UK needs massive energy program, says academy

18 March 2010

The UK needs to exploit its renewable energy resources to the maximum to meet future energy demand and reduce carbon emissions - and will still need to build at least 20, and even up to 80, new nuclear or other low-carbon baseload power stations.

According to the Royal Academy of Engineering, an independent body comprising the UK's most eminent engineers, the country will need to mobilise the biggest peacetime program of investment and social change it has ever seen if it is to meet its energy demands to 2050 while delivering the 80% cut in greenhouse gas emissions required under the 2008 Climate Change Act.

A newly released report by the Academy, Generating the future: UK energy systems fit for 2050, considers four possible scenarios that could achieve the 2050 targets. While emphasising that the scenarios are not meant to be predictions, the Academy warns that there is no single 'silver bullet' solution that could deliver the necessary emissions cuts while keeping the country's lights on.   


  "There is no more time
  left for further
  Infrastructure on this
  scale doesn't happen on
  political timescales"



   Sue Ion
   Chair of the Royal Academy of
   Engineers' energy scenarios
   working group


Each of the four scenarios include reducing energy demand through both increased efficiencies and behavioural change, with much more energy demand than at present being met through the electricity system. All four generally see fossil fuel prioritised for transport use in the future. They also all incorporate the highest levels of renewable energy supplies (other than biomass) that the academy considers could realistically be delivered by 2050. (The amount of biomass use varies in the different scenarios.) Nonetheless, the report still foresees the need for a massive building program for what it calls low-carbon sources - either nuclear power or fossil-fuelled plants with carbon capture and storage (CCS). "The scale of the engineering challenge is massive," the academy warns.

The two scenarios which the report sees as the more practical options would require significant electrification of the UK's transport system (up to 80% in one case), and would both require around 40 new nuclear or CCS-equipped power plants fired by coal, biomass or gas. Even in the report's fourth scenario, with a 46% reduction in overall demand, and a whopping 58% of electricity supplied by what the report refers to as intermittent sources, "well beyond the limits of what has been achieved before," about 20 new nuclear or CCS-equipped plants would be needed. The figure could be as high as 80 new nuclear or CCS plants for a scenario with the least demand cuts.

Out of time

The timescales involved in such a massive re-engineering of the UK's energy systems in time to respond to the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions mean that the time for talking is effectively over, the report cautions: "We have to commit to new plant and supporting infrastructure now." Only low-carbon technologies that are already known can make a significant contribution to meeting the 2050 targets, it adds, noting that "untried developments", such as nuclear fusion, may eventually contribute to the energy mix, but "to meet the 80% target we have to use what we already understand."

Sue Ion, chair of the academy's energy scenarios working group, echoed the report's conclusion when she said: "There is no more time left for further consultations or detailed optimisation and no time to wait for new technical innovations. Infrastructure on this scale doesn't happen on political timescales."


Researched and written

by World Nuclear News