Facing up to the power struggle

PAUL HILL Wishful thinking won’t keep the lights on, Downing Street said yesterday as the government unveiled its long-awaited energy review. The government’s solution? New nuclear power stations, more wind turbines and solar panels – and rejigged planning laws to make it happen fast, as home affairs editor PAUL HILL reports.

PAUL HILL

When Russia sneezes, Britain will catch a cold. Or, at least, that is the fear for the future in Whitehall. Ministers have looked ahead to what Britain in 2020 might be like and decided that we will no longer be able to take flicking a light switch for granted.

Reserves of North Sea oil and gas are running low, three of the UK's nuclear power stations are reaching the end of their useful life, rising gas and oil prices are pushing domestic bills to new highs and yet our demand for power in the home and the workplace is still growing.

Ministers fear that relying on fuel imports to keep UK power stations operating puts Britain at “strategic” risk - at the mercy of the political whims of states in the oil-rich Middle East or whatever regime is in power in the Kremlin, bearing in mind that Russia holds more than one fifth of the world's gas reserves.

President Putin's decision on New Year's Day to turn off the gas supply to Ukraine in a row over a proposed quadrupling of gas prices illustrated in stark terms how states can wield energy as bartering tool - or weapon - to achieve political ends.

So yesterday, Alistair Darling, the trade and industry secretary, stood at the Commons despatch box and tried to explain why Britain needs to find its own ways of creating energy - whether building new nuclear power stations or wind farms, harnessing the power of the tides and sun or just being more frugal with the energy we have.

Most Read

“The Government believes that a mix of energy supply remains essential,” Mr Darling said. “We should not be over-dependent on one source. That's especially so if we are to maintain security of supply in the future.”

At present, gas-fired power stations account for about 37pc of the UK's electricity supply, coal-fired stations 34pc, nuclear power plants 20pc and “renewables” - green energy sources like windfarms - 5pc.

Less than 1pc of electricity generated in the UK comes from “microgeneration” like solar cells and mini-wind turbines attached to homes.

But “security of supply” was only one of the motives behind the government's energy review.

Ministers have set the target of reducing the UK's emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide by 60pc by the year 2050 compared to emissions in 1990 - which is why building new oil and gas power stations is no answer to Britain's problems.

The government will look further at the possibility of “clean coal” power stations that use advances in technology to mitigate the worst emissions and whether carbon emission from existing power stations can be “captured” and buried in spent oil and gas fields rather than being released into the atmosphere.

But nuclear power stations - which reputedly emit little or no carbon dioxide - appear to have won the argument in Downing Street.

Environmentalists have queried whether nuclear is really as “green” as some say.

They point to the carbon emissions caused by the mining, transportation and enrichment of uranium.

Then there is the thorny issue of what to do with nuclear waste.

As the EDP revealed last month, the government's advisory committee on nuclear waste has recommended that high-level waste is buried in specially-built vaults and sealed deep underground - although precisely where those burial sites will be remains unclear.

The advisory committee has hinted that some low-grade waste could be stored at the site of existing nuclear power stations, like Sizewell.

It was hinted by the nuclear agency Nirex in the 1980s that the Stanford battle area near Thetford could be used to bury waste.

The other unanswered question about the nuclear option is who will pay the £2bn-plus to build new reactors - and how much of that cost will be met by the Treasury?

But the government's energy review was never meant to give all the answers. It simply sets out the problem and what the government thinks the solutions may be.

In a sense, it is just the start - the beginning of a debate rather than the final word.

REVIEW DETAILS

t Health fears about creating energy by burning waste are “not supported by the available evidence”, according the government's energy review. The government also said that careful planning of waste incinerators - such as the plant proposed for Costessey, near Norwich - would not hinder efforts to sift and sort rubbish that could be recycled instead of being burned. According to the energy review: “Strong opposition from some sections of the public has hindered the development of energy from waste technologies in the UK. This opposition is motivated primarily by fears over supposed impacts on human health, as well as by concerns that excessive investment in incineration, in particular, might “lock in” wastes which could otherwise have been recycled. The government believes that the first of these concerns is not supported by the available evidence, whilst the second can be addressed through the careful design of local waste strategies.”

t Tidal barrages and lagoons could be created to help generate “wave power”. The energy review sets a target of generating one fifth of all of the UK's electricity from “renewable” sources - like wind, solar and wave power - by 2020. Councils will be asked to insist that planning applications for new developments include propo-sals for “on-site renewables” like mini-wind turbines. But ministers said they were concerned about the environmental impact of a major wave-power scheme proposed for the Severn estuary. But the Severn scheme - running from South Wales towards Weston-Super-Mare - would cost £14bn and could generate 5pc of the UK's electricity by the year 2020.

t The Treasury will look again at how changing tax rates could help Britain's fledgling biofuels industry. The energy review published yesterday concluded that transport accounts for around 30pc of total UK energy use and about a quarter of the country's emissions of greenhouse gases. Ministers expect emissions from road transport to “peak” by 2015 and then fall as motorists switch to more fuel-efficient cars - including those powered by fuel created from sugar beet or oil-seed rape - or public transport. According to the energy review: “Ministers will also seek to raise awareness amongst consumers so they can make informed choices about the type of cars they buy and how they use them.”

'HELP CONSUMERS SAVE ENERGY'

Gas and electricity bills should give householders more information about how to save energy, ministers announced yesterday.

Alistair Darling, the trade and industry secretary, said energy companies will be asked to give more detail to their customers about how they are using energy in the home - and how to cut down their bills.

Mr Darling added that research was continuing into “smart meters” that could give instant information to households about their energy use - although it could cost up to £8bn to put a hi-tech meter in every home in the country.

The government is also set to put pressure on manufacturers to produce more energy-efficient goods.

According to the energy review published yesterday: “Twenty-five per cent of the UK's total electricity is used to power lighting and appliances in the home.

“If we do nothing, this domestic use is predicted to rise by 20pc between now and 2020 as new energy-using products - such as computers and gaming consoles - become more commonplace in the home.

If we are to reduce this growth in energy demand we need to find ways to make the products we all buy and use more efficient.”

The review continues: “Working with other governments, manufacturers and retailers, we will seek to phase out the least-efficient light bulbs, remove the most inefficient white goods from the market and limit the amount of stand-by energy wasted on televisions, stereos and other consumer electronics.”

PROPOSALS TO 'FAST-TRACK PLANNING'

New planning rules are set to be introduced to “fast-track” controversial proposals for new nuclear power stations and wind farms, it emerged yesterday.

Ministers said it had taken too long in the past to get approval for major projects - but pledged that the new system would put an emphasis on local and environmental issues.

The rules could also be changed to allow householders to install mini-wind turbines or solar panels without the need to submit a planning application.

The energy review published yesterday revealed that ministers could use existing legal powers to appoint a “a high-powered inspector, for example a senior judge or QC, for the most complex and controversial proposals”.

The review said that Sizewell B took 73 months to secure planning permission - but only 30 days of a lengthy planning inquiry “were devoted to local issues”.

According to the review: “Public inquiries can become embroiled in debates about national issues, rather than focusing on local issues relating to siting of the proposed development.

“The government is clear about the need for full public discussion and consideration on key issues associated with civil nuclear power including health and safety issues, and the weighing of the economic and other benefits against potential detriments.

“However, the government considers that these issues should be viewed in their appropriate context and should be addressed appropriately up front, in advance of any planning applications.

“This will avoid the same national issues arising as part of the consideration of every proposal, therefore appropriately allowing public inquiries to focus on local and other relevant issues.”