Keeping the Lights On

I was invited to attend the annual “Global Warming Policy Foundation’s” annual lecture delivered by The Rt Honorable Owen Paterson MP on the evening of Wednesday 15th October and decided to blow last Monday’s donations on a trip to London 😉 Owen Paterson is the recently sacked Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and since he has until recently been at the heart of government I wanted to hear what he had to say.

We had advance warning that he would be making a call to have the UK 2008 Climate Change Act either amended or repealed. I was interested to hear what might take its place by way of a new government energy policy.

Mr Paterson gave a very measured and well informed 30 minute speech going out of his way to make clear that “Plan B” may actually deliver greater CO2 emissions reductions than “Plan A” whilst also keeping the lights on. His new energy policy proposals had 4 planks:

  1. Combined heat and power (CHP) district heating systems
  2. Shale gas development in the UK
  3. Deployment of small modular nuclear power stations
  4. Rational electricity demand management

Since I have long been an advocate of CHP and nuclear power I was bound to be in substantial agreement with this new set of proposals. But in pursuit of perfection I cannot resist highlighting some of the frailties too …..

Combined Heat and Power

One of the biggest limitations of large centralised thermal power stations is that as a norm, 60% or so of the thermal energy released from fossil fuel or uranium is lost as waste heat. Reduce that waste to say 20% and you double the useful energy extracted from these finite resources. Placing the energy efficiency of electricity production at the heart of energy policy makes consummate sense. That is exactly what CHP does, extracting energy from fuel for electricity generation and using the waste heat to warm homes.

Why has this not happened before? My understanding of the way the tea leaves landed is that the UK could not have CHP because of the need to switch our power stations on and off to balance wind power. CHP performs best run as continuous base load. Get rid of wind and enter the sensible world of super efficient dispatchible baseload generation.

Shale Gas

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that I’m rather sceptical about shale gas development in the UK. That is not to say I am against it, but simply cautious about the prospects for a number of reasons. First and foremost, and a point I made in the Q&A, the UK does not have any shale gas reserves as yet. Not until a number of wells have been drilled, fracked and commercial flow rates proven will the country be able to plan a strategy based on reserves rather than hope.

And even if commercial reserves are proven the government needs to anticipate push back from the rural populations that may be affected. Here it is important to distinguish between the legitimate concerns of affected populations and the blanket blocking protests of Green movements that are against most forms of energy production.

With these caveats in mind, the policy would be better formulated around local super efficient gas fired CHP stations leaving open the source of the gas – it may come from the North Sea, it may come from indigenous shale or it may be imported. Aberdeen already has a number of small gas fired CHP systems.

Small Modular Nuclear

This part of the strategy I am not well qualified to assess directly. Reference was made to the UK previously running a fleet of small nuclear reactors.  Is this reference to the now decommissioned Magnox fleet?  Reference was also made to a new Rolls Royce design. I have for a number of years had irregular correspondence with a group advocating the use of naval style reactors that have a long proven track record. The plan as presented involved modular, factory built nuclear with CHP.

This is a radically different concept to the gazillion $ Hinkley style EPR. Distributed nuclear with CHP is a concept that may take the public a while to come to terms with but I’m prepared to give the proponents time to flesh out these proposals.

Demand Management

The final plank of “Plan B” was some limited and “sensible” demand management where Mr Paterson presented some simple measures that may be taken to switch on and off non-essential appliances at time of peak load to ease stress in the system.

I suspect that this part of “Plan B” needs to be beefed up substantially since the new power system design comprises invariant base load gas and nuclear CHP systems.

Invariant base load needs to be matched to variable demand and I suspect the best and simplest way to achieve this is to make electricity at nighttime much cheaper than during the day. Commenter Leo Smith recently suggested a  simple scheme where cheap nighttime power is used to heat large, well-insulated hot water reservoirs linked to houses or blocks of flats. This could be a component part of any CHP system. This is one of the simplest ways to smooth power demand for space heating, adjusting the price differential between day and night power costs to balance the grid.


The North Sea has provided the backbone of UK energy supplies and security for 40 years and yet once again got no mention in a possible blueprint energy plan for Britain. Too often in the energy debate the focus is on electricity instead of primary energy supplies and this can take the strategist’s eye off the real energy ball, i.e. the primary sources of energy supply that sustains Britain and keeps the balance of trade in check.

Another point I raised in the Q&A was the ludicrous DECC plan to squander £1 billion of hard earned tax payers cash on pilot carbon capture and storage schemes that deliver nothing for the UK other than to send electricity bills higher for hard pressed consumers. And yet, CO2 capture at power stations can potentially be turned into sensible strategy since CO2 injected into mature oil fields can increase the oil recovery factor via a process generically known as Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR).  This from a recent column I write for the local press in Aberdeen:

The industry has been in the doldrums awaiting the uncertainty of the referendum to pass. As a friend put it, “the industry needs a new game plan” and in the UK the Wood Review is the main show in town. We need to assume that Sir Ian has found the best solution and the government should now press on with some urgency to implement Wood’s recommendations. One of those was to promote EOR. Is it too much to ask for some dots to be joined – Wood – CCS-EOR – decommissioning delayed – more oil – more energy security – more money – more jobs – more prosperity. And I’m sure the industry would welcome the Treasury to examine how the fiscal regime might also be adapted to help maximise oil and gas recovery in tandem with implementing Wood’s recommendations. Westminster must never forget that 45% of Scots voted Yes and for many of those, disaffection with the numpties of Westminster, was the cause.

Owen Paterson has been well advised: Matt Ridley, John Constable and Benny Peiser were all named. Collectively if they want the UK to remain intact then for at least the next 50 years the North Sea must be an integral part of any energy strategy that is developed.

I will conclude on the speculative fantasy that Owen Paterson was sacked by David Cameron to provide space for him to go off and formulate a sensible energy policy for the Tories in the lead up to next May’s general election. That Ed Davey is sacked in the New Year to be replaced by Mr Paterson and then the gloves come off and the general election takes centre stage.

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32 Responses to Keeping the Lights On

  1. Peter F Gill says:

    I hope you are right about Owen’s reappointment! By the way the actor in your blog banner is Keanu Reeves. He was in the remake of When the World Stood Still (2008) but not as good as Michael Rennie in the original version (1951).

    • Euan Mearns says:

      Yes, but it was Lawrence Fishburne who played Morpheous, whose name I could not recall. It is Neo’s choice between the red and the blue pill that is important. It was good to meet you Peter, we should have had the opportunity to wax lyrical over several bottles of fine Bordeaux. You need to engage Roger over recent CO2 fluctuations – but not on this this thread!

  2. Euan, I would be interested in your opinion on the continent’s potential for the development of shale gas /oil !? If you have written about it, could you please point me to i(I could not find anything specific). if I remember correctly, EIA published a study on world wide shale resources and what they wrote about Europe, was nothing to really get excited about…..Thanks

    • Euan Mearns says:

      Andreas, if you use the search facility on the blog – top right – simply enter shale gas and you will find all the articles I’ve written there. The only country I’ve looked at in detail was the UK. I know that Poland turned up disappointing and these is a lot of activity in Turkey.

      In the USA the mineral rights go with land ownership, thus the rural populations welcome the frackers with open arms. In Western Europe I can’t help feeling that push back from rural populations will make large scale shale development difficult.

      Here is a simple model I built for the UK showing possible outcome of drilling 100 successful shale wells per year:

      Figure 6 Historic UK conventional North Sea gas production (BP) amounts to 86 tcf, 1970 – 2012. The projection includes a 10% decline which is the historic average. Without shale gas, conventional gas will have declined to near zero come 2025. The 100 well / year model (Figure 5) would stabilise UK production at about today’s levels. The 8.2 tcf production estimate is more than double the BGS guess for reserves but is still tiny compared with the size of the resource.

      • Euan, thanks a lot for your answer. My problem was, that you have already written a lot of interesting things on shale gas, but not what I am looking for. I conclude from that, that the 100 wells p.a. would be a somewhat realistic scenario for you in the case of UK and that the decline of conventional gas could be arrested for a while. But that a return to the “state of former glory” is quite unlikely/impossible.

        I wonder, if there is anybody who thinks, that (european) shale gas can make a noteworthy contrubution to solve the contient’s (“special”) energy predicament….

        Happy birthday and enjoy your “week off” 🙂 Andreas

      • Jim says:

        Hi Euan,
        Most (all?) of the US shales are marine shales. At a recent conference, I asked a BP senior chap whether they distinguished between marine and lacustrine shales. He said lacustrine shales don’t/won’t work because they are too muddy.
        I know you need very low Vclay to get a good fracture system.
        Are the european shales lacustrine?

        • Euan Mearns says:

          The Bowland is a deep marine Carboniferous shale (318 to 347 million years old) that underlies much of northern England (Figure 1). It is extremely thick, locally up to 16,000 ft, which is much thicker than many of the N American shale plays. But the organic matter content is relatively lean at 1 to 3%, it would have been better had the thickness been half and the organic content double. Organic matter ranges up to 8% and it will be sweet spots like this that companies will look for.

          So the Bowland is marine and so is the Kimmeridge Clay. Part of my geologists gut feel tells me that the Kimm Clay on shore (where is is mature) may be a better target for shale oil. The Bowland shale may turn out to be a bonanza or a dud.

  3. While considering my reaction to all this I thought I would make myself useful by posting a link to the full text of Paterson’s speech 🙂

    • Euan Mearns says:

      I’m waiting with bated breath! The small gas-CHP is clearly doable. I know of at least two such schemes in Aberdeen. One is a council scheme where blocks of flats have been refurbed, insulated and get supplied with hot water from a local CHP plant. Maybe time to go have a look and do a post. The other is UoAberdeen has its own gas-CHP plant.

      But lets assume a small modular nuke is 200MWe and we need 20GWe (100GWthermal?). That would mean deploying 100 new reactors in proximity to urban populations. Planning and licensing is clearly going to be one obstacle and public acceptance another. Safe design will be of paramount importance.

      In my working life I have worked on two research reactor sites – these were small reactors used as neutron sources for a variety of research fields. One was in East Kilbride, just outside of Glasgow and the other a place called Kjeller, just outside of Oslo. These were both urban settings, i.e. reactors in cities. I never worried about the safety and I don’t think the local populations did either.

  4. Sam Taylor says:

    I believe that the modular reactors that he was referring to are the ones which power our fleet of nuclear submarines, such as the pwr2 which is Rolls Royce designed. These are certainly smaller and modular, but I’ve no idea of their power output. The Magnox reactors were all full size power plant type.

    I’ve a friend who works on decommissioning some of our old nuclear subs down in Portsmouth (I think), and he says it’s a bit of a nightmare. I’m seeing him this weekend so if I remember I’ll pick his brains on the subject.

  5. “the UK could not have CHP because of the need to switch our power stations on and off to balance wind power. CHP performs best run as continuous base load.”

    As far as I am aware the UK’s sidelining of CHP can be traced back much further than you suggest- to the 19070’s. Lord ( Walter) Marshall, one time chief Scientist, was a fan ( his seminal report laid out the energy saving benefits many decades ago) but as CEGB boss he was more focused on nuclear (and the US PWR). In the event cheap gas (and privatisation) knocked out both options. Nothing whatever to do with wind. In fact CHP/DH with heat storage is now widely seen as a good complement to wind in Denmark and elsewhere, helping to balance supply and demand variations .

    • Euan Mearns says:

      David, in light of some correspondence received it appears I may have got my reasons for CHP non-deployment off the mark. I’m always happy to be corrected in a courteous way – if you are able to expand. I remain puzzled as to why CHP has not had much wider deployment. In Aberdeen, blocks of Council flats seem to lend themselves to deployment with relative ease.

      • The UK has had cheap coal, then cheap north sea gas so, unlike in central europe, city wide CHP/DH never got off (or under!) the ground. It’s a big shame. CHP/DH infrastructure in nicely flexible- you can feed in whatever is the best current energy input. e.g. Denmark uses biomass (e.g. straw and wastes) for much of its large DH network at present (DH supplies 60% of commercial/domestic heat) , but plans to switch much of this (40% by 2050) to solar, with big inter-seasonal heat stores. Solar heating is still pricey but if the DH infrastructure exists, it can be competitive, depending on gas /carbon prices. It can also help balance variable wind, adding more value. Of course CHP/DH only makes sense in urban areas, which is why nuclear CHP/DH seems a non starter, unless you can find a population that will accept nukes in or near cities. The Russians did- e.g in Leningrad ( now St P).

  6. Roger Andrews says:

    It’s always encouraging when one of the King’s courtiers acknowledges in public that the King has no clothes, but I see no chance that Paterson’s plan will keep the lights on. All it will do is replace the Climate Change Act of 2008 with the Climate Change Act (Revised) of 2015 or whenever, and with ultimately similar results.

    What the UK needs to keep the lights on is more dispatchable power, and it needs it now. And to get it the first thing that must be done is to stop the bleeding. No more mothballing and closure of power plants under the EU Large Plant Directive or because they don’t make enough money to justify continued operation. Tell the EU to put their directive where the monkey put the nuts and pay power suppliers to keep going if you have to, but keep the power coming. This has to be the first step in any rational future energy plan.

    But what Paterson gives you instead is an arm-waving plan for a carbon free-future based on a massive expansion of shale gas resources that may or may not be there, small natural gas CHP plants with no guarantee that the gas needed to power them can be found, small modular nuclear plants that have yet to be tested on the commercial scale and which may not be cost-competitive anyway, and load-following refrigerators. Even if these utopian schemes can be made to work it will be years before they do you any good, and by then you will surely be freezing in the dark.

    Paterson fulminates against wind, solar and biomass subsidies – and rightly so – but to make his plan work CHP and modular nuclear would have to be subsidized to similar levels to attract the necessary investment, so all it will do is transfer the subsidies from one group of beneficiaries to another.

    Then there’s the question of why even go to a carbon-free future. If it’s going to cost terabucks, which it will, a powerful justification is needed, but Paterson doesn’t provide one. He undercuts the case for cutting carbon emissions by rubbishing CAGW (atmosphere no longer warming, forecast effects of climate change consistently and wildly exaggerated etc.) and fails to make a case on the grounds of sustainability or energy security. The best he can do is “I remain open-minded to the possibility that climate change may one day turn dangerous.” Saints preserve us.

    So while I admire Paterson’s courage (or more likely political astuteness) in blowing the whistle on the Climate Change Act, I don’t think he’s the man you need to get things back on track.

    • clivebest says:

      I agree. An otherwise excellent talk was spoiled by his proposals for an alternative to renewables. If small nuclear reactors such as those used in submarines were economically viable they would have already been deployed. What he should have done is simply propose a transfer of subsidies from renewables to nuclear energy & research. By being specific he opened up for criticism deflected away from his main argument that renewables can’t work.

      • Clive: Am I correct in stating that there are no small modular nuclear reactors in commercial operation anywhere in the world at this time?

      • Euan Mearns says:

        I believe we have entered a new energy / economic era where the market may not be able to deliver what society needs by way of large vital infrastructure like power generation. I’m not sure in the UK, the market ever functioned to do this. Most of the large electricity infrastructure was built by the state.

        Its a very tricky issue to address. I think the only thing I’m sure about is that using the single metric of CO2 intensity to design a new power delivery system is a VERY bad idea.

        Setting metrics like:

        1) energy efficiency of energy production standards
        2) dispatchable standard
        3) long term security of supply standard
        4) cost standard
        5) overall environmental impact standard

        … is maybe one way to go.

  7. Roberto says:


    …on the modular reactors vs epr…

    Actually, the only advantage of SMRs vs mammoths like the epr is the time to build and put in operation… all the rest is worse. Starting from the need too find the most difficult thing… trained operators for the many more control rooms that one would need to replace an epr with N smaller SMRs.


    • Euan Mearns says:

      Not sure I agree with this. Smaller = cheaper, so if they don’t work you can abandon plan in favour of something else. And the proposal was to combine small nuclear with CHP – grab 80% of energy. I know its radical and might not work, but it combines two of my guiding philosophies – nuclear power and energy efficiency. And its Rolls Royce at the helm. I think prototype deployment needs to be given a chance.

      Deploying 100 of these in UK to 2050, there is plenty time to train staff.

  8. alexc says:

    Well, Owen Paterson
    I would trust Private Eye over whatever he says. And Private Eye over his PR. And while i have subscription, I read private eye knowing i need another source. God help the UK if he gets into power again
    I am sorry to say this piece is not a great help to a better energy balance in the UK.
    It will take a lot of proof that small nuclear reactors work, outside the USSR, deep space, high Artic (let them sink)

  9. Hi Euan,

    Great reporting job. Thanks for the insight that CHP only works for base load, so it is really not compatible with large wind and solar shares that hammer base generators.

    We see some of this at my university which has gas-fired CHP. The system produces, on average, 80% of the campus electricity demand, in addition to providing steam for the campus. So far great. The part that is not so good is that the system over-produces at night, and we end up selling the electricity to the city at a low price. In the daytime, the system under-produces, and we end up buying electricity at high peak rates.

    Life is full of trade-offs.


    • Euan Mearns says:

      Dave, I may have got the bit about CHP running as base load wrong. Unfortunately Green commenters who could inform the public lack both social and professional skills to simply write an informative comment to this effect. Whatever, there have been obstacles to the deployment of CHP in the UK,

      • ‘Green commenters who could inform the public lack both social and professional skills to simply write an informative comment to this effect.’

        I have piles of good studies from greens and others on this! For an exhaustive recent review see:

        • Euan Mearns says:

          I’ve seen this exhaustive 211 p report by Andrews et al. But the authors choose to conduct a rather back hand email campaign preaching to the converted rather than writing simple well informed comments to this blog correcting me where I go wrong – and that happens many times i.e. I quite often don’t get things right, but that is blogging for you. And better still the authors could offer a 1000 word summary of the 211 page monstrosity for public consumption.

  10. Ian Smith says:

    And where is solar in this future?

    The reality, even in scotland, is one of the easiest routes to cutting CO2 is to ramp up the amount of solar – using the existing power stations as backup for when the sun don’t shine. We certainly know enough about the weather to balance that load – its more predictable than demand. Done sensibly it’s the most cost effective mechanism we have. Of course the generators would scream, given that the load factors would hurt – but in reality they are public utilities and need to be run accordingly.

    Oh, and if we are going to have local modular solar, can I suggest it’s installed in the basement of the local council offices? That should concentrate the minds on safety wonderfully.

  11. Luís says:

    There is a CHP plant at the northern outskirts of the city where I live. It was refurbished some five years ago to supply heat to the University quarter (then pretty much still under construction). In 2010 this plant operated for over 7000 hours; with wholesale electricity prices collapsing, in 2013 this figure was down to 3000 hours. Last month, after being almost continuously idle for three months, the operator announced a definitive closure by 2015. Since the announcement there where two releases of sulphur into the atmosphere that damaged dozens of cars and sent a few folk to the doctor.

    Market de-regulation and liberalisation – the tenets of energy policy that should bring us “security of supply”. The result seems to be rather the opposite. As I have been writing, electricity is by and large a perfect competition market, all these ideas of liberalisation, smart grids and so forth are bound to failure.

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