British Energy has been having some unscheduled maintenance difficulties in recent months. Combined with scheduled maintenance that cannot be deferred, the issues have caused the portion of UK energy provided by nuclear power to drop – temporarily – to approximately 10%.
Since North Sea gas production is falling, natural gas prices in the UK remain high enough to discourage electricity producers from increasing their use of that fuel. Coal has filled in the market share normally supplied by nuclear power; that old standby fuel is now supplying the heat used to produce about 42.5% of all electricity used in the UK. The highly touted “renewable” energy sources like wind and hydro provided just 3% of UK electricity, less than the 4% supplied via imports from France.
Of course, no one in the UK should be worried about this development – at least according to the major power companies. Here is a quote from Coal regains crown as slump in nuclear output raises fears of power shortages:
“The major power companies stress that the increased use of coal is compatible with the drive for cleaner energy, and ScottishPower is investing heavily in “clean coal” technology at its Longannet and Cockenzie plants which could provide a quarter of Scotland’s energy needs.
The development will cut carbon emissions by 20% and has been accompanied by a five-year supply contract with Scottish Coal which could be worth as much as £700 million.
It has been welcomed by first minister Alex Salmond, who says it forms part of plans to exploit Scotland’s natural resources along with the development of renewable energy sources.”
That intriguing excerpt made me curious about the specifics of the “clean coal” technology that will be retrofitted to existing Scottish Power coal fired generators. It turns out that the project, announced by a Scottish Government press release in May 2007, will replace the plant boilers with supercritical boilers that operate at higher temperatures to improve thermal efficiency. (Aside: There is nothing very new or high tech about supercritical boiler technology. There are some safety and reliability tradeoffs associated with implementing it. End Aside) As part of the retrofit, the turbines will also be replaced so that they are optimized for the higher pressure, higher temperature steam. The retrofitted plant will supposedly be “carbon capture ready”.
First Minister Alex Salmond announced the project with some fanfare as part of his first official visit with Scottish Power executives after his election as First Minister.
“It is crucial, not only for Scotland but for the planet, that we achieve a low carbon economy. We must do this not just by exploiting our nation’s renewables potential but also by deploying expertise in clean coal and indeed hydrocarbon technology.
“If we can reduce carbon emissions, coal can play a vital role in giving Scotland the diversity of energy sources which is essential for security of energy supply.
“I want to see Scottish-based companies make Scotland greener and I also want to see them benefit from exporting their expertise throughout the world.”
Alex Salmond also happens to have a great deal of interest in North Sea oil and gas production and has argued for a greater split of the revenues with Scotland. Mr. Salmond has apparently linked the effort to capture those revenues with his related effort to push for Scottish independence from the UK. Though North Sea gas production rates have been falling more rapidly than expected, the First Minister’s position is that the revenue stream from the resource base has not yet hit the halfway mark.
That is actually an interesting parsing of the situation and is probably true. When the UK was building the gas production infrastructure in the North Sea, gas prices were relatively low, and a major portion of the revenue was being reinvested in building more capacity. Now that production appears to be past its peak, sale prices for gas have increased substantially and the amount of new investment is dropping because the remaining reserves are not sufficient to justify major new efforts.
That is the definition of a “cash cow” situation – increasing sales prices and falling investment costs. Salmond is apparently jealous of the Norwegian method of capturing oil and gas revenues inside of a government controlled “oil fund”. Norway’s fund is on the order of $200 billion, which gives its government leaders a lot of freedom to direct the expenditures into favored enterprises. One of the investments that Salmond would apparently like to make is to turn the depleted gas wells into a place where Scotland can offer CO2 storage services to Europe as it moves towards more restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions.
It would probably come as no surprise to regular readers, but I will say it anyway. Alex Salmond, one of the primary coal, oil, gas and “renewables” cheerleaders in Scotland, is adamantly opposed to the construction of any new nuclear plants in his part of the UK. Like many people whose actions show that their real interest is in making money from fossil fuel addiction, he most loudly talks about his plans for renewables while obscuring the fact that they produce a minimal amount of useful energy now and probably will for the foreseeable future.
Salmond’s energy policies are intellectually unsupportable considering his country’s deep and rich history in leading edge power engineering and its long history of involvement in nuclear power generation. In the nuclear industry, Scotland has many existing advantages, but it is unlikely to be a world leader in large wind turbine manufacturing. With a vibrant nuclear industry, Scotland could declare its energy independence from its neighbors; by insisting on fossil fuels and intermittent renewables it is taking a far more interdependent and technically risky path.
Without nuclear power, there will be a continuing need to keep burning fossil fuels. Conservation might help, but the most likely source of reduced power demand is described quite clearly in an article posted on November 14, 2008 on buisness.TimesOnline.co.uk titled Threat of winter power cuts fades as factory closures send electricity demand tumbling. It is rather simple – if you produce less, move around less, and consume less, you need less electricity. Amory Lovins might like that equation, but I most emphatically do not. I have seen the results from lowered production and lower expectations of future income. It is not an optimistic vision.