Tuesday, 26 November 2013

The future of the UK's energy supply: how should the Government secure it?

This was the question for discussion at the annual Univ. London Seminar. Half a dozen Old Members and a Fellow were this evening ranged upon the platform at the Royal Society: all had energy credentials of one sort or another, as did many of those in the packed audience.

Energy investment advisor Jim Long saw the present uncertainty as stemming from a long-term lack of any coherent UK energy policy, combined with our politicians implying that peoples' bills can be kept stable or even go down. This effectively placed the 75% of our capital investment that comes from overseas at risk.

Oliver Phipps of ERM was concerned about the low level of our gas storage: one week's supply, compared to Germany's three months'. But more so, that in less than a decade we had turned from being a net exporter of energy to a serious importer, with 87% based on fossil fuels. We badly needed to accelerate our investment in energy efficiency and renewables.

Gas industry expert, Dr. Jennifer Coolidge saw an immediate threat in the rising cost of our Norwegian supplies, and applauded our renewed commitment to a nuclear component.

Looking long term (the 200-year view), Laurence Fumagalli - who works in the wind power sector - saw all our energy coming from nuclear and solar PV, but over 50 years he foresaw a 30:30:40 mix of nuclear, renewables and gas. In the short term, he thought offshore wind had a big part to play. But overall he was worried about the very high levels of investment that would be needed. Not much of a mention of climate change! The evening's Chair, Professor Gideon Henderson, a College Fellow, specialises in this area, but kept his peace.

The final speaker was the most senior member of the panel, Ron Oxburgh, once Chairman of Shell. Individual governments have little control over energy prices, he said. In particular, fracking in the UK would do nothing much to reduce it, though the Treasury would benefit. He was an advocate of North Sea Interconnectors, to bring hydroelectricity from Scandinavia and thermal energy from Iceland, though in the discussion that followed another Old Member asked why on earth our neighbours would want to share our high price levels.

Mention was belatedly made of the need to bring the demand side into the market, and better energy efficiency (following China's lead) and conservation incentives called for: the Green Deal, though, was thought to be a dead duck. We waste 70% of our electricity generation capacity, said Nick Falk, who spoke up for combined heat and power, pointing to the lead given on this by the Germans and Danes.

Generally coal - though cheap - was given the thumbs down: successful CCS was far away and likely to prove more than twice as expensive as nuclear. Drax's conversion to biomass depended on unsustainable supply. A Severn Barrage? Opinion was sharply divided on this.

The most telling contribution, I felt, came from someone pointing out the deception of carbon reduction targets being based on production, not consumption: the emissions we import are up 20% since 1990, he said. All in all, a better question for discussion would have been, What steps must Government take to manage carbon reduction in a world of uncertain energy futures? I longed to hear some regret for the relative failure of the Warsaw COP 19 Summit (just ended), some attention to the dire warnings of the IPCC 5th Assessment Report - even a mention of Pope Francis' reflection that we all have to think if we can become a little poorer.

I took the photograph earlier in the day walking along Monmouth Street, drawn as usual towards Stanfords for a browse amongst their maps.

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