Oil pouring from a barrel

Great Britain's power struggle

Like all countries, the UK is obliged to shift its energy mix away from over-reliance on oil, natural gas and coal and move towards renewables. But what is economically feasible, and which long-term directions are acceptable to the public at large?

It seems that the general public objects in roughly equal measure to nuclear power, wind farms, fracking, public transport, petrol taxes, energy tariffs and resource depletion. Meanwhile, the UK is committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80 per cent by 2050, relative to 1990 levels. For this to happen, the economy must be transformed while ensuring secure, low-carbon energy supplies.

How does the UK's position compare with other countries around the world that have different local economic issues to consider? And with developing countries like China, India and Brazil increasing their energy production faster than we can reduce our consumption, is there really any point?

The energy dilemma is not an isolated problem, but a multi-dimensional one that also involves resource depletion, population growth, pollution, climate change, pandemic diseases, terrorism and war, to name but a few. Changes in one parameter can influence all the others, making it too big a problem for laymen to get their heads around, or even to cover comprehensively in an article of this length.

One well-established source of information about global risk is the World Economic Forum, which publishes an annual report highlighting the most significant long-term risks, drawing on the perspectives of experts and global decision makers. Energy-related factors are prominent in the top ten risks identified by this year's 70-page tenth edition of the WEF Global Risks report, in terms of both likelihood and impact.

David MacKay is regius professor of engineering at Cambridge University. His team's 2050 Pathways Calculator, produced in collaboration with the UK Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC), can model any number of scenarios and assumptions to see where we might be in the year 2050.

The calculator is interactive, and allows users to create their own UK emissions-reduction pathway then see its impact using real scientific data. The approach is designed to help everyone engage in the debate and lets Government make sure planning is consistent with this long-term aim. Anyone can search for the tool online and have a play.

The calculator is available in three versions to allow a range of audiences to explore the fundamental question of how the UK can best meet energy needs while reducing emissions: a user-friendly web-tool version for a detailed look at the issue, a simplified My2050 simulation for those who want an overview, and a full Excel version for experts who want to look at the underpinning model.

DECC is now working with teams around the world to help them develop their own calculators, and has also launched a global calculator to look at ways to reduce emissions worldwide. DECC's model of projected sources of electricity generation to 2050 shows a decline in fossil fuels, an increase in renewables and the continuing role of nuclear.

If nothing else, the calculator shows how complex the overall picture is. Take for example, the relatively minor area of bioplastics – polymers derived from plant-based feedstock. We need to wean ourselves off the ever-dwindling supply of fossil fuels, and bioplastics can replace fossil resources with renewable ones. But is solving one issue merely exacerbating another? With the global population charging towards 9 billion in 2050, is it best to use cultivatable land for food, or to grow more plastic bottles? McKay's model suggests that with current population predictions, we cannot even expect to be eating meat at that point, as using arable land to farm animals would be too wasteful, let alone use it to produce plastics.

Meanwhile though, the market for bioplastic packaging material is growing exponentially, as companies turn to (apparently) eco-friendly packaging. "Global demand for bioplastics is set to rise by around 20 per cent per year," says Shaun Chatterton, CEO of Floreon Transforming Packaging. Floreon's patented material is a polymer blend based on PLA (polylactic acid) that is claimed to have improved toughness and higher strength and durability than standard PLA. It is recyclable, biodegradable and requires low energy to process. However, like all PLA, it is produced from plant feedstock.

But here too, technology may be able to provide an answer. Algae farms can be installed on non-arable land, therefore sustainable production of polymers from algae sugars and hydrocarbons may provide an alternative. So the European (FP7) algae project Sustainable Polymers from Algae Sugars and Hydrocarbons (SPLASH) has been developing technology for converting third-generation algae feedstock to bioplastics.

Undeterred by the debate, Mazda has developed in conjunction with Mitsubishi Chemical Corporation a bio-based engineering plastic that can be used for exterior design parts for automobiles. Now, we can save fossil fuels in the manufacture of a car that is primarily designed to burn fossil fuels (albeit with engines that exhibit low carbon dioxide emissions, and outstanding fuel consumption). Mazda says that dyed parts made from the bio-based engineering plastic have a higher-quality finish than can be achieved with traditional painted ABS plastic. Mazda has been exploring biomass for a number of years: interior parts have been used on its all-new MX-5, and now the company has succeeded in making a material suitable for both interior and exterior parts. But is it solving the right problem?

Earlier this year, Scotland's deputy first minister John Swinney called for a 'fundamental' change to oil and gas taxation, and wrote to Chancellor George Osborne urging him to announce measures to aid the North Sea industry.

The sector has been hit hard by the plunging price of oil – a barrel of Brent Crude sells for barely half what it went for in June 2014 – with hundreds of job cuts announced in recent months. Osborne had already vowed to take further action to support the industry, while Swinney said support for the oil and gas sector announced in last year's Autumn Statement was viewed by many in the industry as 'insufficient'. Paradoxically, growth in the oil and gas sector is seen as a positive indicator of economic performance.

Without doubt, renewable energy systems provide an unprecedented opportunity to displace carbon-based fuels and fossil-fuel grid-based electricity. Renewables also contribute to climate mitigation efforts.

REN21 is a global renewable-energy policy network. Its goal is to promote rapid global transition to renewable energy through knowledge exchange, policy development and joint action. The organisation's Renewables 2014 Global Status Report asserts that evolution of renewable energy over the past decade has surpassed all expectations. Global installed capacity and production from all renewable technologies have increased substantially; costs for most technologies have decreased significantly; and supporting policies have continued to spread throughout the world.

According to the report, most mainstream projections did not predict the extraordinary expansion of renewables that was to unfold in the period from 2000: many projected levels of renewable energy for 2020 were already surpassed by 2010. Today, renewable energy technologies are seen not only as a tool for improving energy security, but also as a way to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and achieve social benefits.

On the negative side, figures issued by Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union, have revealed that renewable energy made up just 5.1 per cent of the UK's total gross energy consumption in 2013, up from 1.2 per cent in 2004. Unless there is a dramatic change, the figures suggest that the UK is unlikely to meet its 2020 renewable energy target of 15 per cent.

Only Luxembourg, Malta and the Netherlands used smaller proportions of renewable energy than Britain. Sweden was found to be the most renewable-friendly EU member state, with over half of its energy coming from renewable sources.

Baroness Jenny Jones, a Green Party politician in the UK and a member of the House of Lords, says the figures reflect recent government policy. "The UK's share of energy from renewables is woeful, but not altogether surprising given the prime minister's and the Mayor of London's enthusiasm for fracking and a new generation of nuclear," she says.

And while several European countries have been at the forefront of moving to renewable energy on a large scale, the World Economic Forum has released a status report on Europe's renewable energy deployment strategies and has found them lacking in a number of costly ways. The most glaring was that if countries had directed their deployments more shrewdly, Europe's bill for its renewables deployment would have been $100bn less.

One conclusion drawn by the engineering industry association EEF is that European countries could have done a better job of assessing their resources before deciding which types of renewable generation they would employ and where they would be located. As a result, Europe has generally invested more than necessary and now faces far more capacity than it needs, a costly situation for electric utilities.

A clear-cut picture?

While it is the conventional view that 'renewables are good' and 'fossil fuels and nuclear are bad', is this a fair assessment?

Nuclear power remains part of the DECC 2050 power mix for electricity consumption. But nuclear power is a strongly polarising political question in Europe. Yet on a global level, the growth of renewable energy has merely made up for a decline in nuclear power. In 2013, about 80 per cent of the world's energy came from fossil fuels, a figure virtually unchanged in the last decade.

China now has 13 operating reactors and another 27 under construction. India operates 20 reactors, has four under construction, and plans to build 20 more. South Korea has seven reactors either planned or under construction.

In Japan, despite Fukushima entering the global lexicon it's unlikely that the consequences of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami will cause a change of heart: there are simply no existing alternatives for supplying baseload power, other than coal or natural gas, both of which are environmentally and logistically problematic.

Mexico has a deficit in generating technologies, yet the energy sector has been one of the strategic areas for the country, not only as a revenue generator for the nation but as a lever of industrial development. Lorenzo Martinez Gomez is a researcher at the Institute of Physics of the Autonomous Nacional University of Mexico (UNAM). He argues that nuclear is a real alternative to mitigate climate change damage from fossil fuel combustion in Mexico.

"In Mexico, support for nuclear energy generation has not permeated society and government; on the contrary, accidents at nuclear plants have been overstated, when in fact it is a real alternative to mitigate the ravages of climate change related to fossil fuel combustion," Gomez said.

A project investigating the role of nuclear power on the energy map of Europe is about to be started in the Finnish Lappeenranta University of Technology. The study will involve, in total, 26 European countries and is the most extensive project studying nuclear power in Europe and the first to form a comprehensive picture.

"We collect multidisciplinary data in order to better understand how people define nuclear power, what is the role of the society and how does it steer decision-making and the development of the entire nuclear industry. Our aim is to use research knowledge to establish a socially, politically and economically stable situation for nuclear power", explains Professor Karl-Erik Michelsen of the LUT School of Business and Management.

What of fossil fuels? While the overall volume of fossil fuel use has increased, carbon dioxide emissions per unit of energy have declined. The biggest reason is the switch from coal to natural gas for electricity generation. Coal-gasification plants are also being developed which dramatically reduce greenhouse gases while generating plentiful power on just a few hectares.

Contrary to popular view, fossil fuels remain plentiful. With new discoveries and new technology, and when the shale revolution goes global, oil, gas and even coal could provide ample power for decades, if not centuries. Waiting in the wings is methane hydrate, a seafloor source of energy that is claimed to be larger than all the world's coal, oil and gas combined.

Finally, despite massive subsidies, alternative fuels have trouble competing. To run the US economy on wind would require a wind farm the size of Texas, California and New Mexico. The cost of subsidised renewable energy is coming down, especially solar, but even if solar panels were free, the power they produce would still have trouble competing with fossil fuels.

Because wind and solar are intermittent, we would still need technologies such as oil and gas to provide backup power. The recent solar eclipse in the UK sent shudders through the industry, fearing the effects of a sudden shortage followed by a surge, although in the event seemed to be as much of a non-event as the eclipse itself (at least in cloudy London).

Image credits: ABB

    Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

    Recent articles