Are the lights going out?

Are the lights going out?

I attended the IStructE lecture this evening on the local and national changes in energy production. I have summarised the content into general information about the national situation and then covered each of the main power generation methods. My thoughts and questions are in red.

Background information

  • The UK is on track to increase renewable electricity targets from 1.3% to 15% by 2020.
  • Companies have looked into carbon capture technologies to reduce the impact of existing power stations, however due to the Government not communicating effectively, and consistently (closing down coal power stations, changing subsidies, changing targets) these have been scrapped by the majority of energy companies. The lack of consistent policy, even within 8-10 months time frame means that companies don’t want to take financial risk in developing their technology or business. Does this mean renewable technology research and development isn’t taking place, and therefore we’re preventing future technologies from being created?
  • Power demand has dropped and is now the lowest it has been since 1995 (however as more use electric cars this will probably increase).
  • Power generation has dropped by 6%, and net imports has increased by 6%. The net imports have ensured we haven’t experienced black outs yet.
  • There were some great examples of smaller power station developments where heat can be retained for nearby heating of industrial units, or where a fossil fuel power station is combined with a wind farm, allowing for alternative energy production for when it’s not windy.

Coal

  • The dirtiest fossil fuel in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and low efficiency
  • Many power stations are due to close (designed lifespan was exceeded 20-325 years ago!) Next year 6% of national electricity output is to disappear with 3 power stations closing! Presumably this means more energy will need to be imported; will this mean higher fuel costs in the future?
  • The government does not have any current plans to build new power stations to replace those it is shutting down.

Gas

  • Gas power station outputs have been relatively stable the last few years.
  • As with coal, power stations are set to close as they come to the end of their designed lifespan.
  • Fracking was mentioned as this is a new proposed extraction method for gas (personal thought: with many health, economic and social concerns) however the industry as a whole has very little information on this technology. I cannot see how the current capacity of gas power stations could increase output using gas from fracking in order to make up the reduction from coal power stations.

Oil

  • Always been minimal use and it is diminishing further.

Onshore wind and solar

  • I have lumped these together as both of these industries were popular with previous governments with associated subsidies for encouraging installation, however the current government has just removed all support for and financial subsidies for these industries.

Offshore wind

  • Currently popular and effective, few plans for future wind farms though.
  • Main logistical issue is that vast size of the wind farms and the time taken to physically get engineers on site to maintain the turbines.

Tidal

  • There are new schemes being designed, with some possibility to also coordinate with flooding protection within the same schemes.
  • There are concerns that as sea levels rise these may become less efficient as the water will be able to flow over the top of the turbines. Some designs are already considering this and are making a stackable design so that modules can simply be added on top. There are marine conservation concerns about this, however I wonder if these could not be designed as such that encourages and develops the existing marine environment. For instance some shipwrecks adjacent to coral reefs have become an extension to the existing reefs, with organisms attaching to them and living within them. Equally though some do not attract any life at all. If we can work out what is causing success in some cases, and failure in others we may be able to adapt the design of future tidal turbines so that existing marine life can live amongst the new turbines. See BBC news article explaining research into shipwreck amongst coral reefs: http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/17706609

In conclusion

  • The current government appears to be reducing production while also not providing for future power which means the reality of blackouts is quite high unless we pay other countries to provide us with power. This will inevitably mean higher fuel bills.
  • There is a good 10-15 year lead time for planning and construction of power stations, so this is set to worsen!
  • In order for the lights to not go out it seems to be down to us installing our own systems, be that personally or as a community. This could also help at a local level for ensuring alternatives to fracking extraction, should you reside in an area the government has issued licences for.