Monday, April 02, 2018

How do we power the UK?

Written quite a lot about NHS reform of secondary care for Shropshire and mid-Wales recently. So a change of subject - temporarily at least. Feel a need to return to a subject I used to write about quite a lot. Energy, and where we source it. And ask whether the ‘Russia’ issue make any difference.
When I was young, energy used to be a major part of the UK’s GDP (maybe 10%) - principally coal, oil, gas and nuclear. Today it’s fallen to relative insignificance (maybe 2%). This is largely down to much reduced use of coal and near disappearance of North Sea oil. And our commitment to Paris Agreement on climate change means we’re not going back there. This post is about where (and whether) we should look to re-establish energy as a significant UK industry. I’m thinking next 15/20 years. Even that’s too long a time scale to predict with any certainty. It’s probable that this post would have to be completely rewritten in 10yrs, or even sooner.
In my view, we cannot but go for Shale Gas as a big player. I accept there is uncertainty about this industry, and much opposition, but nevertheless it looks more than promising. I’ve never quite understood the antipathy to shale gas extraction. We know that the initial process of hydraulic fracturing is undoubtedly noisy for a period of around 3 weeks, and generates a fair bit of traffic. No major job creating industry is without some disturbance. The potential is massive - game changing. At worst, there’s enough Shale Gas in the Bowland Basin alone to provide for decades of UK needs. And there are private operators who will put their money in. Are doing so already. We know (even the Climate Change Committee agrees) that there’s a need for gas as a transition fuel from coal to renewables (where we want to end up) and Shale Gas has far less impact on carbon emissions than LNG, which is the main alternative. And anyway, all the LNG we were banking on is being bought up by the Chinese. But since the demise of the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee I have no involvement in this debate. Just a residual interest.
I also think offshore wind looks to have a more than promising future. Always used to be too costly, but scale and technology are changing the balance. Almost reached the stage when no subsidy is needed, which is a dramatic turnaround in a year. There is some antipathy to offshore wind but nothing like the  intense opposition to onshore wind, which is even cheaper. I’ve always thought (without actual evidence) that if and when floating turbines become realalistic and economic, the potential of offshore wind is limitless. Another advantage of offshore wind (and shale gas) is that the economic benefit will accrue to the North of England, contributing to reducing the North-South divide.
And the there is Russia. While we might not import much directly from Russia now, we are part of a European energy network which is more linked to Russia. We should not be giving the Russians any leverage over us. It’s not just energy, but security.
There are of course many other possibilities as well. Nuclear may well be a big player, especially if Small Modular Reacters prove viable. Trawsfynnydd could be a real possibility here. Solar will always be a small scale player, made slightly more viable as storage technology develops. Then there’s hydrogen, which could develop as a fuel for cars and trains. That’s enough for this quick blog post, but open to suggestions to amend it.

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