear, only to realise sometime around the late 2020’s that the utilities just can’t install the reactors quickly enough. Consequently this looming gap  above will likely be filled with yet more coal or gas fired stations (i.e. even more of them that Osborne currently thinks is sensible).

I have long predicted that of the 6-8 plants the government would like to build, in truth between 2 and 4 will actually ever get built, barely enough to replace half of the current nuclear output (about 10,400 MW’s) or a third the maximum ever output (14,000 MW).

Yet again, government by bungling

I have previously expressed exasperation at the bungling incompetence of the current government but this one has to take the biscuit. They are starting to resemble the crude antics of many third world tin-pot dictatorships. For the sake of scoring a few ideological points the Tory’s have set the UK on a course that in all probability will prove unworkable.

The new energy bill will probably result in a commitment to build a vast array of gas and coal fired stations where we cannot guarantee the supply of fuel to them, nor have any clear idea how much it will cost. A policy that will actually work against the Tory’s darling nuclear and like not result in any sizeable increase in output, indeed its almost certainly going to result in a substantial cut in nuclear energy. And a policy that ignores the massive gains shown by Germany with renewables (estimates now suggest 25% of German electricity comes from renewables), just when the price of renewables is falling, and just went the clock on time for global climate action is ticking ever closer to midnight.

Osborne’s line from the last conference “we’re not going to save the planet by putting the country out of business” may one day rank alongside G. Bush Senior’s line at the Earth summit “the American way of life is not negotiable“. The tories need to realise, that beyond a certain point, nature doesn’t negotiate!

About daryan12

Engineer, expertise: Energy, Sustainablity, Computer Aided Engineering, Renewables technology
This entry was posted in clean energy, climate change, economics, efficiency, energy, fossil fuels, Global warming denial, Japan, nuclear, peak oil, politics, power, renewables, Shale Gas, subsidy, sustainability. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to How the “greenest government ever” has conspired with global warming deniers to produce a 2nd dash for Gas

  1. stan says:

    available wind power can be increased with quieter blades and counter rotating turbines.people will need to use the power offpeak,when available.

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  8. Ian Random says:

    Be careful of the “subsidies” for fossil fuels, some studies claim that bridges or highways built count toward that number.

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