Solutions proposed for UK's 'looming energy gap'

By OGJ editors
HOUSTON, Jan. 11 -- The UK will require supply from all sources of energy if its standard of living is to be sustained, said 150 scientific, technical, economic, and sociological experts who contributed to a report aimed at helping the UK government address a "looming energy gap." Changes in the way energy is produced and used will be necessary, they said.

The Geological Society of London and five sister institutions sponsored a white paper written by John Loughhead, executive director of the UK Energy Research Centre.

To ensure secure, affordable, and environmentally acceptable energy through 2050, the paper stressed a continuing need for three energy elements: fossil fuels, renewables, and nuclear fission.

Fossil fuels
Despite renewable energy's growing role, fossil fuels will remain the primary and most important energy source over the next 50 years, especially for transport, because of their convenience and compatibility with existing infrastructure and products. All expert commentators expect this dominance to continue through 2020 regardless of legislation.

However, clean systems, including carbon sequestration, should be initiated immediately, the group urged. Reducing carbon emissions will require simultaneous action in several areas of the energy system to change the balance and technology of energy supply, distribution, demand, and usage efficiency.

As individual fossil fuels become supply-constrained and prices rise due to technical, market, and geopolitical factors, the UK must set priorities for their use:

-- Oil. Oil probably will experience a supply peak within the time frame because of transportation issues. Even if plenty of reserves are found, a production bottleneck is likely in the short term because of political access to reserves in the Middle East, political and technical difficulties in accessing oil in arctic regions, and a likely shortage of qualified personnel in producing oil companies.

Timing will depend more on political than geological issues. The UK should plan for a sustained high price while recognizing that reduced demand (either through price or carbon legislation) will extend the time over which a given rate of supply can be maintained.

-- Natural gas. A global gas production peak within the study period is unlikely, although projection of historic growth rates suggests production constraints may arise around midcentury. As a net importer of natural gas, the UK will need strategic storage or other supply buffers.

Expanding LNG regasification facilities would alleviate concern about supply security from Russia and would require more storage capacity. Gas-to-liquid technology provides another means of augmenting liquid supplies.

-- Coal. Ample coal supplies exist so coal will probably remain relatively cheap. A price increase of only $10/tonne could effectively double the world's economic coal reserves. Maintaining the UK's coal-based generating capacity would therefore augment both diversity and security of electricity supply. Long term, coal can be used as a chemical source for methane, hydrogen, and liquid fuels when conversion becomes economic.

However, developing means of clean coal use should be a priority. Embracing cleaner technologies for coal involves costs higher than for other fossil fuels, and carbon capture and storage have only been demonstrated in principle. It is likely that permitting for an operational sequestration plant would be difficult, with long delays of the sort nuclear power plants face.

Nuclear energy
Nuclear fission, a mature technology with well known construction and operating costs and a good safety record, also will assume a key role in a future clean-energy mix.

New nuclear construction will almost certainly be required if the UK is to meet its emissions target. But active government involvement will be essential to establish the regulatory and financial frameworks needed to enable it to proceed, the group said. The cost of disposing nuclear waste and decommissioning nuclear plants in particular must be addressed by government policy.

International collaboration on standards and design approvals also would smooth planning, contributing worldwide experience.

The planned retirement dates of existing nuclear plants mean that a decision about whether to replace them with new nuclear construction must be taken soon. Because the world design and supply capacities for nuclear power plants are limited, an early policy decision that translated into early orders would help the UK avoid potential future supply bottlenecks.

Public confidence in any decision is critical, and an open and transparent decision and consultation process is essential in this case.

Large-scale renewables, specifically wind, bioenergy, and some marine energies, potentially could meet 15% of current UK demand by 2020, rising to 35-40% by 2050, if the newer technologies could be successfully developed and deployed, the report revealed.

Incentives for development and demand remain necessary, however, and the government would have to improve current measures.

Development would require maintaining and reinforcing government incentives covering both the generation technologies and substantive changes in energy usage and supply systems, particularly changes to electricity networks. These include the use of local electricity grids for power-sharing and the more-efficient energy design of buildings and processes.

Further cost reductions are probable, but not to the historically low levels of fossil fuels.

Public engagement
Future approaches must provide clear, consistent incentives that identify with and engage the public and business. The public's engagement has been poor to date, and the government's attempts to develop it have failed to recognize the way individuals interact with the energy system. And real action for industry has arisen only when appropriate incentives, such as carbon trading, are in place.

The conference focused on two elements for energy-balance improvement: increasing energy-use efficiency and methods for reducing energy demand.

These encourage process changes leading to more-efficient onsite energy generation and usage. However, clear and consistent incentive schemes are still needed to encourage the wider adoption of such measures.

Wider application of existing energy efficiency technologies should be given the same priority as research and development in new technology, the group said. These include wider use of small-scale combined heat and power, or local renewable technologies such as wind in domestic and commercial premises, coupled with the improved energy efficiencies to be gained through improved building standards and wider adoption of low-energy devices.

Demand reduction
Demand reduction will be as important as technology generation, requiring both behavioral changes and technological advances.

Changing the behavior of individuals and UK small businesses will require active government promotion, support, and fiscal incentives to reward real improvements in energy use and local renewable generation.

More-demanding requirements for the energy performance of buildings and equipment should be put in place, coupled with improved information to consumers, including more-detailed information on energy bills. Greater efforts should also be made to provide advice—possibly through the Energy Savings Trust—on how to reduce consumption.

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