Energy infrastructure: a heated debate

Energy_infrastructure_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1080396

Image: Hugh Venables, via Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons License

A country’s energy infrastructure is its central nervous system.  Gas and electricity transmission lines, power stations and renewable energy, are the drivers of economic development, as well as keeping our homes light and warm.

But in recent years, a growing sense of urgency has surfaced regarding the future of the UK’s energy infrastructure. Concerns about lack of investment in new power stations have fuelled media reports voicing fears about the challenges of keeping the lights on.

The headline writers may be guilty of some exaggeration, but their concerns are not without foundation. Forecasts by Ofgem, the UK’s energy regulator, indicate that the country’s energy margin (the difference between energy generation supply and peak usage) could fall from 6% at the peak of winter demand in 2014-15 to a possible low of less than 2% just a year later.

And just yesterday, National Grid was in the news with a warning that its capacity to supply electricity this winter will be at a seven-year low due to generator closures and breakdowns.

In stark terms, a report, published this year by the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) set out the state of the UK’s energy infrastructure:

“Significant quantities of the UK’s existing electricity generation capacity are expected to be retired soon, with major implications for security of supply unless the conditions to attract investment in new generation are provided. This situation is expected to be further exacerbated as the use of electricity for transport and residential heat increases demand.

And that’s without taking the unexpected into account. The recent serious fire at Didcot power station in Oxfordshire was just the latest in a number of incidents affecting power supply this year. Fires put two power stations in Shropshire and Yorkshire out of action, and four nuclear reactors have been taken offline until at least the end of the year for safety reasons. At the same time, plans for the next generation of gas-powered stations have yet to be enacted, and uncertainty surrounds the commercial viability of new nuclear energy capacity. Added to this complex mix is the contentious issue of fracking, which we focused on in a recent blog post.

For some, the answer to the energy gap lies with renewables, in particular wind power. Proponents argue that large-scale deployment of wind farms offers dual benefits: generating increasing amounts of energy, as well as minimising the effects of climate change.

A report, published earlier this year by the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE) explored the implications of increasing the amount of wind energy on the electricity system. While acknowledging that large wind turbines have an impact on local communities, the RAE indicated that the installed capacity of wind could more than double to around 26GW, providing around 20% of electrical energy consumed. That might seem like a tall order, but figures from the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) show that in 2011 9.4% of UK electricity came from renewable sources, up on 2009, when just 6.7% of electricity was renewable.

Others are not so sure about the impact of renewables. Recently, former Environment Secretary of State Owen Paterson called for the ground-breaking Climate Change Act to be scrapped. He claims that the targets in the Act for cutting emissions are unachievable, too costly and will not provide the UK’s energy requirements:

“In the short and medium term, costs to consumers will rise dramatically, but there can only be one ultimate consequence of this policy: the lights will go out at some time in the future. Not because of a temporary shortfall, but because of structural failures, from which we will find it extremely difficult and expensive to recover.”

Instead of investing in wind power, Paterson argues, the UK should be looking at four alternative policies: shale gas, combined heat and power, small modular nuclear reactors and demand management.

As the energy debate heats up at national level, some local authorities are taking their own initiatives. Security of energy supply is of great concern to Southampton, a city keen to address strategic priorities, such as tackling fuel poverty, sustaining public services, generating economic development and reducing city-wide carbon emissions.

And so, Southampton City Council has taken a leading role in collaborating with other local authorities to build capacity through local energy generation schemes, large-scale energy efficiency works and local energy networks. The investment shows how seriously the council is taking energy resilience.

At the same time, along with local councils in six countries, Southampton has been a key partner in the European Union’s Leadership for Energy Action and Planning (LEAP) programme. LEAP aims to share expertise among partners to reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions, and increase the use of renewable energy.

Measures such as these are relatively small in scale, but they might prove crucial as we head into another winter.


 

Further reading

The Idox Information Service has a wealth of research reports, articles and case studies on a range of environmental issues. Items we’ve recently summarised for our database include:

Low-carbon transitions and the reconfiguration of urban infrastructure

A new approach to electricity markets: how new, disruptive technologies change everything

Power blackouts in the information age: the impact on emergency services

Is there a future role for coal? (Energy supply)

Taking the lead in a low-carbon future (low-carbon redevelopment in Southampton)

When the lights go out (threats to energy infrastructure)

Crossed wires (energy infrastructure for property developments)

N.B. Abstracts and full text access to subscription journal articles are only available to members of the Idox Information Service.

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