by Aaryn Lambert

    Solving the UK Energy Gap: Not an Easy Job but Nuclear Energy and Wind Power Can Do It.

    One of today’s largest global challenges is the production of energy. The need for clean or green energy and new technologies is ever increasing. There are social, environmental, and political pressures. Despite all of these pressures, one force that stands out is the topic of energy security. Energy security has no clear-cut definition; I like to define it as logistically securing the amount of energy we need to keep the lights on and the cars moving tomorrow.

    The Problem

    It is no secret that the United Kingdom (UK) will be facing a 20 percent energy gap by the year 2015. In the early years of the 2000s, concerns grew over the prospect of an ‘energy gap’ in UK generating capacity. This is expected to arise because a number of coal fired power stations will close due to their inability to meet the clean air requirements of the European Large Combustion Plant Directive (directive 2001/80/EC).1 In addition, the UK’s remaining MAGNOX nuclear stations will be closed by 2015. The oldest AGR nuclear power station has had its life extended by ten years, and it is likely many of the others can be extended, reducing the potential gap suggested by the current accounting closure dates of between 2014 and 2023 for the AGR power stations.2

    A report from the industry in a 2005 forecast claims that without action to fill the gap, there would be a 20% shortfall in the electricity generation capacity by 2015. Similar concerns were raised by a report published in 2000 by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (Energy – The Changing Climate).

    Filling the Energy Void: What is Being Done?

    The first move to plug the UK’s energy gap was the June 2006 announcement by Centrica that they would proceed to construct the conventionally gas-fired power station. In 2007, proposals for the construction of two new coal-fired power stations were announced in Tilbury, Essex and in Kingsnorth, Kent. If built, they will be the first coal-fired stations to be built in the UK in 20 years.

    Wind Energy: The Opportunity for the UK to become a Global Leader

    In 2007, approximately 1.5% of UK electricity was generated by wind power (with a total of around 4.5% of UK electricity coming from all renewable sources.6) This is expected to rise dramatically in coming years as a result of the British government’s energy policy strongly supporting new renewable energy generating capacity. In the short to medium term, the bulk of this new capacity is expected to be provided by onshore and offshore wind power.

    Late 2007, the UK Government agreed to an overall European Union target of generating 20% of EU’s energy supply from renewable sources by 2020. Each EU member state was given its own allocated target; for the UK it is 15%. This was formalized in January 2009 with the passage of the EU’s Renewables Directive. As renewable heat and fuel production in the UK are at extremely low bases, the BWEA estimates that this will require 35–40% of the UK’s electricity to be generated from renewable sources by 2020.7 This equates to 33–35 GW of installed wind capacity.

    In December 2007, the Government announced plans for a massive expansion of wind energy grid in the UK by conducting a Strategic Environmental Assessment of up to 25 GW worth of wind farm offshore sites in preparation for a new round of development. These proposed sites are in addition to the 8 GW worth of sites already awarded in the 2 earlier rounds of site allocations, Round 1 in 2001 and Round 2 in 2003. Taken together, it is estimated that this would result in the construction of over 7,000 offshore wind turbines.

    As of 11 January 2009, there are 269 operational wind farms in the UK, with 2,764 turbines and 4,070 MW of installed capacity. A further 1,738 MW worth of schemes are currently under construction, while another 7,147 MW have planning consent and some 9,770 MW are in planning awaiting approval.8

    By January 2010, the installed capacity of wind power in the United Kingdom was over 4 gigawatts (GW) Wind power is now the second largest source of renewable energy in the UK after biomass. The milestone of 3 gigawatts of installed capacity was reached in October 2008, with the opening of the Lynn and Inner Dowsing Wind Farm, off the Lincolnshire coast. The British Wind Energy Association (BWEA) estimates that installed capacity will pass the 5 and 6 GW marks during 2010.

    Nuclear Energy: Supplying the Base Loads

    While nuclear power doesn’t produce carbon dioxide in generation (though the construction, mining, waste handling and disposal, and decommissioning do generate carbon emissions), it raises other environmental and security concerns. Despite this issue, it has great potential for generating electricity. In France, for example, nearly 80% of the country’s electricity production is nuclear powered. However, even with changes to the planning system to speed applications, there are doubts whether the necessary timescale could be met and also over the financial viability of nuclear power. With no nuclear plants having been constructed since Sizewell B in 1995, there are also likely to be capacity issues within the native nuclear industry. The existing privatized nuclear supplier, British Energy, had been in financial trouble in 2004. Since the EDF takeover of British Energy in early 2009, plans have been put in place to build two new nuclear PowerStation’s (Sizewell C and Hinkly Point C).

    In January 2008, the UK government gave the go-ahead for a new generation of nuclear power stations to be built. However, the Scottish National Party (SNP)-led Scottish Government has made clear that it opposes new nuclear power stations being built in Scotland and has the final say on planning matters in Scotland.9

    So far, two consortia (EDF-Centrica and RWE-E.ON) have announced plans to build a total of 12.5GW of new nuclear capacity; this is slightly more than the total capacity of British Energy’s currently operating plants. A third consortium (Iberdrola – SSE – GdF-Suez) has also announced plans to acquire sites and build, but it has not commented on the capacity planned. Sweden’s Vattenfall is known to be seeking partners for participation in new UK nuclear generation.

    As of 2009, government officials believe a carbon price floor will need to be set to encourage companies to commit funds to nuclear project builds.10

    The Bottomline

    By looking at the data, it is evident that the UK will face an oncoming energy gap by 2015. This gap is not the argument nor is it the debate. The true debate lies in filling this energy gap. From my viewpoint, Nuclear needs to supply the base loads and potentially as the backup power to Wind power. Backup power is needed as just in case scenarios arise, like when the wind does not blow. The UK has the potential to become a world leader in offshore wind technology if these Wind projects come to fruition. Both energies will need investment; both energies are clean and CO2 friendly (although some skeptics may disagree), and both will be needed in the future plans of UK energy security. Otherwise, the lights may go out.

    1. http://www.worldenergy.org/includes/404.asp
    2. Stephen Seawright (2006-06-13), Nuclear stations may stay on line to bridge the gap, Daily Telegraph
    3. Department of Energy and Climate Change
    4. 10 year life extension at Dungeoness B nuclear station, British Energy, 15 September 2005
    5. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/politics/6444373.stm
    6. http://www.hie.co.uk/HICEC/HICEC-Annual_review.pdf
    7. BWEA UK Wind Energy Database
    8. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/7179579.stm

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