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We had advance warning that he would be making a call to have the UK 2008 Climate Change Act either amended or repealed.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:
- Combined heat and power (CHP) district heating systems
- Shale gas development in the UK
- Deployment of small modular nuclear power stations
- 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.
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.
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.