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Tony Lodge: How developing countries can help themselves and boost UK energy security

Tony Lodge Tony Lodge is Chairman of the Bow Group Energy and Transport Committee and a Research Fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies. The Case for Energy Crops – How developing countries can help themselves and boost UK energy security is published today by the Bow Group.

The UK currently has two parallel problems regarding present and future electricity production.  Firstly, up to 40% (32 gigawatts GW) of our generating capacity is due to disappear before 2020 as fourteen of our major nuclear and coal-fired stations will close on EU emissions and safety grounds.  Secondly, we are legally committed to generating 34% of our electricity from renewable sources by 2020 (we currently generate just 6%).

This means the UK needs to build new cleaner generating plant that can deliver a considerable 24GW from traditional sources such as clean coal, gas and nuclear, plus an additional 8 GW of renewable electricity in just under ten years.  Coupled with this are strict carbon reduction targets which mean we must reduce our emissions by up to 34% by 2020 on 1990 levels.

The Government is currently suggesting that most new conventional baseload plant will be nuclear and  most new renewable power should come from off-shore wind with some wave and tidal capacity.   It is increasingly obvious and clear to most energy analysts that this expectation and ambition is severely flawed on timetable and in-service dates.  It is most unlikely that there will be any new reactors operating in the UK before 2020, thus exacerbating our slow but increasingly dependence on imported gas to generate electricity.

Today, 90% of proposed and approved power plant construction in the UK is gas-fired (CCGT) plant.  If this trend continues then the UK could be 70% dependent on gas-fired electricity by 2020, with 80% of the gas needed to fuel these plants imported.  Last year the UK’s imports of gas exceeded home production for the first time since 1968 and imports rose by a huge 31%.  Gas use for electricity generation was 18.4% higher than in the first quarter of 2010 as against last year.

If we assume that most of the Government’s target of up to 8GW of renewable capacity is to be wind based, then this would require around 7,500 new giant three MW turbines being constructed.  There will be little wave or tidal power available in the next five years as the sector is still maturing and awaiting a policy lead.  Importantly, wind is an intermittent renewable so requires baseload plant to remain on to shadow its intermittency.  A baseload power plant is one which provides a steady flow of power regardless of total power demand by the grid.

Baseload renewable are key - Energy Crops

The proven near zero emissions baseload renewable technologies that can provide green electricity and help us meet the 2020 renewables target are biomass and bioliquids. They now need greater support and clarity from Government and policy makers.   For investors to take long term decisions with certainty Government must now provide a long term renewable obligation strategy for energy crops.

Importantly, new bioliquid power plants can allow us to quickly replace our vital oil-fired plants at Littlebrook, Grain and Fawley which must close by 2016.  These plants, which represent 3.7GW cover the UK’s peakload demand and have got us through tight energy demand in recent winters.  They can be started up from cold quickly and their output can be changed rapidly.

Solid biomass, mainly based on wood as its source of fuel, is being challenged on the grounds of potential de-forestation in developing countries.  Energy crops are being challenged primarily because the expansion of the palm oil industry is blamed for de-forestation, particularly in Indonesia, with its negative effect on both carbon emissions and on indigenous forest dwellers, both human and animal.  Both biomass and energy crops are also challenged because of the distance between the source and the eventual (UK) destination.

Assuming there is no de-forestation or change of land use, biomass and energy crops from Asia, Africa or South America can deliver significant greenhouse gas emission savings versus fossil fuels.

There is another argument put forward against using biomass or energy crops for electricity generation.  This is that any unused land in third world countries should grow crops for food not fuel.  Clearly, no-one will argue it is right for forests and peat land to be sacrificed to create new sources of fuel for energy production.  Nor should anyone argue that land currently producing food should be converted to fuel production.  However, there is an enormous amount of unused savannah land and eroded land that can be put to positive economic use to improve the living conditions of some of the poorest people in the world.

Tracing energy crops

How can we be sure that the oil used for fuel comes from this land and not from land that has involved de-forestation?  British companies which plan to build bioliquid power plants have pledged to use technology which will be able to identify the plantation from which every tonne of imported vegetable oil has come from.  This British traceability technology will also allow governments to create and enforce stronger laws for the protection of forests and peat lands in developing countries.

To demonstrate the scale of this project, generating sufficient vegetable oil to provide the UK with 2 GW of renewable electricity from energy crop plants requires approximately 2.1 million hectares of land under production.  To put this in perspective that represents 3% of the land mass of Mozambique.  Such a project will also generate around £1 billion annually for those growing the crops and thus help alleviate poverty and unemployment.

Britain is presently failing badly in its ambition to generate more energy from renewables and slash carbon emissions.  Last year greenhouse gases fell by 8.6%, but only a fraction of that amount was as a result of measures such as renewable energy or making homes more energy efficient.  The recession is the main cause of this reduction as fewer fossil fuelled power plants have been required in the downturn.

As the UK emerges from recession and more fossil fuelled plant is returned to the grid then Britain’s failure to boost its renewable portfolio will be exposed unless a lead is now taken to better support sustainable energy crops and biomass and bioliquid power plants.

Sustainable energy crops can provide the UK with a four pronged positive strategy.  They can:

  • Boost reliable and baseload green energy and help the UK meets its ambitious renewable targets
  • Slash carbon emissions and help replace ageing peakload oil plants which must close by 2016
  • Support developing nations’ economies through employment, investment in unused land and establishment of energy export facilities
  • Boost Britain’s international development and climate credentials

As the UK emerges from recession and more fossil fuelled plant is returned to the grid then Britain’s failure to boost its renewable portfolio will be exposed unless a lead is now taken to better support sustainable energy crops and green bio-liquid baseload power plants.  This requires a long term policy support framework from DECC to secure investor confidence and a fair and balanced renewable obligation certificate (ROC) system.

If this lead is not taken then the UK will fail to meet its renewable energy and carbon reduction targets with an inevitable further dependence on intermittent renewables and foreign gas imports.  The stakes are high and the Government must move now to boost Britain’s energy security and diversity, whilst meeting green targets.


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