Chris Goodall: The green movement must learn to love nuclear power

The public debate about energy options needs to be realistic

Monday 23 February 2009 01:00 GMT

This country faces a serious energy crisis. Within a decade a large fraction of the UK’s antiquated power-generating capacity, both coal-fired and nuclear, is due to close. If it is not replaced, we face a nightmarish future of power shortages and blackouts. In the meantime, we desperately need to reduce this country’s greenhouse gas emissions: 90 per cent of our energy currently comes from fossil fuels. This country’s current and past emissions are far more than our share of the world population. Unless we reduce our carbon pollution urgently, we will be in breach of our moral, as well as EU and UN, obligations.

These enormous twin challenges mean we need to get real about energy. At the moment the public discussion is intensely emotional, polarised and mistrustful. This is particularly the case for nuclear power – too often people divide into sharp pro- or anti-nuclear positions, with no middle ground. Every option is strongly opposed: the public seems to be anti-wind, anti-coal, anti-waste-to-energy, anti-tidal-barrage, anti-fuel-duty and anti-nuclear. We can’t be anti-everything, and time is running out. Large projects take many years to construct.

It’s important to understand the scale of the challenge. Yes, Britain has enormous renewable resources – but as David MacKay’s excellent new book, Sustainable Energy –Without the Hot Air shows, we will need country-sized energy investments to extract them. You hear a lot about wave and wind, but if 1,000 km of Atlantic coastline were completely filled with Pelamis wave machines, this would generate enough electricity to cover less than 10 per cent of our current consumption. Delivering two thirds of today’s electricity supply from wind would require a 30-fold increase in British wind power. Both of these are technically feasible, but would require massive and sustained investment as well as higher prices for electricity.

In contrast, small-scale and unobtrusive renewable installations such as solar photovoltaic panels on residential houses will only ever make a tiny contribution to our overall energy supply – though panels providing solar hot water are already a good investment. In general, the land-use implications of renewables are critical, because their energy density is so low: to provide one quarter of our current energy consumption by growing energy crops, for example, would require half of Britain to be covered in biomass plantations. Even “concentrated solar power” plants in the Sahara desert will need a lot of space – at least 15,000 sq kms – about the same size as Yorkshire and Humberside put together. Clearly, anyone who wants to live on renewable energy but expects the associated infrastructure not to be large or intrusive is deluding themselves.

Two thirds of Britain’s energy consumption today goes into heating and transport. Big efficiency savings are possible in both. By electrifying heating using heat-pumps, it can be made four times more efficient; electric cars are also much more energy-efficient than fossil-fuel cars. Of course, making these technology switches will require a significant increase in Britain’s electricity production, all of which must be low-carbon. While consuming less energy overall is certainly an option, consuming less electricity is not.

The public debate about energy options needs to be realistic. Energy plans can be made to add up in different ways with differing contributions from competing energy sources. But a decision needs to be made soon about what proportion should be supplied from each technology. Including nuclear power in this mix will make a low-carbon and energy-secure future easier to achieve. Nuclear power has substantial drawbacks, but the consequences of not embracing it are likely to be significantly worse.

Germany provides a useful cautionary tale. Despite huge subsidies for solar panels, photovoltaics have not yet replaced one per cent of fossil fuel electricity generation. Indeed, because Germany – under pressure from well-meaning environmentalists – is phasing out nuclear power, it is inexorably turning back towards dirty coal: 30 new coal plants are planned, including four burning lignite (brown coal), the dirtiest fuel of all.

Bridging the energy gap at the same time as phasing out fossil fuels won’t be easy. To succeed with this choice, we need to develop clear and reliable support from a wide spectrum of the UK population – not just a few politicians who may not be around in five years time, or a tight circle of environmental or industry lobbyists. So far, the public has not been fully engaged. Nevertheless the issue is vital – one of a small handful of questions on which a genuine and informed consensus is now desperately needed. We have no time to lose.

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