Late in 2012 we decided that a conference with a title such as “Can we keep the lights on in the Solent?” would be a good idea. It turns out that the idea was too good.
The best way to replace our ageing power generating system has become the source of the major debate within government. The result is that some of the key speakers that we would have invited are all far too busy representing one government department or another in trying to resolve the difficult questions surrounding this problem. Indeed several have responded to an invitation indicating that they thought that conference along these lines was a good idea, but that they simply do not have the time to get involved this year.
The topic remains important for the Solent area because
- Fawley power station has just closed (except for a gas turbine) and is likely to be replaced, probably with a gas powered station
- Just outside the Solent area there are proposals to construct the massive Navitus offshore wind farm.
- There are several proposals for quite large wind turbines on the Isle of Wight that will be clearly visible from the Solent.
- Planning applications have been made for the construction of a biomass plant in the middle of Southampton.
- Several solar farms are in operation or under construction in the Solent area, though few will be visible from the Solent itself.
- There are proposals for experimental tidal turbines south of the isle of Wight.
- It is quite possible exploration licences for shale gas and will be sought in the Solent area in the near future.
The sensitivities caued by receent exploration at Balcombe in Sussex show how much strong feeling can be generated by these questions
It simply will not do to take a NIMBY approach to the problem. The Solent is not self sufficient in energy at the present time so we ought to examine all the possibilities to see what contribution this area can be expected to make to the energy needs of the nation without destroying the amenity value of the Solent itself.
Even among those who regard climate change and global warming as a serious and urgent issue there are two clearly contradictory lines of thought. The “traditional” and green view is that climate change and global warming are so urgent that we cannot wait. Proponents of this view argue that fossil fuels will be running out fairly soon and that prices will rise rapidly. It is that ‘peak oil’ hypothesis that justifies subsidies for renewable energy sources such as wind turbines; and also for nuclear power which generates no climate change forcing emissions. The argument is that the subsidies will not be needed when market energy prices overtake the real cost of alternative power generation methods, Until recently, this was the view that had been adopted by the Department of Energy. The assumption that energy prices will go on rising is still repeated regularly on radio and television by government officials, and by the sponsoring NGOs such as WWF, Greenpeace, and Friends of the Earth.
An alternative point of view championed by Dieter Helm of Oxford University argues that the centrally directed programme aimed at developing current generation renewable technologies is misconceived, and that it is better to work with the grain of human greed. He recognises the seriousness of global warming, but seeks a path toward sustainability that can work politically.
THERE IS PLENTY OF FOSSIL FUEL
Dieter Helm argues that the peak output theory has repeatedly been shown to be in error, and the development of technologies that enable the cost effective extraction of shale gas prove the point. Because of shale gas, gas prices in the USA and are now one third of the level in the UK. Even if the UK cannot develop large scale access to shale gas within its borders, the plentiful availability of shale gas around the world means that energy prices may well not rise to the extent necessary to wipe out the subsidies currently being paid to renewables and nuclear generation. It is argued that the exploitation of shale gas allows a breathing space in which second generation renewables can be developed. Many of these new technologies, such as artificial photosynthesis, and thin film solar power generators are already at an advanced laboratory stage.
It is argued that it would be better to spend the hundred billion pounds that would otherwise be spent on installing wind turbines across the landscape and (very expensively) at sea on this research and development instead. This is the view that seems to have been adopted by the treasury, and it is interesting to note that Dieter Helm has recently been appointed as chairman of the Natural Capital Committee, a body that will become increasingly influential in resolving the climate change debates.
MAKING THE DEBATE UNDERSTANDABLE
The argument between these two points of view is fierce, bitter and very, very serious. It is frequently conducted in emotional terms quoting numbers of such an enormous scale that it is difficult for the average person to understand them. Professor David Mackay recognised this and wrote an excellent guide book called “Sustainable Energy Without The Hot Air” in which he reduces these complex arguments to simple numbers on a common scale of measurement and it is on that basis the rational discussion can be held.
We had hoped that we would be able to secure Dieter Helm, David Mackay, and Tony Juniper of Friends of The Earth so that we could publicly tease out the essence of this discussion. All three of them are deeply committed to this discussion. All three at one time or another have expressed interest in our conference idea of trying to explain this hugely important problem at a scale that can be understood by the people in a small local region like the Solent. But the first two are so deeply involved in this debate at government level that they simply do not have the time this year.
However the problem is so important that we hope to be able to come back to the problem again at some time in the future. In the meantime, if you wish to investigate these problems for yourself, here are three presentations made by these three eminent people within the last year or so that set out the issues extremely clearly.
Tony Juniper: “What has Nature ever done for us? :
David Mackay: “Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air”
(click on underlined text to view)
STOP PRESS!! Tony Juniper has agreed to inaugurate our Winter lecture programme on 18th October at Solent University. Put it in your diary.. Special rate for members. Visit our events page to book your place now.