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How to plug the energy gap

Tomorrow (November 10, 2005) sees the publication of an authoritative, multidisciplinary report which aims to provide the Government with a coherent, feasible solution to the acknowledged problem of the UK's looming Energy Gap. The report, written by John Loughhead, (Executive Director, UK Energy Research Centre) is the result of a multidisciplinary consensus meeting between 150 scientific, technical, economic and sociological experts at Burlington House on October 12 and 13, under the auspices of The Geological Society of London [Note 1,5]. The meeting was co-sponsored by five sister societies and institutes [Note 2].

The report will be published at the Royal Society in London tomorrow morning, where it will be presented before an Expert Panel, chaired by Lord Oxburgh KBE FRS [Note 3], immediate past Chairman of the House of Lords Science & Technology Committee, and an audience consisting of many who participated in the Burlington House sessions, invited guests and other interested parties [Note 4].

Full Report

Report from the consensus conference UK Energy to 2050 – challenges & solutions 12-13 October 2005.

Executive Summary
Energy will inevitably become less available and more expensive than it has been for the last few decades. The change will be permanent. Adapting to this scenario while maintaining the UK's standard of living will require fundamental changes in the way we produce and use energy. All sources of energy will be required.

  • Fossil fuels will remain our most important source for the next 50 years, despite a growing role for renewable energy. Clean systems, including carbon capture and storage, should be pursued urgently.
  • Nuclear fission energy is a proven and reliable technology that will inevitably have a key role in a future clean energy mix.
  • Renewable energy sources will play a growing role, but will require continued support in development and deployment if they are to match the cost levels of conventional systems.
  • Energy demand reduction measures will be as important as generation technologies, and will require both technological and behavioural changes. Existing technology for energy efficiency is not fully exploited, and changing this is as important as new technology development.
  • Engagement of the public in bringing about these changes is crucial, but requires more perceptive schemes that recognise the role energy plays in people's lives, and not based on arguments appealing to technical or economic rationality.
  • Industry and commerce is prepared to play its role, but needs consistent incentive mechanisms given the absence of immediate market imperatives to change current practice.
  • Government has the key role to play by providing consistent market signals, reinforced by structured and affordable incentives; implementing regulatory structures to bring about changes in the energy system, and taking responsibility for an effective engagement of the public in the process.
  • The market alone will not deliver the aspirations of energy policy, and clear means to encourage the necessary changes are essential.

Conference synopsis

Introduction

A two-day conference was held in London in October 2005 to consider the challenges that the UK faces in ensuring a secure, affordable, and environmentally acceptable supply of energy in the period to 2050. Over the two days 150 delegates with personal expertise across the whole field of energy discussed these questions in a sequence of themed sessions, covering:

  1. Demand
  2. Nuclear
  3. Fossil fuels
  4. Renewables
  5. Impact - social, cultural and political aspects

Each session addressed a pre-defined question; heard presentations from leading figures in energy identifying key issues and drivers, and ended with a facilitated debate.

This synopsis summarises the main points that arose, and the consequent policy and supply needs for the UK that we identified.

General

Reducing carbon emissions will require simultaneous action on several aspects of the energy system to change the balance and technology of energy supply, means of energy distribution, underlying demand, and efficiency of usage.

The meeting felt that the well-known "wedge" approach proposed by Professor Rob Socolow of Princeton University demonstrated the inevitability of this if atmospheric carbon levels are to be held at acceptable levels, as well as being an effective means of articulating the problem.

1. Demand

"Looking first to 2020, then to 2050, what will be the UK requirements for energy by type, and to what extent will energy efficiency and other measures curb trends in demand?"

  • Reducing demand through energy efficiency and other measures is an essential component of new measures.
  • Encouragement of individuals and small enterprises to reduce demand is a key challenge.
  • Government has a key leadership role to raise awareness of the need for local action and to ensure advice and support is available.
  • Improving standards of energy usage in buildings and equipment needs legislation and enforcement at levels far beyond that which we have today. Fiscal incentives for reducing energy consumption will be needed, supported by improved information to individuals and households to enable them to understand the way they use energy.
  • Existing energy efficiency technologies are under-exploited, and their wider application should be given the same priority as research and development in new technology.

Demand is a critical factor. The meeting believed that there is already considerable potential for reduction. Efficient use of energy must be pursued as a key element of the future energy mix, in parallel to supply aspects. The meeting was unanimous that, whatever new technologies might be developed in the 2050 timeframe, much could be done now by the further application of existing technologies to deliver substantive benefits by 2020. These include wider use of small-scale combined heat and power, or local renewable technologies such as wind in domestic and commercial premises, coupled with improved energy efficiency through improved building standards and wider adoption of low energy devices.

Changing the behaviour of individuals and the large number of small businesses will require active support and promotion by Government, since large organisations had generally made substantial changes already. More demanding requirements for energy performance of buildings and equipment should be put in place, coupled with appropriate fiscal incentives to reward real improvements in energy use patterns and local renewable generation. Improved information to consumers, including more detailed information on energy bills, should be made available. Greater efforts should also be made to provide advice on how to reduce consumption - probably through the Energy Savings Trust.

2. Nuclear

"What actions would need to be taken, and by whom, for the nuclear industry to generate economically competitive energy acceptable on safety and environmental grounds?"

  • Marked differences of opinion – arising largely from philosophy of approach - remain over whether nuclear should be considered as an option.
  • Nuclear fission is now a mature technology with well-known construction and operating costs, and a good safety record.
  • New nuclear build will almost certainly be required if the UK is to meet its emissions target; but active Government involvement will be essential to establish the regulatory and financial frameworks needed to enable it to proceed.
  • Greater international collaboration on standards and design approvals would smooth the planning process and realise the full benefit of worldwide experience.
  • Because the world design and supply capacity for nuclear power plants are limited, an early policy decision that translated into early orders would help the UK avoid potential future supply bottlenecks.
  • Public confidence in any decision is critical and an open and transparent decision and consultation process essential.

Nuclear energy remains contentious, a fact reflected in the conference discussions. However the differences were primarily philosophical and demonstrated a certain lack of trust between pro- and anti-nuclear camps.

Presentations argued that current nuclear fission power generation is a mature technology with substantial international experience of safe operation. Experience over the last decade indicated that construction and operating costs are now well defined, if the latter are calculated on a conventional commercial basis. Debate over whether this basis is appropriate continues. The main source of uncertainty is the cost of disposing of nuclear waste and decommissioning nuclear plants – both being uncertain chiefly because there remains uncertainty in Government policy.

If new nuclear plants were built in the UK, our lack of indigenous design and supply capability would have a number of implications. While using designs already in service elsewhere ("off the shelf") would mean lower costs, well-established operational procedures and greater certainty of performance, national licensing processes could inhibit their realisation. It is therefore important to explore the scope for international collaboration on standards, design approvals and related issues.

Even the international supply chain for nuclear plants has its limits, and timely build could be threatened if other operators happened to order new plant at the same time as the UK. For example, there are only two suppliers for the complex forged pressure vessels used in modern reactors; production lead-times of up to 10 years could be envisaged in the worst case.

Financing new plants poses further questions. Since their lifetime may be 80 years (from start of planning to end of decommissioning), investors might perceive considerable risk arising from possible policy changes over such a long period – over and above those arising from our already lengthy permissioning and licensing processes. Assuming that any new nuclear capacity would be privately financed, the meeting saw a clear need for a long-term, guaranteed regulatory regime within which secure investment decisions could be taken.

The meeting accepted that public opinion on nuclear power was mixed, with around half the population uncertain whether or not to support it. However, the planned retirement dates of existing nuclear plants mean that a decision about whether to replace them with new nuclear build must be taken soon, as the Government has already announced.

This debate must be conducted in an open and participative way, allowing genuine public concerns to be articulated and addressed. There is evidence that political perceptions of public concern may not be wholly accurate. Better efforts must be made by Government to understand public fears correctly. Any information used for this purpose must be objective, and generally accepted.

3. Fossil fuels

"What part will each of the fossil fuels play (thro 2050)? – hence: What part could they play? What part should they play? How will this be decided? What will be the drivers?"

  • Fossil fuels will be the primary energy source over the next 50 years, especially for transport.
  • An oil supply peak will occur within the timeframe, so the UK must plan for demand being constrained by supply, and high prices arising as much from geopolitical as technical and commercial factors.
  • Natural gas supply will probably be unconstrained for most of this period, but as a net importer, the UK will need strategic storage or similar supply buffers.
  • Coal is, and will probably remain, relatively cheap; developing means of using it cleanly, either directly or as a source of other vectors, should be a priority.
  • As individual fossil fuels become supply-constrained we may need to prioritise their uses formally.
  • In the absence of legislative constraints, fossil fuels will continue to dominate the market as a result of their convenience and compatibility with existing infrastructure and products. All expert commentators, such as the IEA and others, expect this dominance to continue through 2020 regardless of legislation.

Discussion focused on possible supply constraints due to technical, market and political factors. Oil will probably experience a supply peak within the timeframe considered, while natural gas will not.

Oil

Oil is primarily a transport issue. Although substantial additional resources are available for exploitation, a production peak should be expected within this time frame. Even if plenty of reserves are found, a production bottleneck is still likely in the short term because of three external factors: political access to reserves in the Middle East, political and perhaps technical difficulties with access in Artctic regions, and a likely shortage of personnel within oil companies who are qualified to spend the vast sums of money required to bring reserves on stream.

The timescale will depend much more on political than geological issues. We should therefore definitely plan for demand to be constrained by supply, with a consequent sustained high price, while recognising that reduced demand (either through price or carbon legislation) will extend the time at which a given rate of supply can be maintained.

The meeting noted that constraints in production capacity (as opposed to resource availability) should also be expected.

Gas

A global gas production peak within this timeframe is unlikely, although projection of historic growth rates suggest production constraints may arise around mid-century. For the UK, expanding Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) re-gasification facilities would alleviate current concern about supply security from Russia; but this will also require expanding storage capacity. Gas to Liquid (GTL) technology provides a route to augmenting liquid supplies.

Coal

Ample coal supplies exist - at cost structures similar to today's. Supply sources are diverse and differ from those for gas. Moreover, a price increase of only $10/tonne would effectively double the world's economic coal reserves. Maintaining the UK's coal-based generating capacity would therefore augment both diversity and security of electricity supply. Long-term, coal can be used as a chemical source for methane, hydrogen and liquid fuels when conversion costs become economic.

Coal burning traditionally produces large emissions of carbon dioxide - which is why replacing coal by gas helped the UK to meet Kyoto targets. The only way that fossil fuels can contribute to easing the CO2 emissions problem is by embracing cleaner technologies - for which there is a real cost (which is highest for coal relative to other fossil fuels). The alternative of carbon capture and storage is only proven and demonstrated in principle - no large scale plant is currently operational. It is likely, however, that the permissioning regime for a sequestration plant would be difficult; conceivably leading to the sorts of decadal delays familiar with nuclear power plants.

4. Renewables

"How much of our total energy requirements can renewables be expected to provide, in light of the White Paper statement that the price of energy should allow us to maintain our competitive advantage as a nation?"

  • Renewable energy technologies could supply up to 40% of current demand by 2050.
  • Development will require maintaining and reinforcing Government incentive schemes, covering both the generation technologies and changes in systems of energy supply and usage.
  • Further cost reductions are probable, but not to the historically low levels produced by fossil fuels over recent years.

The meeting reviewed and debated a number of renewable technologies presently in service or development. It was the opinion of those directly involved in the business that large-scale renewables, specifically wind, bio-energy, and (to a lesser extent) marine energies, could potentially provide around 15% of current national demand by 2020, rising to 35–40% by 2050 if the newer technologies could be successfully developed and deployed. Distributed systems could provide additional energy for local use, although their contribution to remote demand would depend on substantive changes to the architecture of electricity networks.

Full exploitation of renewable energies also requires changes to the way energy systems are designed and used, adopting "fresh-start" thinking. The demonstration in Woking highlighted some of these including the use of local electricity grids for power sharing, and the more efficient energy design of buildings and processes.

The renewables industry believes that cost reductions to such systems can be achieved, but that incentives to encourage necessary development and stimulate demand management remain necessary. If such incentives are provided, the industry remains confident that the low-carbon energy supply envisaged in the White Paper is achievable by 2050. However, the Government's current measures are insufficient to ensure this.

5. Impact

"As we strive to meet the targets in the White Paper, how will the consequential changes in energy production and use be made culturally and politically acceptable in the UK?"

  • Public engagement has been poor to date, and the Government's attempts to develop it have failed to recognise the way individuals interact with the energy system.
  • For enterprises, real action has arisen only when appropriate incentives are in place - such as carbon trading.
  • Future approaches will need to provide clear and consistent incentives that identify and engage with public and business alike.

The conference focused on two aspects: increasing efficiency of energy use, and means to reduce demand for energy.

There was a close relationship between discussion on these topics and that concerning energy demand. In particular, reducing demand by applying existing technologies was cited as an example of how opportunities to hand now are not currently being fully exploited. Incentives to apply low-energy options, and public awareness of the impact of doing so as individuals, were still weak.

The meeting agreed that schemes to engage the public had been generally unsuccessful, and that the reason for this failure was the approach that had been taken. Many schemes used approaches based on economic or technical rationality; which may reflect how such decisions are taken within a technocracy, but which fail to take into account the real ways in which individuals made personal decisions about their daily lives. Changing public reaction substantially in the future will need more perceptive public engagement that recognises how individuals interact with the energy system.

Business and enterprise have responded to certain schemes - such as carbon trading. These have encouraged process-changes, leading to more efficient on-site energy generation and usage. However, clear and consistent incentive schemes are still needed to encourage the wider adoption of such measures.

Notes:

1. The Geological Society of London is a learned and professional body, of over 9000 Earth scientists with a remit to investigate, interpret, discuss, inform and advise on the nature and processes of the Earth, their practical importance to humanity, and, in the interests of the public, to promote professional excellence. Registered Charity No. 210161.

2. The Solutions Conference was co-sponsored by the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Institute of Physics, the Energy Institute, the Institution of Electrical Engineers and the Institution of Civil Engineers. Funding was also provided by the Natural Environment Research Council, Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, Economic and Social Research Council and Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

3. In addition to its Chair Lord Oxburgh, the Expert Panel will include: The Lord Broers FRS FREng (President of the Royal Academy of Engineering, Chairman of the House of Lords Science & Technology Committee), Dr Vincent Cable MP (Lib. Dem. Shadow Chancellor), Rt. Hon. Bernard Jenkin MP (Con. Shadow Energy Minister), and Sir John Lawton CBE FRS (Chair of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution). Also present will be the Energy Solutions Panel, comprising John Loughhead (UKERC, report author) Richard Hardman (Solutions Conference Chair), Charles Curtis (University of Manchester, UK Nirex), David Jenkins (formerly BP), Feroze Duggan (Institute of Physics), Jeremy Leggett (SolarCentury), Martin Fry (Energy Institute) and Shaun Fitzgerald (BP Institute, Cambridge University).

4. For more details of this event go to www.geolsoc.org.uk/template.cfm?name=Solutions2 .

5. For details of the October two-day event go to www.geolsoc.org.uk/template.cfm?name=Solutions.

Editorial Notes: This has been adapted from the press release; go to the original article for contact details. -AF According to its website:
The UK Energy Research Centre is a publicly funded organisation charged with integrating energy research in the UK, while establishing itself as a centre of research excellence in its own right.
Also on the UKERC website: Challenges and solutions: UK energy to 2050 (conference) Conference report - the updated version. Related stories: Britain facing large energy gap Energy crisis 'will be permanent' (BBC) New nuclear power plants 'essential' to avoid energy shortfall (Independent) Nuclear power is best, say scientists (Telegraph) Ageing nuclear stations must be renewed-scientists (Reuters) -BA

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