The sun, the sea and the coal mines of South Wales

As it unveils plans for thousands of wind farms to be built off the coast of Britain, the Government faces criticism that it is neglecting other forms of alternative energy. Jon Mainwaring reports
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The Independent Online

Plans to open up the seas around the UK to allow the deployment of up to 33 gigawatts (GW) of offshore wind power received plenty of attention in the media, and were welcomed by the green energy lobby, when they were announced last week by John Hutton, the Cabinet minister responsible for energy. But there have been cautionary voices warning that not all our alternative energy eggs should be put in one basket.

Mr Hutton claimed that his draft plan to allow companies to develop up to 25GW of offshore wind by 2020, in addition to the 8GW already planned, would lead to the generation of enough electricity to power all the homes in Britain.

Dr Sue Ion, the vice-president of the Royal Academy of Engineering, is among those with reservations. "Laudable though the targets are, we urge the Government to think about the practicalities of deploying these technologies," she says. "The engineering effort to build 7,000 large offshore turbines by 2020 would be enormous, unprecedented and is probably underestimated."

The Royal Academy of Engineering is so concerned about the UK's ability to meet these targets that it has commissioned a study of the engineering challenges involved in offshore wind projects.

Meanwhile, the Carbon Trust, the independent company set up by the Government to help the country meet its climate change obligations, also has mixed feelings about the proposals. "From a business point of view, it's a really strong signal that the Government is going to press ahead with regulatory reform," says John Callaghan, the trust's technology strategy manager.

But he goes on to say that he supports a portfolio-based approach to meeting Britain's energy needs. "It is not possible to pick winners at this stage," he says. "So, you need to push things along in parallel."

The trust is supportive of offshore wind power it is launching a 40m public-private partnership next week aimed at driving down the cost of the technology. But it also runs projects that are aimed at encouraging other technologies, such as the production of tidal- and wave-based renewable energy, while also providing grants to solar-energy schemes.

The non-wind alternative energy sector is, not surprisingly, concerned about the Government's offshore plans.

"There are no magic bullets," says Jeremy Leggett, the executive chairman of Solarcentury, Britain's leading solar power company. "Getting all the electricity from offshore wind is a bad idea." Like Mr Callaghan, he advocates a portfolio approach, pointing out that smaller contributions from a variety of renewable energy technologies would be easier to achieve.

Solarcentury focuses on projects, both small and large, that help its customers generate solar electricity and heat close to the point of use. Two years ago, the company designed a solar power solution for the Manchester headquarters of the Co-operative Insurance Society. The 5.5m scheme involved installing a 400ft-high array of dark blue solar panels, making it Europe's largest vertical photovoltaic project.

Many alternative energy projects aim to produce electricity by means other than wind power and supply it to consumers through the National Grid.

One such project is the Wave Hub off the coast of Cornwall, which the South West Regional Development Agency plans to turn into the world's first large-scale wave energy farm. Not only will this 28m scheme demonstrate and test different approaches to harvesting energy from the sea, it also has the potential to generate 3 per cent of Cornwall's domestic electricity requirements.

Nick Harrington, Wave Hub's project manager, sees huge potential for wave energy in the UK and around the world. But the technology is still at an early stage. "Wave is where wind used to be a few years ago," he says.

As a pilot scheme, Wave Hub is testing the reliability and robustness of different approaches to wave power, while also checking that there are no adverse effects on the environment such as coastal erosion or danger to marine wildlife. "Before we do this on a much bigger scale, we want to be confident about that," Mr Harrington says.

If all goes well, then by 2020 Britain and continental Europe could be producing several gigawatts of marine-based renewable energy. The Carbon Trust believes wave power, along with a similar source of energy called tidal stream, could eventually meet between 15 and 20 per cent of Britain's current electricity demand.

Four companies are supplying different wave-energy technologies to Wave Hub, which is scheduled to become operational by the summer of 2009. Each has been leased an area of two square kilometres out at sea, where their devices are hooked up to an underwater transformer that has the capacity to deliver up to 20 megawatts enough to power 7,500 homes.

The most recent business signed up is Oceanlinx, which hopes to raise 25m to 30m in a flotation planned for the new year on the Alternative Investment Market. The 10-year-old company which is also pursuing projects in North America, Mexico, South Africa and Hawaii has developed a wave energy converter that combines an oscillating water column with its own patented turbine technology.

Clean coal technology is another route Britain could take to meet its future energy needs in a more environmentally friendly way. The Government has already shown it is keen on the idea. "The technology is still at an early stage of development, but the prospect of a renaissance for the British coal industry is very exciting indeed," Peter Hain, the Secretary of State for Wales, said last summer.

In October, Mr Hutton announced state backing for the construction within seven years of one of the world's first commercial-scale, coal-fired, CCS (carbon capture and storage) projects.

But even here, some electricity generators and industry analysts disagree with the Government's approach. For example, Centrica the parent company of British Gas had plans to build its own clean coal-powered plant, costing 1bn, on Teesside; however, the project has been put on ice because the Government does not intend to support the pre-combustion CCS technology that the plant would be based on.

Pre-combustion capture involves using oxygen or steam to convert coal to a gas consisting of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. The carbon monoxide is then mixed with steam to produce further hydrogen and carbon dioxide, which can be separated off (captured) before the hydrogen is burned.

Post-combustion capture, which the Government is supporting because it can be fitted to existing coal-fired plants, involves separating carbon dioxide from the flue gas produced when coal is burned.

But Centrica argues that pre-combustion capture would be the cheaper process to operate and that it could get its plant up and running sooner than a post-combustion plant could be built.

The Government's preferred option has upset the group's plans. A spokesman for Centrica says that it would continue to highlight the role pre-combustion carbon capture plants can play in making an immediate contribution to cutting carbon emissions. "But without support mechanisms and greater clarity on the long-term carbon market, the economics of [the Teesside] project remain questionable," he adds.

Because of the costs involved in building a CCS coal-fired plant, Centrica would need around 300m of government subsidies or moves at EU level to ensure that the price of carbon credits from 2012 onwards is more than €50 (35) per ton.

Whatever shape the UK's CCS industry eventually takes, any green incentive to build new coal-fired plants would be a boon to Britain's already resurgent coal mining sector. In South Wales, a number of mines have opened and reopened in recent years, including the Unity Mine in the Neath Valley. This is operated by Unity Power, which is considering building four small-scale, clean-coal power stations itself and has been looking at a potential AIM flotation.

Despite the Government's emphasis on offshore wind, the UK has several low-carbon initiatives and projects under way that could pay dividends for innovators and shareholders in the private sector (and for the public sector) if they prove successful. But a regulatory regime needs to be in place that encourages users to buy renewable energy and makes life easier for companies behind low-carbon projects. As the Carbon Trust's John Callaghan says: "There is a need for more joined-up thinking."