By Dave Elliott
In his powerful and eloquent new book, The Burning Answer, which seems to be a response to Mike Berners-Lee’s book on climate change, The Burning Question, Imperial College Professor of Physics Keith Barnham contends that, despite our much higher energy demands now than in earlier periods of human evolution, our sun can provide all our primary energy needs again. Solar technology can save us from the threats of global warming, diminishing oil resources and nuclear disaster, if we take the necessary action.
As a lapsed nuclear physicist, nowadays active in the renewable energy policy area, I sometimes make forays back to see how the subject in progressing.
I once worked in high-energy physics, so it’s interesting to see how fusion research is moving on. A while back I did a tour of Culham and was impressed by the dedication of the research staff there- who seem prepared to spend their careers churning through data from endless JET runs, while knowing that it will be many decades before anything solid comes of it by way of a viable energy device. Maybe I’m just unable to defer gratification that long! But, more prosaically, I was also struck by the row of bottles in the toilet- for staff urine samples. That reminded me of one of the reasons why I got out of nuclear research. It seems that, while often touted as being a ‘clean’ option, fusion still has safety issues, just like fission.
I see that the EU is trying to find a way to maintain funding for the follow-up, ITER in France, after it was discovered that there was a €1.4bn shortfall in the EU budget for the programme over the 2012-3 period. One option considered was to raid the EU 7th Framework research programme, but that would have reduced funding for other projects. It seems that the start of ITER construction may have to be pushed back to 2012. The EU’s eventual contribution to construction is now expected to be around €6.6 bn. It seems a lot of money for a very long-term project, which may (or may not) eventually lead to a technically and economically viable energy device sometime after mid century. No help then with our current energy problems.
More recently I visited CERN in Geneva and the Large Hadron Collider, and went round their ATLAS project display. Sadly visitors can’t go underground, but it is still an impressive project. Another €6 billions worth I’m told. Pure curiosity-led research, although their PR made much of the training aspects, international collaboration, and technical spin-off possibilities.
Well yes, but €6 billion would go a long way to helping us develop cheaper more efficient renewable energy technologies. As would the €6bn for ITER. It may be good to try to develop novel energy options for the very long term, and to know what happened in the first few nano-seconds after the Big Bang, but personally, I’m more concerned about what will happen in the next few years as we try to grapple with climate change and energy security.
However, there is no denying that ‘big science’ can be intriguing, inspiring and even fun! So, good luck to them. But spare a thought for the hard pressed innovators trying to develop and deploy new solar, wind, wave, tidal and bioenergy systems in an ever more competitive and risk averse market environment, often with minimal state funding.
We did get a Christmas present of sorts though from the UK government – a set of proposals for Electricity Market Reform, including, maybe, a new form of support for low carbon technologies. They say it’s a Feed-In Tariff, but the variant they seem to favour has variable market determined prices and possibly involves a contract auction/tendering process. I know it’s traditional not to like your Xmas presents, but I wonder if we can swop the one they are offering with a proper fixed-price Feed In Tariff, of the sort that has worked so well in Germany.
I have a horrible suspicion that what actually has happened, as occasionally does at Christmas, is that they have wrapped up an old unwanted, discarded present from a few years back to try to offload it – in this case the old Non Fossil Fuel Obligation. The NFFO used a contact tendering process and led to lots of optimistic bids for renewable energy projects, many of which were then given to go ahead on the basis of price/capacity conflation. Tragically though, very few projects actually happened- developers often found they couldn’t deliver at the price they had specified to win the contract.
As with the system that was eventually to replace the NFFO , the Renewables Obligation, the competitive mechanism in the NFFO also meant that only the most developed renewables got supported- sewage gas, landfill gas and then wind. And it could be the same with the proposed new ‘auction contracts for difference’ system- emerging options, such as wave and tidal stream, could be squeezed out. As Chris Huhne put it, there was the risk that ‘the contract arrangements exclude technologies that may in the long run actually perform a very useful role in providing low-carbon electricity.’ So some other form of support might have to be offered.
It’s good that the government has recognised, at long last, that the Renewables Obligation has problems, and is prepared to phase it out. That will cause disruption of course, but we have to make changes – the RO is an expensive way of subsidising a limited range of projects (the relatively high payments may be why some who get projects supported under it, like it). But before we throw away the wrapping on its proposed replacement, maybe we could ask, via the handy consultation process that is attached, for a proper fixed-price FiT, and while we are at it, one that doesn’t also support nuclear. That was the really unwelcome part of the present- if nuclear projects are eligible for support they could well squeeze out renewable projects. Indeed some even see that as the aim: http://realfeed-intariffs.blogspot.com/2010/12/uk-government-to-subsidise-nuclear.html
Certainly anti-nuclear Scotland won’t want anything to do with it. Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond, said ‘it could see support mechanisms for nuclear generation in England at the expense of renewable energy sources and CCS [carbon capture and storage] in Scotland.’ Oh dear. Whatever happened to peace and good will to all men.