Britain’s energy future – political and technical considerations

Although the BraveNewClimate science blog has an unashamedly Australian flavour and focus, the climate and energy issues covered herein are very much international problems. As such, I’m strongly convinced that the solutions I canvass will be required for most nations this century. In this spirit, I’d like to present a detailed guest post which provides a well-argued perspective on the energy future of another developed nation — Great Britain.


Britain’s Energy Future

A huge advantage of the proposed solution is that it is the most affordable and sustainable one for addressing peak oil and energy security. The near elimination of fossil fuel emissions is a bonus. Therefore, it should appeal in equal measure to those who are convinced of anthropogenic global warming and those who remain sceptical.

Guest Post by Dr. Douglas Wise. Douglas is a retired Lecturer in Animal Husbandry at the Department of Clinical Veterinary Medicine at Cambridge University. He is a regular and valued commenter on BNC.

Political Considerations

1) Economic growth is dependent upon a readily available supply of affordable energy.

2) Thanks in large part to the actions of its present government, the UK is the most indebted of all developed nations. It is also amongst those with the greatest population density.

3) Repayment of debt is possible only with economic growth and/or a substantial drop in living standards.

4) For the past decade, the UK has failed to make necessary investments in energy infrastructure. Many of our power stations will shortly have to be retired and it may not be possible to replace them in time to prevent economic disruption due to power losses.

5) There is widespread acceptance that oil production has peaked or is about to peak. Simultaneously, its ERoEI (energy return on energy invested) is continually dropping while world demand, particularly from developing countries, is rising.

6) The UK is a net energy importer and its energy security under threat.

7) There is a large and growing consensus among those with expertise in the field that the planet is warming, that the warming is anthropogenic and largely caused by combustion of fossil fuels and that, without drastic reductions in CO2 emissions, a tipping point will be reached this century with an unstoppable and catastrophic acceleration of warming.

8) It follows that the UK must not only replace its retiring power stations, but substantially increase (probably quadruple) electrical power production in order to phase out use of fossil fuels and cope with its increasing population, even having allowed for increasing efficiency in energy use.

9) Britain only emits 2% of global CO2 emissions. In order for the extent and effects of global warming to be mitigated, there has to be a planet-wide approach to the problem.

10) Economic development and human population growth (inevitable till 2050 without accelerated death rates on an unprecedented scale) indicate that, without affordable alternatives, coal use will expand and, with it, increased CO2 emissions. High priced alternatives to fossil fuels will not provide a solution to global warming because they won’t be affordable by developing nations in a timely manner, if at all. One thus needs an emissions-free energy source that can compete with and replace coal as a source of baseload power.

11) The UK probably now has a developing nation status. It has a high population that cannot feed itself without importing food, it can no longer energise itself without importing energy, it has lost most of its manufacturing base and its much vaunted financial services sector is in a mess. High welfare provisions have led to a dependency culture, large-scale immigration and an ill-disciplined and poorly educated indigenous underclass.

12) The majority of the UK population remains largely unaware of the extent of the crisis that is confronting it and the extremity of the efforts that will be needed if a solution is to be found.

13) This lack of awareness has to be primarily the responsibility of political leaders from all parties. Whether they could reasonably have been expected to have done better in the type of democracy that exists is debatable, given that gaining power now seems to involve telling voters what they want to hear and attempting to provide for their immediate gratification.

14) Solution of the crisis requires that the nation puts itself on a war footing. This will only be possible with multi-party consensus. An apolitical Department of Climate/Energy Security has been proposed. A case could even be made for a National Government.

15) Although the problem is by no means that of the UK alone, the UK is in the worst position to deal with it. Now is probably not the time to damage our relations with the EU.

16) Human population continues to grow. This is true for the world and for the UK but not for Europe as a whole. The UK might become dependent upon the EU as a means of gaining enough to eat. Population growth is unsustainable. It should be a matter of policy for the UK government to aim for negative population growth, regardless of the short-term problems that this will create with the balance between workers and pensioners.

17) The private sector will not spontaneously come up with a solution without government direction. However, the example of wartime aircraft production gives a model for what could be achieved by private/public collaboration. Current UK and EU policies, though indicating desire to achieve a satisfactory energy policy, fail to provide the means to achieve it.

18) Emissions Trading has so far signally failed to achieve its objectives. The reasons are now reasonably understood. Permits to pollute have been issued in excess and at too low a price and offsets have been used fraudulently. The system has benefited some City traders and increased bureaucracy at the expense of the general taxpayer. Renewable obligations and subsidies (e.g. feed in tariffs) are distorting the proper working of the energy market. Governments may be picking the wrong winners by favouring renewables over other sources of clean energy. Different energy sources should be free to compete with each other but only after all of their costs have been internalised. If such internalisation is not to include a price on CO2 emissions, an additional carbon tax will also be needed. This should be fiscally neutral and thus be offset by a reduction in some other form of taxation. It might even be worth considering a total re-basing of the tax system around carbon.

19) Quangos set up to deliver worthy advice to the citizenry over energy efficiency and how to invest in green energy systems have become fruitful sources of employment for bureaucrats and sources of income for a myriad of small consultancies which peddle solutions of often dubious merit. Energy users will more economically and intelligently respond to price signals on their own if the yield from a carbon tax reverts to them in the form of tax reduction elsewhere, provided that this is achieved in a non regressive manner.

20) In the short term, resources should be diverted from health, welfare and education budgets and made available to address energy concerns. Private use of fuel for transport may, in future, have to be rationed. There should be the imposition of swingeing taxes on air transport.

21) Innovative sources of finance should be sought and citizens given opportunities to share the possible benefits of an energy-secure future. Short-term pain should be in the hope of long-term gain. Pension fund managers seek assured long-term investments and have a continuing input of funds, which they currently have to invest. They are currently finding it difficult to select suitable investment opportunities. Given appropriate government policy, investment in energy infrastructure could prove extremely attractive. Similarly, some sort of “energy bonds” could be issued which would be treated like ISAs but would allow for greater investments for the same tax advantages. It might even be worth considering making these compulsory for the very wealthy as an alternative to higher top rates of tax.

Britain’s Energy Future – Technical Considerations

1) The UK must not only replace its retiring electric generating capacity, using emissions-free energy sources, it must also greatly increase the current generating capacity to enable the replacement of fossil fuels. This will, of course, require as major upgrading of the National Grid. The cost of the upgrading will be substantial but its extent will depend upon the mix of energy sources chosen for electrical generation. Pursuit of a renewables solution, for example, would require vastly more grid expenditure than would other types of emissions-free solutions.

2) Concurrently, every effort must be made to use energy more efficiently (eg by use of insulation, draft-proofing, co-generation, heat pumps and more energy-efficient transportation etc).

3) At present, 80% plus of electricity is generated by combusting coal or gas. Even disregarding the CO2 emissions resulting from burning coal, it is an extremely polluting source of energy in terms of particulate, SO2 , NOx and heavy metal emissions. If the costs of this pollution were internalised, the price of electricity from coal would increase by 1.5-2.5p/kWh. However, this does not factor in CO2 emissions, the principal cause of global warming. The continued use of coal can only be justified if its CO2 emissions are captured and sequestered (see below). Although electrical generation from gas, in theory, is less harmful than from coal, the advantage disappears if the gas has to be imported from long distance (eg Russia) and when leaks are considered. By the time Russian gas reaches the UK, only about 55% of the original product will arrive, the remainder having been combusted to generate the energy needed to push the surviving gas along the pipeline. Methane leaks, though minor, can also be very damaging because methane, though shorter lived in the atmosphere than CO2, is much more potent as a greenhouse gas. It is therefore illusory to think that the use of gas (without CO2 capture and sequestration) is much less harmful than the use of coal.

4) Oil is used for almost all transport. Its availability is declining and its price likely to increase. To the extent that it is possible, oil should be replaced by electrical power. The electrical power might be used directly (as in electric cars) or for synthesis of alternative vehicle fuels (e.g. methanol or ammonia). Biofuels may also be required but, if so, they will have to be imported because the UK is not in a position to produce more than a dribble. It should be appreciated that electrically-powered vehicles are only “green” if the said power is produced from non CO2 emitting sources.

5) The CO2 emission-free sources of power that are available for consideration are discussed below:

a) Fossil fuels with carbon dioxide captured and sequestered (CCS). Fossil fuel reserves are finite (not sustainable) but could be used to buy time if their global warming effects were prevented. CCS has not yet proved to be feasible on a large scale. However, should commercial deployment prove technically viable in the future, coal’s ERoEI would almost certainly be halved because a lot of its energy would be used for the capture, transport and sequestration of the CO2. Similarly, its sustainability would be halved. The price of coal makes up approximately 70% of the cost of the electricity generated from it. Electricity from CCS coal would thus be very significantly more expensive than that produced from conventional coal. A developed nation with a reasonable population density and without huge indebtedness might be able to cope with this increase. The UK and developing nations may not.

b) Wind energy. Wind is not a concentrated source of energy. Furthermore, it is intermittent and its intermittency is unpredictable. Although the UK has good wind resources relative to most of Europe, the capacity factor (CF) is no better than 25%. In other words, on average, it only produces energy at a quarter of its rated capacity so that 4GW-worth of wind turbines have to be built to replace 1GW of coal- fired power station. To improve the predictability of wind power, it would, in theory, be possible to connect up the wind resources from widely dispersed parts of the country so that there is some chance that, if wind isn’t blowing in one area, it might elsewhere. However, in order to make these connections, huge extra investment in the National Grid will be required which will cost as much or more than the investments needed to build the wind farms themselves. The latter investments are not traditionally attributed to wind energy producers and their costs are thus externalised. Furthermore, despite the extra connectivity, there will still be occasions when major geographic areas are wind free. Wind, therefore, must always rely on a source of backup power, normally provided by gas, unless or until very much cheaper methods of storing electricity become available. A modern industrial society cannot function without a source of reliable and predictable power. However, when gas is used for backup power, it is used less efficiently (open cycle versus closed cycle turbines). Thus, although, in theory, wind can reduce CO2 emissions when it’s blowing, overall it doesn’t achieve much in the way of reductions because of the extra CO2 emissions associated with the reduced efficiency of gas when used for backup compared to baseload.

As wind energy increases as a proportion of total energy in the national mix, the less easily it can be managed and the less CO2 emission savings will accrue. Approximately 1600, 2.5MW turbines are required to replace a single 1GW conventional coal power station. Because of the low power of wind per unit area, these will have to be spaced over a large land or sea area although the footprints of the turbines themselves will be smaller. Land based turbines are about two thirds the cost of those offshore and have lower grid connection costs. Nevertheless, they cannot compete with conventional coal without large subsidies from the taxpayer and despite the fact that the costs of their extra burden on the grid are externalised. In summary, wind cannot provide more than a smallish percentage of UK power requirements. It is a possible, partial rich nation solution but Britain has ceased to be a rich nation. The subsidies given to wind are a probably a luxury too far for the UK.

c) Solar thermal and solar PV. Even in sunbelt nations, the cost of electricity produced from solar power stations is nearly an order of magnitude greater than that from conventional coal. In the UK, the cost would be doubled again. Some have suggested importing solar electricity from sunbelt states but this would involve extra transmission costs and loss of energy security. It would also divert scarce capital out of the country and minimise potential employment benefits. However, even in the UK, solar thermal panels can be used to produce low-grade heat which might be suitable for domestic hot water. Application of this technology may provide a very small percentage of the UK’s energy requirements at a possibly economic cost despite the fact that the sun provides most of its energy in the summer when least hot water is needed.

d) Hydro power. The UK has little hydro capacity and not a lot of further potential for hydro. What we do have is very useful and valuable to the extent that it can be deployed when most needed and is instantly dispatchable.

e) Wave power. At best, it can never provide more than a very small proportion of our energy needs. Currently, the technology is expensive and immature.

f) Tidal power. The UK has good tidal ranges and a suitable coastline for producing tidal power. The power produced is dependable and predictable. However, tidal power will probably never meet much more than 5% of the UK’s total energy needs and the technology will never be the cheapest way to produce baseload electricity. However, by using tidal lagoons, high value peaking power can be produced and some pumped storage can be accommodated to convert low to high value electricity.

g) Biomass power. Producing useful energy from waste biomass (e.g. by combustion or biodigestion) may have some merit. However, defining waste in this context is problematic. Straws and animal manure, for example, are usually either retained or spread on agricultural land. The more off-take there is from the soil, the faster it will degrade without fossil-fuel derived fertiliser inputs and, even these, will not replace loss of organic carbon. Growing special biomass crops (e.g. miscanthus or willow coppice) for energy is considered to be carbon neutral and is currently encouraged and subsidised by the government as way of substituting for fossil fuels. Its claimed carbon neutrality is coming under increasing challenge. In any event, given the UK’s small land area and large population, it can be dismissed as trivial in its potential contribution either as an energy security or global warming solution.

h) Nuclear power. The French produce the cheapest electricity in Europe with a mix of 80% nuclear and 20% hydro. The UK, a pioneer of civil nuclear power, sold off its nuclear industry and allowed its expertise in this field to lapse. This was most unfortunate, given that both main political parties are now anxious to roll out nuclear power as soon as possible. Our current fission reactors are Generation II and many are approaching obsolescence. They currently generate about 16% of the UK’s electricity. The new ones ordered will be superior Generation III designs – safer and more efficient. Typically, nuclear electricity is produced continuously to provide baseload power (as in the case of coal). However, one of the newer designs (French) has load following capability. In future, load following will be less important because previously surplus night-time power can be used for electric vehicle re-charging or for ammonia fuel synthesis. Both Generation II and III reactors extract less than 1% of the energy from the uranium fuel they use. Long term, therefore, although they produce clean energy, most consider that they are not sustainable due to limitations in readily extractable known fuel supplies.

Fortunately, Generation IV reactors will be almost certainly be available from 2020-2035, depending upon type. Some of these will be able to extract up to 160 times more energy than present generation reactors from the same amount of fuel and thus greatly reduce the so-called nuclear waste problem. In fact, they will also be able to consume existing “waste” as a useful energy source. Some of the fourth generation designs will also extract energy by using thorium, which is four times more abundant than uranium. Thus, fission power has the capability of becoming a complete, clean and truly sustainable energy solution for thousands of years. The scientific and technological know-how needed for the production of commercial demonstration Generation IV plants are extant or imminent although it is probable that not all of the competing options will be deployed. Until such time as one or more of the designs is commercially available, the “waste” produced by the current and about-to-be-deployed Generation II and Generation III reactors will produce “start charges” for them and so allow their more expeditious roll out. The ERoEI of 4th Generation nuclear-produced electricity will be immense – about five times greater that that of oil at the time of its original discovery when extraction was simple and several hundred times greater than electricity from renewables. Nuclear fission is the only technology that has the potential capability of providing all of the UK’s energy needs in a sustainable manner.

CCS coal is not sustainable, not technologically ready and probably not affordable. Renewables are incapable of meeting more than a fraction of UK total demand and are likely to prove extremely expensive to deploy. Despite the seemingly huge advantages of nuclear fission power, it has many detractors. Its safety record is substantially better than that of all other energy generating technologies but is, nevertheless, criticised. People worry about the long-lived radioactive “waste” although it presently constitutes far less of a health hazard than coal waste. Furthermore, when Generation IV designs are deployed, the so-called “waste” problem will, to all intents and purposes, vanish. Some worry about the effects of terrorist attacks or earthquakes on nuclear reactors but these are already very expensively addressed in the reactor designs. This is not the case for oil refineries or chemical plants. Attacks on these could have much more adverse effects on the local population than would an attack on a nuclear plant.

There are also those who claim that nuclear energy is too expensive and too slow to deploy. To some extent, these criticisms are linked. In the past, each reactor tended to have a one off design (which is always likely to lead to building delays and cost overruns). In the future, “off the peg” designs will be used. Private investors consider investment in nuclear to be risky because of the lag time between taking a decision to invest and starting to obtain an income stream. The effects of legal challenges by NIMBYs and gold plating by bureaucrats can result in huge and unforeseen increases in project costs. Servicing the interest charges on the required capital constitutes a major cost for nuclear power whereas building material and fuel costs are relatively minor. The time to build a nuclear power plant (and its consequent cost) is thus as “long as a piece of string” in liberal democracies such as the USA and UK. A four to five year period from start of build to commissioning would appear to be the norm for standard Generation III designs recently built in Japan, South Korea and China. These can be expected to produce electricity at a price that can compete with that from a new coal plant with controlled NOx, SO2 and aerosol emissions and cheaper than that from a new CCS coal plant should one ever get built.

There are sound technical reasons to suppose that 4th Generation reactors will eventually produce power significantly more cheaply than can be produced from any other currently available energy source. It is also pertinent to point out that far more steel and concrete are needed to build renewable energy systems than nuclear ones when expressed per unit of energy produced. Concrete and steel manufacture cause high CO2 emissions. It would thus almost certainly take longer to reduce CO2 emissions if one were to pursue a renewable rather than nuclear strategy. Finally, many nuclear critics are worried over the possible proliferation risks associated with an expansion of civil nuclear power. It could be argued that they might as well continue to worry because the “horse has bolted”. So many nations are now expanding their civil nuclear capabilities that little can be achieved by abstinence on the part of the UK. The best approach is to expedite roll out of Generation IV since reactors of this type have been designed to be more proliferation proof than their predecessors.


The UK does not have the luxury of having a suite of potential energy solutions to choose from – it is highly overstocked with people, has a collapsing energy infrastructure and very high levels of debt. The choice for baseload power must be nuclear. In the short-term, it might be necessary to continue to rely on gas for peaking power. Using gas, a finite commodity, for domestic heating and baseload is not sensible. Research on CCS must accelerate and, if practical, the technology should be used to eliminate the CO2 emissions from gas. This makes sense because peaking electricity is more valuable than baseload. It seems inconceivable that electricity from CCS coal could ever compete with nuclear electricity to provide baseload power, given their widely different ERoEIs. Furthermore CCS coal is a less sustainable solution than nuclear even if unexpected glitches were to occur in the deployment of Generation IV technology.

It is fortunate that the government has belatedly indicated its support for nuclear power and that the main opposition party agrees. The government is also to be congratulated for attempting to streamline the planning process which, at present, greatly adds to the expense and time to deployment of new energy infrastructure.

The EU’s, and hence UK’s, commitment to renewables as a main plank in a CO2 emissions reduction programme is extremely unfortunate. It has caused distortions in the energy market by subsiding renewables while ignoring other clean solutions. Nuclear power is already discriminated against in being the only energy generating industry whose costs are internalised. Given a level playing field for investment in clean energy, most private investors would probably act in a rational manner and prefer nuclear to wind. It may, therefore, not be necessary for the government to do other than levelling the playing field by treating nuclear and, for that matter, CCS coal as “honorary” renewables and placing a tax on carbon. It is tempting to suggest that current obsessions over renewables are so economically damaging and irrelevant to a secure and sustainable energy future that the government should take matters into its own hands and produce fully nationalised nuclear power and not waste its limited funds by subsidising alternative technologies. However, this could be construed as anti-democratic and it is probably sensible not to close the door completely to alternatives. Wind, for example, can certainly provide electricity economically if one could find a use for an unpredictable and intermittent source of power. It is only when producers demand to supply the grid whenever it suits them and without financing the necessary backup that common sense flies out of the window.

Having accepted the idea of going back into nuclear power, the government should ensure that an adequate workforce to deal with it is produced as soon as possible. It should do all it can, directly or with inducements to the private investors, to ensure that imported reactors of the current technology are very rapidly deployed, given that there are limited supplies and great global competition in this area. It should invest heavily in Generation IV research and development, including the new and more proliferation resistant re-processing methods, and form strategic alliances with one or more other nations that are already further advanced in this area (e.g. Russia, India, France, Japan, USA). The US-designed Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) – a sodium cooled reactor design with on-site pyroprocessing –is the nearest Generation IV Western design predicted to reach the stage of commercial demonstration (2015). If the UK wishes to re-establish itself as a civil nuclear power with the potential to benefit from future expansion in this area, then the earliest entry possible into the 4th Generation future would be necessary.

There is a great danger that the government will sit back on its laurels having announced plans for 10 new nuclear power plants, all to be constructed on existing nuclear sites. If each plant were to produce 2GW of power, this would hardly represent a great boost for nuclear energy, given that several existing plants are due for decommissioning. If the nation is serious about becoming self-sufficient in clean, sustainable power by 2050, it will need in the order of 150-200GW of nuclear power. This represents a thirteen to eighteen-fold increase over current nuclear electricity generation and the construction of 5-6 new reactors/annum for 30 years. While this will be extremely costly, it remains the most economic solution and there will be balancing savings in having no expenditure on imported energy, itself almost certain to become increasingly expensive. By the same token, most government tax revenues on fossil fuels will disappear and alternatives will have to be found.

A huge advantage of the proposed solution is that it is the most affordable and sustainable one for addressing peak oil and energy security. The near elimination of fossil fuel emissions is a bonus. Therefore, it should appeal in equal measure to those who are convinced of anthropogenic global warming and those who remain sceptical.

Add to FacebookAdd to NewsvineAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Furl



  1. In relation to the above post, I suggest you also read this:

    UK needs massive energy program, says academy
    18 March 2010
    The UK needs to exploit its renewable energy resources to the maximum to meet future energy demand and reduce carbon emissions – and will still need to build at least 20, and even up to 80, new nuclear or other low-carbon baseload power stations.

    According to the Royal Academy of Engineering, an independent body comprising the UK’s most eminent engineers, the country will need to mobilise the biggest peacetime program of investment and social change it has ever seen if it is to meet its energy demands to 2050 while delivering the 80% cut in greenhouse gas emissions required under the 2008 Climate Change Act.

    A newly released report by the Academy, Generating the future: UK energy systems fit for 2050, considers four possible scenarios that could achieve the 2050 targets. While emphasising that the scenarios are not meant to be predictions, the Academy warns that there is no single ‘silver bullet’ solution that could deliver the necessary emissions cuts while keeping the country’s lights on…

    < [click link to read on]


  2. “If the nation is serious about becoming self-sufficient in clean, sustainable power by 2050, it will need in the order of 150-200GW of nuclear power. This represents a thirteen to eighteen-fold increase over current nuclear electricity generation and the construction of 5-6 new reactors/annum for 30 years. While this will be extremely costly, it remains the most economic solution and there will be balancing savings in having no expenditure on imported energy, itself almost certain to become increasingly expensive.”

    I think we can pretty safely say that’s not going to happen, so what’s plan B?

    Oh, of course, it is blindingly obvious. If we can’t meet “alleged” demand, we will have to reduce our consumption to match energy availability.

    So what’s the best way to downside.

    The flaw in your paper is the implicit assumption that our consumption is based on real need, as opposed to being a reflection of the greed and profligacy of our very broken society.


  3. “The flaw in your paper is the implicit assumption that our consumption is based on real need, as opposed to being a reflection of the greed and profligacy of our very broken society.” – Phil

    Phil, isn’t our need to be greedy and profligate a real need? Classic economics arose because a Dutch Doctor who lived in London, Bernard Mandeville, figured out that private vices like greed and profligacy were the bedrock upon which economically healthy societies are built.

    According to Lord Keynes, Adam Smith reflected Mandeville’s influence when he wrote, “What is prudence in the conduct of every private family can scarce be folly in that of a great Kingdom.” Mandeville was also admired by libertarian economist, Friedrich Hayek.

    Clearly then greed and profligacy has its well regarded admirers.


  4. A great conclomerate of assumptions.
    What makes you believe that future renewables wont have higher EROIE? There are designs with EROIE up at 375 with non fictional technology.

    You did not mention fusion…when do you expect that one?


  5. @Charles Barton pro “Phil”:

    But Mandeville, Adam Smith Keynes and Hayek were not yet up against certain pending limits. These are not infrequently currently ignored on BNC:

    Wise does not seem to factor in non-AGW
    topics either. The question is, namely, whether nitrogen and phosphorus cycles and biodiversity and chemical pollution have nothing to do with a country’s energy future in any way?


  6. Peter Lalor, our human greed and profligacy will undoubtedly drive us to seek the technological fixes we need to survive and prosper. As Mandeville would tell us, it is the path of virtue that is the path to ruin. Why is it that the virtuous are always wishing ill to there fellows? Never underestimate the power of vice to spure on human ingenuity and make human life better.


  7. hi Douglas,

    I admire your research effort, but …

    I don’t see how your points 13 and 14 relate to each other. The public is gullible and have been conned by political leaders, democracy is flawed. We need to put ourselves on a war footing based on a multi-party consensus.

    I want more democracy, not less. eg. real debates on TV not propaganda parading as news.


  8. Interesting argument. A couple of observations:

    1. Dismissal of renewables before the technologies have become mature. Intermittency is by itself not a fatal flaw unless you’re directly feeding the real-time electricity grid. Power storage in a wide variety of forms (hydro, liquid fuels, batteries, hydrogen, etc) and demand shaping can largely change the way in which we consume energy. Rather than getting steamed up about intermittency, it might be more productive to look at how we use the energy.

    I’m a big fan of 4G nuke, but to make a convincing case for its accelerated introduction you should not belittle other important technologies which will complement it. We should remember that 4G wind, solar (even in Scotland) and marine energy will always be there, do not require ongoing fuel inputs and will have acceptable EROEI even when totally self-sustaining. They are therefore the core of sustainability. Much of the wish for 4G nukes OTOH is driven by our current rather unhealthy high-energy dependency along with an unsustainably large human population.

    2. Scathing remarks about the UK’s current status. We are not a third world country and are not likely to become one in the foreseeable future. We are certainly overpopulated, and the government over the past 12 years has been disastrously obsessed with how to squander capital on unsustainable social programmes at the expense of our key infrastructure and skills base. But that does not make us a basket case, and I suspect that as a country we will fare rather better than your article implies.


  9. Most advances in science and technology actually have very little to do with greed. The problem with Peter’s comment about “…real need, as opposed to being a reflection of the greed and profligacy of our very broken society” is a self-serving subjective opinion and not based on any data…just assumptions.

    Whose “greedy”, Peter? I’m not. Are you? It’s not about individual ‘greed’ it’s about survival. It’s about a *better* life for our children and their children. This all depends on expanding, not contracting, our use of energy, especially those 2 billion ‘greedy’ humans with no access to electricity at all, and another billion with little or intermittent access.

    David Walters


  10. Peter McClelland – renewable apologists love to compare their favorite technologies with Gen IV nuclear claiming that as nether are mature, it can’t be determined yet which one will come out ahead.

    Well guess what? Gen II nuclear and Gen III nuclear are mature`technologies and have produced, and do produce daily, more dispatchable electric power than all renewables (save hydro) ever have. these are the designs that can and are being built now, some 50+ around the world, wind and solar will never catch up ever.

    Just look at the damned numbers.


  11. “Repayment of debt is possible only with economic growth and/or a substantial drop in living standards”

    This worries me, as it seems more like a desire to continue the infinite growth paradigm that is killing us all and creating obesity rather than an attempt to help the environment. Even when he admits that the nation is “highly overstocked with people.” Yeah, we’re going to have to lower the “standard of living.” It took Toyota 10 years to sell a million Priuses, how long will it take until electric cars can make a dent in peak oil? Already Toyota is scrambling for the rare earth elements needed for batteries, most of which are in China. There are 900 million cars in the world today. Our leaders are almost child-like at times, as evidenced by the termination of the IFR even after Hansen and Weinberg had testified about global warming and the U.S. was a majority oil importer. If you go on a spending spree with money you don’t have you have to pay it back eventually– this is common sense. The party’s over people, time to switch to a steady-state economy and end Jevons Paradox. Until money changes, nothing changes. Otherwise, a good article.


  12. Zachary, No one believes in “infinite growth,” and it is not killing us. Growth is possible, indeed a great deal of growth. Enough growth to bring everyone on earth to Western European and even North American standards of living. This can be accomplished through investments in Generation IV nuclear power. In 1900 a total of 4,192. cars were built in the United States. In 1909, Ford produced about 18,000 Model Ts. By 1911 Ford produced 69,762, and in 1912 it produced 170,211. In 1914 Ford motors built 308,162 model Ts, that number increased to 501,462 in 1915, and over one million by 1920. By 1927 Ford had built 15 million Model Ts. Quite obviously Ford’s growth did not continue exponentially, but it did build up quickly.

    There are large supplies of Rare Earths in both the United States and Australia, but since China flooded the market for rare earths a number of years ago, highere cost producers have been unable to compete, and shut down production. Now all this is changing. China is going to stop exporting rare earths, and higher cost rare earth production operations will be coming on line.

    Economic growth has not stoped, but it has shifted. At the moment the economies of China and India are growing rapidly, while the American and European economies are not. This circumstance does not provide evidence that growth is killing us.


  13. @Charles Barton:

    it is interesting that the analysis that led Herman Daly et. al. to theorise steady-state New Economics is either ignored on BNC or ridiculed – albeit without addressing it explicitly – as Calvinist Greenie Hair-Shirtism.

    BNC ridiculers, some of whom are evidently rich-country neoliberal and neocon in political outlook, while others are authentic Marxists, claim Enlightenment humanist motives (rise in global per capital power consumption to rich country levels as a global moral good and means of reducing conflict).

    However, of the 9 life support systems I referenced in the above New Scientist article, chemical pollution and the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles are not addressed by unplugging fossil fuels and substituting nuclear. Nor is biodiversity.

    Nukies thus seem to discount the relevance of these to anything they hold dear or necessary or both, while invoking Mandeville and A. Smith.

    The thought occurs that it is actually the Old Testament injunction to go forth and multiply that is being reified here.

    That injunction however was framed for pastoralists in a marginal post-Fertile Crescent setting.


  14. Robert Lawrence.

    You ask who I am. As Barry stated, I am a retired veterinarian. I lectured at Cambridge University and my research interests were primarily focussed on farm animal husbandry and nutrition plus game bird management and conservation.

    I only came to the subjects of AGW, peak oil, global population growth and possible energy transition technologies after retirement. Although I have read and corresponded at length on these subjects since, I wouldn’t claim to be other than an amateur.


  15. Phil and Peter Lalor:

    I think nuclear fission is currently the only technology capable of meeting our energy security and ghg emission objectives. I also believe that, if we get on with it, there is a probability that the needed transition can be successful. Of course, there is absolutely no guarantee of a benign outcome. It also goes without saying (though I did say it) that we should aim to be as efficient as possible in our use of energy. However, there is no way that efficiency alone will cope with the population growth that the world (short of massive catastrophe) is committed to. I would very much hope that, post 2050, population will start to fall.

    I think that, given access to an ample and affordable source of clean energy, the other perceived global constraints (eg water, phosphate, pollution) can be addressed and accommodated (as indicated by Tom Blees and other correspondents on this site) until such time as population has peaked and started to fall. I do, however, worry about biodiversity in the meantime.


  16. “nitrogen and phosphorus cycles are not addressed by unplugging fossil fuels and substituting nuclear.”

    It is adressed by GM crops, no-till farming(which frequently requires GM crops), phophorus recovery, precision agriculture, runoff control and a handful of technologies that I’m either not aware of or has yet to be invented.


  17. Douglas, I think you’re spot on with pretty much everything you say in this article. It’s clearly nonsense to think we can power the UK with wind, wave or solar power. Tidal is worth doing because it is economical and reliable, despite being only a small contribution to our energy needs. Hydro should continue for much the same reason. It would be very foolish for the UK to rely on solar power from deserts, gas from Russia etc. Since we (as a planet) are facing looming simultaneous crises from climate change, overpopulation, peak oil etc., and the UK is becoming a less wealthy nation, we need to move quickly towards energy independence, as far as is possible. Nothing can achieve that except nuclear power.

    I don’t think any but a tiny minority of the UK population can see what is coming. Politicians have to stop patronising us with comforting words about ‘a return to economic growth’ and tell us the truth, which is that the way our civilisation works now is unsustainable. The ‘war footing’ analogy is apt, except that today we have many more millions in the UK than we did in WWII, and we couldn’t grow enough food for the population even then. We need political leadership which is planning in terms of the next 50 to 100 years, not just for the next election or two.


  18. Bill Kerr and Peter McClelland:

    Bill, I take the point that paras 13 and 14 might seem contradictory. However, we’re about to have an election and polls are suggesting a hung parliament. Such an arrangement could be disastrous if it led to indecision, pending a further election to choose top dog. Alternatively, it could produce a strong national government, empowered to take necessary but necessarily unpopular decisions. There is not much to choose between the parties on energy policy (both pro nuclear) and the present chief scientific advisor at the Deparment of Climate Change is Professor David McKay, which I find encouraging (he of “Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air” renown). I suspect that a laissez faire free market solution won’t achieve a sufficiently rapid transition – hence my “war footing” comment.

    Peter, I sincerely hope that the UK won’t become a basket case economy and applaud your optimism. It remains the fact that we have allowed our manufacturing base to decline, having been gulled into believing that our financial/service sectors alone could sustain the lifestyles to which we have become accustomed. We are now seriously in debt and running short of energy. Without energy, we can’t repay debt. We have insufficient funds to spray at renewables and must focus on what is most affordable, short of blasting out a lot more CO2. I would rest my case on a consideration of relative ER0EIs. We may have time to save ourselves as a nation in the same way as the world as a whole has its only chance of being saved. I’d like to see us get started very quickly – there are already many other nations with a head start.


  19. “There is a large and growing consensus among those with expertise in the field that the planet is warming, that the warming is anthropogenic and largely caused by combustion of fossil fuels and that, without drastic reductions in CO2 emissions, a tipping point will be reached this century with an unstoppable and catastrophic acceleration of warming.”

    From a ‘large consensus’ you manage to extrapolate all the way to a ‘catastrophic tipping point’ in one sentence. If fact, a large and growing consensus think that AGW is a non-problem. The ‘vast majority’ of ‘peer reviewed’ papers dismissed Enistein’s Theory of Relativity as nonsense when he first proposed it.

    There is no forseeable shortage of petroleum reserves – this is reflected in the price. Can you still affford to run around in you car pretty much as you wish?

    The well documented warm periods brought great leaps in well-being for many societies and a flourishing of the arts. Politicians in particular would have have us all in fear of an imminent train wreck, whilst posing as our saviours. The reality is that politicians create problems where there would be none and feed off exaggeration.

    Following a successful career as a veterinarian, I regret that you have adopted the AGW dogma without some deeper questioning about the science and human psychology underpinning the popular assumptions.


  20. Douglas, much of what you write is beyond dispute. The key phrase, however, is ‘sustain the lifestyles to which we have become accustomed’. I doubt that we can do that, or even whether it’s wise to try. Continued growth in energy use is going to enable continued growth in consumption. The world is finite. The only way to continually increase consumption is to use ever higher amounts of energy to concentrate ever more diffuse resources (2nd law and all that). Even 4G nukes cannot achieve the levels of EROEI and cost that would be required. To try leads almost inevitably to a hard crash – those countries most dependent on the high energy use would crash the hardest – such as UK.

    An alternative vision is for us to squash out the waste and excess in our energy use, whilst converting to a mix of renewables and nuclear. Wind, for example, does not solve all of our problems, but we know that it works, is simple, is reasonably economic and will always be there. Turbines can expect to have very long working lives, albeit with periodic maintenance. Another example is agriculture, which could become much less energy-intensive, make better use of land and become sustainable without external mineral inputs.

    I would like nuclear energy to prove a reliable baseload for 3 main reasons: security of supply, management of energy distribution and a reasonable surplus to undertake ambitious and interesting projects beyond survival. Otherwise, the UK should urgently reduce energy consumption in ways which have the least impact on overall utility. For example: insulate houses, retrofit non-mechanical heating systems, adjust planning guidelines away from car dependency. All simple, easily achieved steps which should stimulate our economy in healthy ways.

    I do not agree that it is wise, sustainable or even desirable for nuclear energy to simply perpetuate our current system of gross consumption.


  21. Peter Lalor, neo-Malthusians underestimate the recoverable mineral resources of the Earth. There is, in effect, unlimited energy available in the earth’s crust in the form of uranium and thorium. Recovery can be effected with existing technology with favorable EROEI. Many minerals can also be recovered during the same mining operation without compromising the EROEI advantage. These would include phosphate. Other minerals can be recovered from concentrated mineral brines, that will be a byproduct of nuclear desalinization of sea water. Still more minerals can be recovered from post reactor stable fission products. Thus the argument that we are about to run out of mineral resources is absurd.


  22. With phosphate I can can see a clash developing between the high effort form proposed by Charles B and the yuckier recycled versions. Already we see with farm diesel that government will give subsidies or tax breaks. High effort phosphate recovered from hard rock mining or sea water extraction will no doubt get subsidies. Meanwhile others will insist we have to grow food in our own wastes to recycle phosphate. That will be close to home not way out in the wheat belt or prairie. Strangely this parallels the desal vs. recycled water debate.

    Long term I see a clash between the voluntary simplicity movement and those who want to maintain high energy consumption. Expect hypocrisy and compromise. Something like in the morning you eat vegies grown in humanure and in the afternoon you fly interstate in a jet powered by synfuel.


  23. Re: Phil, on 19 March 2010 at 3.08.

    I agree with your objection to the excellent essay by Dr Wise, albeit perhaps I would prefer the objection to be framed somewhat differently.

    Historically, energy consumption began its mighty rise basically with the industrial revolution. Newcomen’s engine was invented to pump water from coal mines; in spite of its rotten thermodynamic efficiency, it did the job, with extra-cheap coal (at the mine mouth) as the enabler. But previously, the rise of civilization took place with comparatively minimal energy consumption. And civilization should be the mistress and not the handmaiden of energy use.

    Indeed, trend need not be destiny. Civilization ― not just for better but for worse ― can continue its march (which might be “progress” whatever that is) at modestly to spectacularly lower rates of energy consumption. The carbon tax, mentioned by Dr Wise in #18 & #19, are about the most effective way to reduce the carbon footprint ― and, perhaps, the energy footprint ― of a healthy civilization.

    Besides, I suspect that there are obstacles and constraints on the massive implementation of nuclear power which are not yet apparent. The thought of basing the future of humanity and its “civilization” on such a crash program is as scary to me as the thought of abandoning the development of nuclear power technology and the implementation of nuclear power.

    As a separate point, there are “limits to growth” in addition to the climate crisis, peak oil, peak phosphorous and other “resources” ― of which growth itself might well be the dark horse. But if humankind fails to adequately address the climate crisis, the rest won’t really matter very much.

    Excellent coverage of the Carbon Tax is provided in the Carbon Tax Center blog:


  24. John Newlands, you can expect phosporus loses to shrink over time due to no-till GMOs, precision farming and runoff management. These have benefits besides reducing fertilizer losses and will not need expensive phosphorus to take off.

    There exists non-yucky methods of mineral phosphorus recovery from sewage that are somewhat impractical at the moment, but there’s no reason to think they’ve reached the maximal possible state of improvement.

    As the loop starts to close you need smaller and smaller amounts of hard to get phosphorus(bear in mind, there is still a lot of the easy stuff left to get). The cost of hard-to-get phosphorus could be subsidized by co-mining of other minerals, including uranium and thorium that exceed the energy required to extract phosphorus by many orders of magnitude.


  25. Peter McClelland:

    “I do not agree that it is wise, sustainable or even desirable for nuclear energy to simply perpetuate our current system of gross consumption.”

    I see your point, but I don’t think the concern is 100% justified. However, it is certainly open to debate.

    A large increase in available energy world wide would have enormous potential for creating higher and more equitable living standards. The most important thing to consider here is that this would (presumably) mean far higher standards of education and a subsequent peak (and hopefully decline) in world population.

    I’d argue that greatly raising living standards world wide doesn’t necessarily have to involve “gross consumption” and destruction of critical ecosystems. The Cradle to Cradle concept, and other similar ideas which promote more intelligent use of resources, offer great solutions to the problem of humanity’s seemingly endless thirst for consumption.

    I’m far more concerned that the world will continue to increase numbers of livestock (particularly cattle) than increase energy supply.


  26. @David 12:45
    Thank you for that comment. I am repulsed by the attitude of some who think energy scarcity is the answer to our consumption challenges.

    As you point out, the 30% of the world population who don’t enjoy the great benefits we have of affordable, available, on-demand power will just have to “get used to it”. Those peasants really do enjoy their hard-scrabble existence; besides, they wouldn’t know what to do with it if they had it!

    Energy abundance reduces energy and economic poverty.


  27. Bill Old:

    I suppose that I might have been a bit over the top in composing the sentence to which you object. However, I qualified the use of the term, consensus, applying it to those with expertise in the field. I should, perhaps, have been more precise. I was thinking of scientists working in relevant fields and, more particularly, to the National Science Acadamies of nearly every nation in the world that has such an organisation. I wasn’t implying a consensus among politicians or the public at large.

    I note that you are not too concerned about peak oil either. I appreciate oil prices have dropped since peaking at over $100/barrel. Do you think there is a possibility of the current world financial crash having something to do with this? Do you not think that oil reserves are infinite? Do you think that new oil will be easier and cheaper to extract than was past oil?

    You finish by regretting that I stumbled from a successful veterinary career into an unquestioning adoption of AGW beliefs without studying the underlying science and the human psychology underpinning them. Might I suggest that your comment is based on a series of assumptions, all questionable?

    What ever makes you think my veterinary career was successful? I am not good with my hands and the few animals that were exposed to them seldom derived benefit. I therefore adopted the “if you can’t do it, you teach it” approach. Having launched myself into academia, I was unsuccessful in climbing the greasy pole, maybe for lack of talent but mainly, I think, for lack of political correctness. I refused to treat lectures as light entertainment for students and preferred to bore them with facts (so old fashioned when they could look them up for themselves) and, worse, refused to lower the pass marks of my examinations to minimise failures. I was therefore offered early retirement.

    Funnily enough, I have spent a large amount of time studying comparative differences between human and animal minds/brains. I have to say that this was prompted more by my irritation with anthropomorphic bunny huggers than with anything to do with climate science. I am, however, aware of the evolutionary advantages of responding to immediate threats and challenges and the lack of evolved skills to cope with future threats. Humans are unique in the animal kingdom (of which, of course, we are a part) in having a highly developed consciousness of self (non reflexive consciousness, metacognition, 5th order intentionality, mental time travel – call it what you will). However, this doesn’t necessarily mean we are particularly skilled at addressing future threats, merely better at it than non human animals. The problem is that, if we wait till the threats facing us become acute and self evident, it will be too late to do much to cope with them.

    I would like to disabuse you about my easy acceptance of AGW. I retired as a sceptic and it took me an inordinate time before I reluctantly became convinced. This took a great deal of reading, correspondence with physicists and grappling with quantum mechanics etc before my resistance was broken and I went from being a reasonably cheery person, hoping for grandchildren to one who is dead worried about the fate of the one that has now hatched.


  28. Peter McClellan and David Collins:

    I was ill advised to talk about “living in the manner to which we have become accustomed”. To you, it seems to imply BAU and raise red flags.

    I think the difference between us is not necessarily that great. I think you are both a lot more complacent than I but, nevertheless, seem to think I’m advocating a “switch to nuclear and carry on as before strategy”.

    Instead, I see the UK sailing into the cliched, perfect storm. Most have yet to experience the consequences of our financial crash. If we have any success in riding that out, we’ll be straight into an energy hole if we’re not very careful. This is all without considering the global problems of peak oil and climate change.

    We are going to have to use energy more efficiently as well as having a crash programme of energy transition. Inevitably, we’ll experience dropping material standards for several (many) years before there is a prospect of improvement. I really don’t think a puff of wind power here and a frisson of fission there will hack it.

    David, you say that a crash programme of nuclear is scary to you. To an extent, it is to me. However, lack of such a programme scares me a lot more and I don’t believe we have the luxury of a choice. Other nations might, but not the UK.


  29. Thanks for a great summary.
    Two points:
    Off-shore wind costs 2-3 times nuclear, NOT including back-up and transmission costs (PDF):
    These are based on DOE figures.
    It should also be noted that the life expectancy before major refit of these turbines is taken at the 20 years claimed by the companies.
    Current practice ON-shore gives a life of only around 80,000 hours, or 9-10 years.
    This was confirmed to me by the financier behind a major wind farm in Finisterre, who stated that he could see no way that effective maintenance could be carried out for off-shore turbines with current engineering at any affordable cost, and the dangers to the workforce would be extreme.

    The second point is that I feel that we would be fine with perhaps 100GW or so of nuclear power stations, as we currently use energy so inefficiently.

    To focus on two areas: The Tories are instituting £6,500 energy loans to upgrade the housing stock.
    This will greatly reduce the energy needs.
    I am having a Worcester-Bosche air-to-air heat pump installed in my flat, which operates as a fridge in reverse, and for every unit of electricity provides 4.5 units of heating and cooling.
    The cost is only around £1,500 for install on one level.

    Transport: The Nissan Leaf charges it’s 24kwh battery up by around 20kwh to run 100 miles, as it is never allowed to go flat.
    That works out to only 200watts/mile.
    Using those figures, the ~25 million UK car fleet would only need an energy flow of ~7GW.
    Charging most of them for the 8 hours overnight would then take ~21GW, well within the spare capacity of a ~100GW fleet of power stations.

    Heat pumps would also tend to run during the night, as opposed to providing a blast of heat.

    It boils down to ~100GW being able to if not run the whole country, at least likely coming close.

    At around £5bn GW, and allowing 25 years for the build, this comes to around £20bn a year, and 3-4 new stations depending on whether they are the 1GW or 1.6GW models.


  30. David Martin:

    Thanks for your very interesting response. I am sure that Peter Lang and others here will be interested in your comments on offshore wind and also on the rapid rate at which past turbines get to their sell by dates ( though I’m sure there’ll be responses to the effect that modern ones will last a lot longer!)

    I would like to know why you think that 100GW of nuclear electricity would be sufficient for the UK. (I’m not arguing that it wouldn’t be damned good start). Is it because you expect that nuclear will only be a partial electrical solution or because you took my figure and then factored in efficiency? If the latter, I would have to say (regretfully) that I had already factored it in when arriving at my original conclusion. In reaching it, I leant heavily on the work of David McKay (Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air).

    McKay puts UK current energy consumption at 125 kWh per person per day (about half that of North Americans and Australians). He then considers all the efficiency measures he can think of (including all those you mention) and concludes that we’ll need at least 50kWh of electrical energy per person per day. Your 100GW of nuclear plants would produce 90GW at at 90% capacity factor. This would provide only 36kWh per person per day with a population of 60 million. Don’t forget either that immigrants and their higher birth rates are likely to push the population to 70 million by 2050.

    To reach McKay’s target, one would need around 140 to 160GW worth of power plants, depending upon population size. My range of 150-200 was more conservative because I am a bit sceptical that we can fully reach the desired efficiency gains.

    On a more optimistic note, I believe your figure of £5 billion/nuclear GW is too high now that both major political parties are wedded to the technology and are prepared to over-ride objectors. I think that it wouldn’t be unrealistic to think more in terms of £2.75 billion. We thus have a similar figure of £20 billion/annum nuclear expenditure in mind.


  31. Douglas,

    Its high altitude wind you should look for.
    It adresses an important point which Gen4 nuclear will not in the next 2-3 decades….capital cost.
    1GW plants could be built around 80Mio€.
    Technically they can scale up to 60GW per plant. That would require a carousel (like a train or maglev rail) of 24km in diameter.
    Current KitegenStem units will cost around 220.000€/MW. The first kitewindpark is beeing built right now in the province of Asti/Italy, 27MW/9 Stem units. This site is not suitable for conventional wind.
    The Stem units however are suitable for onshore and offshore use. They can be placed thighter than windturbines, are cheaper to built, higher cf, can be produced anywhere, no fuel needed, no blades, no towers, easy transport, they could power ships,…
    just look into it.

    We can only hope that some of these plants will be sold to china in the next years and they start reverse engineering the technology asap.
    Somebody talking chinese should propose it to them.
    But there are 400Mio $ for BloomBoxes ;(


  32. Douglas Wise

    I must have skimmed through too quickly as I did not find your name in the top or bottom of the post. I guess I must have seemed like I was saying, “Who does this guy think he is?” This was not my intention at all and was rather lax of me; I think this is an excellent post.

    Your points 12 and 13 of the political considerations are very important. We can’t have a worthwhile democratic process without an informed electorate. I agree that political parties are in the business of telling people what they want to hear. Currently politics in democratic countries are not focussed on identifying and addressing the most pressing issues first. The system of voting for representatives at roughly regular intervals supports only a short-term approach to managing issues and addressing these at a popular level.

    The big question in my mind is how to get people informed before they vote. I want to know how the issues raised by the AGW and anti-nuclear critics can be addressed so that people can make informed decisions? If we attempted to have an independent body study the issues and come up with definitive answers, we would be left in the end with another appeal to authority. Scientists have to learn how to communicate with the general population. Everybody should know, for example, that CO2 levers up water vapour before they can go any further. Ian Plimer, for example, evidently does not understand such a basic point. He should be required to demonstrate his understanding of this concept, or to argue that the concept is mistaken. The most responsible thing governments could do currently would be to identify global issues and to educate their citizens about them. Each government should have a department for public education on global issues. Opponents, however, would want to merely dismiss this as propaganda, but at least more people would be aware of what the issues are.

    I feel that using the Internet has the greatest potential for engagement so that people can learn and become informed. There needs to be a popular movement towards a system of informed decision making.

    Regarding point 14, the planet needs to go on a war footing, not just the UK. The issues in the UK seemed to be paralleled elsewhere in the western world. There needs to be a popular movement outside of state boundaries. This is where the Internet has the greatest potential. The first point of attack needs to be against misinformation and empty reasoning. There needs to be research done on how a paradigm shift can be achieved. There has to be strategic planning to bring about global consensus towards sustainability.

    As Bill Kerr said above there is a great need for real debate. This is not a matter of debating rules and timed sessions, but of addressing the concerns of other opinions. It is always difficult to determine the level of content. Just as most training sessions on computer software are either too basic to learn anything or too advanced to follow, so information on issues needs to be presented on a range of levels.

    I also think we need some lateral thinking on democracy. It is not so much about choosing a person to represent voters, but voters making decisions on issues that they are informed about.


  33. Bill Old

    The concept that anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is not a problem may be very popular, but I can’t see how it can be defended. This view appears to be saying AGW has zero effect. If this were the case, we on earth can as much CO2 as we like with impunity. How can we be so sure that it is safe to do so, especially when scientists are saying there is a great likelihood of dangerous and then catastrophic climate change?

    Hundreds of people have been looking for the slightest discrepancies and they have found some anomalies and some statement to quote that can be construed as conspiracy. I would have thought this result should be expected in any case. Others think this is sufficient reason to live as if the earth were infinite.

    At least C Monkton acknowledged that AGW has an effect and that it was a question of sensitivity of the system to CO2 increase. From memory I think he concluded there was a third of the effect published by the IPCC.

    To say AGW has no effect requires another explanation for why the atmosphere is warmer near the earth’s surface. The whole concept of greenhouse gasses would need to be revised.


  34. Robert Lawrence:

    You raise some interesting points on the weaknesses of the current western democratic process.

    I read today that a MORI poll, conducted in the UK, revealed that only 24% of the public saw any need for government to cut spending, despite debt levels exceeding 12% of GDP and equivalent to those of Greece.

    I have toyed with one idea. Money has been assumed to be so important that the Labour Government, on attaining power in 1997, made the Bank of England independent with the role of maintaining inflation close to 2%. This was generally an applauded by all political parties. Unfortunately, the government concurrently removed the Central Bank’s regulatory role and created a separate entity for this purpose. It was the signal failure of the latter that can be blamed, more than the banks, for our current financial crisis. In consequence, the Conservatives are planning to repatriate the powers of bank regulation to the Bank of England while continuing to respect its independence.

    I see the management of the supply of affordable energy to be at least of equal importance to the supply of money. I would therefore advocate the creation of an independent Organisation of Energy Transition, free from political apointees, performing in a manner equivalent to the independent Bank of England. I believe the idea has the potential to take party politics out of the energy debate but haven’t thought it through properly. Would, for example, such an organisation have fund raising as well as fund distributing powers? If so, could it influence the level of funding it deemed necessary to implement its plans? Would it be responsible for justifying its decisions directly to the public? What is the optimum way of recruiting its personnel? (I would suggest they be appointed by appropriate professional and/or scientific academic bodies.)


  35. Pingback: The problem with ‘Generating the Future: UK energy systems fit for 2050′ « BraveNewClimate

  36. Two indicators that may mean we shouldn’t perhaps write the UK off just yet while exaulting in Australian exceptionalism.

    1. Deloittes, the most optimistic out of a range of commentators, is predicitng an annual 6-8% growth in UK manufacturing for the next decade.

    2. Sheffield Forgemasters has received the funding to build the press for large componets of Gen III plants.

    I always thought the problem in the Uk was the oldfashioned outlook of mercantilism otherwise known as neo-liberal economics


  37. @Charles Barton:

    you wrote:

    Thank you for the references to your blog.

    Concerning growthist cornucopiaism, how do you or Soylent or other growthists suggest we restore redfin tuna stocks other than by foreswearing sushi and leaving the fish alone? Talks on this failed a couple of days back. Or do you envisage human ingenuity re-engineering this species for re-release? When Canada overfished cod around 1990, the stocks never recovered. In terms of plastics engineering, the ocean seems to be thermoset rather than thermoplastic, as it were.

    Concering your misleading statement about the Green Revolution, which is water- and chemical-intensive and ruinous for Indian farmers, refer to:

    It is noteworthy that BNC seems to have no people on it outside corporate USA or its various Anglo vassals, but such people, like Shiva, are at the sharp end of US Treasury – World Bank activities such as the Green Revolution.


  38. Peter Lalor, my cornucopiaism is not inconsistent with a strong environmental emphasis. In fact my view is that poor societies do as much, if not more damage to the environment than wealthy societies. I am no more in favor of permitting over fishing of the seas than you are, and regard protection of soil and water resources. My view is that there is enough recoverable energy resources in the earth, that people would only want for energy if the did not chose to have it. Further, given the energy resources we have, we can obtain all of the mineral resources we need. This is a long way from saying that we can damage our environment in an imprudent fashions. Considering that Paul Ehrlich has acknowledged that the Green Revolution prevented hundreds of millions of people from dying in the famine he predicted during the 1960’s, it is far better for Indian farmers to suffer from its consequences, than from the alternative if it hadn’t happened.


  39. Good post Douglas although I’m not quite sure the UK is
    ready for “developing” status just yet …

    Although on my single visit to the UK, I didn’t think much of the fruit
    and veg, except when curried … thank god for Indian restaurants.

    I’m curious about a couple of things. I thought coal had largely
    gone in the UK, you make it sound still substantial, and secondly
    who is holding the “indebtedness bonds”? Is it public or private
    debt and for what and to whom?


  40. Geoff,

    Thanks for your kind comment.

    I suppose it is wrong to suggest we currently have developing nation status. It is the speed that we are approaching it that worries me. If we can’t get our energy policy right, given our existing indebtedness, we could go down the tubes very, very quickly.

    I am not entirely clear what you mean by “indebtedness bonds”. Clearly, banks, out of effective regulatory control, ran up enormous debts and were bailed out with phoney money printed by the government, the housing bubble burst causing a disappearance of notional money. Furthermore, the government has increased the size of its client base by massive recruitment of manpower into jobs which don’t contribute to the productive economy and, in fact, tend to sap the profit potential of the private sector. For the first time ever, central and local government spending is more than 50% of GDP.

    The UK does have plenty of coal reserves but, after the miners’ strike and North Sea discoveries of oil and gas (now mostly gone), we left most of the coal in situ. In fact, I think our coal power plants use a lot of imported Polish coal. Recently, there has been an increase in interest in exploiting underground coal gasification, especially as we have large offshore reserves. There are those who claim that this technology will marry well with CCS.

    For interest, our energy regulator, Ofgem has just reported on an onshore wind study. Average capacity factor is put at 25-30%. However, significant numbers of even recently built wind farms are operating at below 20%. Concern was expressed that levels of subsidy were such as to be tempting developers to build on unsuitable sites. However, many of the best wind sites are often not favourably placed with respect to the grid.


  41. Douglas,

    don`t you think there should be more research in advanced wind plants/ high altitude wind?

    There are jetstreams in GB. We are looking at a CF of 60-85%

    The Kitegen Stem was developed with some millions.


  42. Heavyweather:

    I am in favour of R&D into renewable technologies, funded initially with private capital and, subsequently, with public money if the technology in question looks promising. I am not in favour of subsidies to some clean energy producers and none to others.

    I have read all I can conveniently get my hands on that relates to high altitude wind and, of course, am aware of Kitegen. The capacity factor you refer to in the jetstreams above temperate latitudes is as you suggest. I’m not sure that this applies to altitudes at which most high altitude wind systems are planning to operate. Furthermore, power from high altitude wind farms operating at full throttle will be less than for an equivalent swept area of low level farm due to lower air density. I remain sceptical but await announcements relating to progress with interest.


  43. Thanks Douglas, that answers most of my questions. But I’m
    still curious about the debts.
    indebtedness indicates a trade imbalance, so somebody is owed that
    money. With the US, most of the debt is to China, I’m just wondering
    who the UK owes and whether there are particular products that
    it owes on?


  44. Douglas, yes, our disagreements are at the margins.

    “I think you are both a lot more complacent than I”

    Hardly :). For a while now I have been busy preparing for what I see as likely steps down in our affluence, mainly energy and food availability. Perhaps you are too.

    “Instead, I see the UK sailing into the cliched, perfect storm”

    Certainly our situation is perilous, but I wonder whether it’s really so much worse than most other comparable places (Germany, Japan, USA, …). Yes, we’ve been slow to recognise and act on energy issues. During our domestic fossil fuel glut we became addicts. Decisions to replace that infrastructure have been woefully delayed due to slow recognition of the problems and official uncertainly about the right way to proceed. Added to this our population density has continued to grow to bursting point, and we have become enthralled by the lure of easy wealth through playing games with money.

    However, we remain a relatively cohesive, flexible and well educated society, with a strong continuing skills base and large financial resources. Leadership and a sense of urgency are the key missing ingredients. Nonetheless, I remain optimistic that we will see better leadership in the near future, perhaps arising from unexpected directions.

    Also, it’s a little narrow to consider Britain in isolation. Our partners in the EU can provide strength through diversity. With a continued strong internal market and some strategic alignment of our collective energy infrastructure we will be better able to cope with the coming challenges, despite the political shortcomings of the UK and EU as a whole.

    My main concern for the UK is food security if a combination of geopolitics and resource crunches start to bite over the next couple of decades. I’m less worried about energy because I am fairly sure that we can squeeze massively more utility from each kWh than we do at present. We also have significant natural energy resources waiting for us to have the drive and skill to exploit them efficiently and cleanly (wind, tide, solar, perhaps also coal). Prof MacKay rehearses some of this. Huge reductions in flying, commuting, house heating and pleasure driving; mandatory efficiency standards and removal of standby for electrical devices; steep increases in VAT for high energy appliances; mandatory pre-cycling; etc. I foresee huge discontent initially, as people cannot afford to heat their houses to tropical levels and drive several miles to pick up a sunday paper as thick as a telephone directory. But we’ve historically been a pragmatic lot and I suspect we would settle down to feel somewhat less affluent, somewhat happier, and generally not feel that much had been lost.

    As a more general observation, the comments on this site which deprecate a future with lower energy consumption look rather similar in nature to the push-back by AGW ‘sceptics’ when confronted with the need to change. We have reached current levels of consumption through a complex balance between energy availability and marginal internal cost of supply, almost entirely ignoring external costs. Nowhere is it written that this is somehow a necessary and perfect state. We can and should reduce our energy footprints so that we get much more value from each unit expended. Aggressively expanding supply will lead to just as many imbalances as we see in today’s world, with potentially worse consequences as the margins of our increasingly fragile world become ever more stressed.

    That said, there seems to be little doubt that if industrial civilisation is to be preserved then we need a large contribution from nuclear power. Although I agree with David Collins that high energy consumption is not a necessary condition for civilisation, at this stage we can’t quickly back out of the industrial part of it without frequent visits from the four horsemen.


  45. Douglas Wise mentions twice population growth.
    To my mind this is at the root of all our coming woes. Yet this ominous phenomena never gets more than a passing reference in the media. Most comments focus on the technicalities of providing energy for future consumption.
    The human dimension – embedded in religious and ethical dogmas – does not seem to interest our prolific commentators.


  46. I wish to return to what should be a minor point: a high-kW lifestyle is not needed for either an advanced civilization for humankind or for a quality life for individual human beings.

    It is said that all politics is local; dunno ’bout that as an absolute; but maybe life quality is all individual. When I was a kid (1940’s into the 50’s), a typical commute was a 3-mile drive. My older brother and I liked skiing; we had to climb up hills (fishboning & sidestepping), but that gave us time to talk about the forthcoming downhill. We liked to sail (Lightning #309); we cruised the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, sleeping under the cockpit awning, the boat pulled well above the reach of the waves if the weather was rough (launching out again was a bit of a challenge in the surf). We dreamed of tropical islands (trade winds and bosomy lasses, no priority implied), but we had at least as much fun as adults who high-style it up & away to Phuket.

    Decades later, my wife & I enjoyed six-figure ($ not £) incomes (largely derived from the Telecom boom). Nice travel, art collection, etc and education for the kids in designer-label schools. We had high energy lifestyles, both metabolism and fossil fuel. Now we have spectacularly downsized our living, but we are enjoying it much all the same. (Particularly catching up on our reading.) The incomes have shrunken spectacularly, the waistlines have grown more than we’d like, but our quality of life has neither improved nor suffered. We go to church, lectures, concerts, and I still enjoy long-distance bicycling (my wife, of Latin American middle class upbringing, cannot get into that kind of thing; innappropriate for a lady). True, we’re lucky to be healthy, and so far feel no wish to channel Dr Kevorkian, but we wonder about how much better we might be if we had not allowed ourselves to be caught up in the mania of that age, when hi-tech was booming and our bellies were flat.

    Calculus, modern physics, symphonic music, baroque painting, the Enlightenment, the Reformation, world exploration… these spectacular glories of civilization developed on a low (fuel) energy environment. Yeah, I know, it didn’t extend to everybody, and I prefer life of today, but there are good examples to be followed as well as bad examples to be avoided.

    However, I agree with Peter McClelland that the only way to a civilization which does not depend on the high-speed conversion of resources into waste would all to likely involve all-too-frequent visits by the Four Horsemen. (Thanks for that line; I will use it shamelessly, giving him no credit whatsoever.)


  47. David F Collins wants the world to stop – he wants to get off.

    David, one of the feature of modern life is that we can take it or leave it as we wish. As individuals. However that power does not extend to making that decision for every one else. And certainly it is hubris in the extreme to assume that it can be made by us for generations to come.

    Now I understand where you are coming from, because I’m not much younger than you seem to be, but my children do not have the same memories, or the same wish to go back to that time, any more than I wished to go back to the time of my dad, waking up at five in the morning on a school day to split stove wood so breakfast could be made. I’m sure that this did his health and attitude all sorts of good, but I also note he had an electric range installed in his own homes when the time came.

    Most don’t want a low energy lifestyle, particularly those in the Third World who ‘enjoy’ one now. Nor are they going to listen to any decadent Westerners waxing romantic about their lost youth. In the real world, growth will continue whether we approve or not, and the only things we can effect are how much damage to the planet we can avoid while it happens.

    This is the choice before us.


  48. Pingback: Dumb and Dumber? « Less than 2 Degrees

Leave a Reply (Markdown is enabled)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s