Climate change

March 26, 2010

The problem with ‘Generating the Future: UK energy systems fit for 2050′

In the previous post, a guest contribution by Douglas Wise, provided an excellent and thorough review of the political and technical issues facing the UK energy scene.  Douglas’ post was also timely, because, last week, the esteemed Royal Academy of Engineering released a new 27-page report on this topic. Although useful as a crystal-ball-gazing exercise, the report has some problems that relate strongly to Wise’s points. Here I discuss the major issues I have with the RAE report.

To introduce the report, I’ll first reproduce the World Nuclear News report on it, as it provides an excellent summary of its contents:

UK needs massive energy program, says academy

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 (PDF download), 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.

Each of the four scenarios include reducing energy demand through both increased efficiencies and behavioural change, with much more energy demand than at present being met through the electricity system. All four generally see fossil fuel prioritised for transport use in the future. They also all incorporate the highest levels of renewable energy supplies (other than biomass) that the academy considers could realistically be delivered by 2050. (The amount of biomass use varies in the different scenarios.) Nonetheless, the report still foresees the need for a massive building program for what it calls low-carbon sources – either nuclear power or fossil-fuelled plants with carbon capture and storage (CCS). “The scale of the engineering challenge is massive,” the academy warns.

The two scenarios which the report sees as the more practical options would require significant electrification of the UK’s transport system (up to 80% in one case), and would both require around 40 new nuclear or CCS-equipped power plants fired by coal, biomass or gas. Even in the report’s fourth scenario, with a 46% reduction in overall demand, and a whopping 58% of electricity supplied by what the report refers to as intermittent sources, “well beyond the limits of what has been achieved before,” about 20 new nuclear or CCS-equipped plants would be needed. The figure could be as high as 80 new nuclear or CCS plants for a scenario with the least demand cuts.

Out of time

The timescales involved in such a massive re-engineering of the UK’s energy systems in time to respond to the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions mean that the time for talking is effectively over, the report cautions: “We have to commit to new plant and supporting infrastructure now.” Only low-carbon technologies that are already known can make a significant contribution to meeting the 2050 targets, it adds, noting that “untried developments“, such as nuclear fusion, may eventually contribute to the energy mix, but “to meet the 80% target we have to use what we already understand.”

Sue Ion, chair of the academy’s energy scenarios working group, echoed the report’s conclusion when she said: “There is no more time left for further consultations or detailed optimisation and no time to wait for new technical innovations. Infrastructure on this scale doesn’t happen on political timescales.”

Next, I’d like to quote some relevant extracts from the report, and alongside this, provide some annotations sent to me by Martin Nicholson, author of the book Energy in a Changing Climate.


The RAE report is interesting and worth a read, if only to see how some might tackle the future issue of low-carbon energy. The report is somewhat political, by taking 4 scenarios to 2050 in a way not to offend any constituency – from the tough but possibly realistic scenario 1, to the fanciful conservationist minimal position in scenario 4. (My assessment, not RAE’s). For some reason they felt it necessary to maximise renewable energy (RE) in all scenarios.

Some selected sections from the RAE report (MN comments in red):

There is no more time left for further consultations or detailed optimisation. Equally, there is no time left to wait for new technical developments or innovation. We have to commit to new plant and supporting infrastructure now.

(So no enhanced geothermal systems or bulk energy storage beyond pumped hydro)

Although the scale of the challenge has often been acknowledged, very few have sought to try to put numbers to it. We do so in Appendix 1 and come up with numbers which are currently beyond the capacity of the energy industry to deliver.

Furthermore, even if the mitigation target for 2050 is met, that does not mean the problem is solved. The RCEP analysis shows that, for both the 550 ppm/60% and the 450 ppm/80% cases, a further halving in greenhouse gas emissions by 2100 will be needed to avoid serious climatic risk. Therefore, it must be remembered that 2050 is only one stage along a path that will subsequently need further, even more demanding measures.

For renewable sources of energy other than biomass, the four scenarios are the same, incorporating the highest levels that could realistically be delivered by 2050. (my emphasis) Table 3 summarises the average power supplied from each of the major sources of renewable energy, along with the corresponding installed capacity and an illustration of what assets would be required to provide that capacity and the scale of the resulting challenge.

(note the average capacity factor of 21%)

The major assets themselves – the power plants and renewables energy installations – will require a major construction programme. For the renewable sources of supply, table 3 gives an indication of the considerable number of assets required to provide a significant proportion of the UK’s energy demand.

For example, building over 1,000 miles of wave power machines equates to building almost three miles a month for the next 40 years or roughly the equivalent length of one London underground train a day – and that does not take into account the repairs and replacements that would be needed as sections age. Also, large numbers of different types of turbines would be needed for on and offshore wind, tidal stream and tidal range; all of which would need to be sourced from an increasingly competitive global market. The situation for the non-renewable sources is no less challenging.

As in the original RCEP report, we restrict ourselves to four scenarios, chosen to highlight some of the most important aspects of the future energy system. In general terms, the scenarios are:

Scenario 1 Level demand – Fossil fuel prioritised for transport

Scenario 2 Medium demand reduction – Fossil fuel prioritised for low grade heat

Scenario 3 Medium demand reduction – Fossil fuel prioritised for transport

Scenario 4 High demand reduction – Fossil fuel prioritised for transport

(Based on my theory that only conservationists really believe that overall demand reduction is possible it looks like Scenario 1 is the only realistic scenario. The interest thing is the resulting reduction in GHGs isn’t a lot different between the scenarios)

(The scenario numbers are for 2050 and cover all demand sources including low and high grade heat and transport. Scenario 4 looks like “hair shirt” territory to me)

I am concerned about how they did their GHG reduction calculations. They never discuss the split between nuclear and CCS. Given the significant differences in emission intensity between the two, how did they come up with their numbers?

No mention of costs beyond this last sentence in the Conclusions:

It also needs to be recognised that the significant changes required to the UK energy system to meet the emissions reduction targets will inevitably, involve significant rises in energy costs to end users.

This is actually quite a depressing report. I can only conclude that the UK will NOT reduce its GHG emissions by 80% by 2050. You have to think that a Scenario 5 with much less RE and more nuclear would have given a much better outcome at less cost.


The unmodelled ‘Scenario 5′ that Martin wishes to see might look something like the ‘Plan E’ of Mackay (Chapter 27, pg 211 of ‘Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air‘):

Producing lots of electricity – plan E

E stands for “economics.” This fifth plan is a rough guess for what might happen in a liberated energy market with a strong carbon price. On a level economic playing field with a strong price signal preventing the emission of CO2, we don’t expect a diverse solution with a wide range of power-costs; rather, we expect an economically optimal solution that delivers the required power at the lowest cost. And when “clean coal” and nuclear go head to head on price, it’s nuclear that wins. (Engineers at a UK electricity generator told me that the capital cost of regular dirty coal power stations is £1 billion per GW, about the same as nuclear; but the capital cost of “clean-coal” power, including carbon capture and storage, is roughly £2 billion per GW.) I’ve assumed that solar power in other people’s deserts loses to nuclear power when we take into account the cost of the required 2000-km-long transmission lines (though van Voorthuysen (2008) reckons that with Nobel-prize-worthy developments in solar-powered production of chemical fuels, solar power in deserts would be the economic equal of nuclear power). Offshore wind also loses to nuclear, but I’ve assumed that onshore wind costs about the same as nuclear.

Here’s where plan E gets its 50 kWh/d/p of electricity from. Wind: 4 kWh/d/p (10 GW average). Solar PV: 0. Hydroelectricity and waste incineration: 1.3 kWh/d/p. Wave: 0. Tide: 0.7 kWh/d/p. And nuclear: 44 kWh/d/p (110 GW).

This plan has a ten-fold increase in our nuclear power over 2007 levels. Britain would have 110 GW, which is roughly double France’s nuclear fleet. I included a little tidal power because I believe a well-designed tidal lagoon facility can compete with nuclear power. In this plan, Britain has no energy imports (except for the uranium, which, as we said before, is not conventionally counted as an import).

Or, if we want to be bolder still (and I firmly believe this is what is really needed), we could imagine something quite different to any ‘energy futures’ scenarios yet envisaged — a ’settled-down’ system with 270 GWe average power for the UK (which, via various substitutions, then covers all needs — electricity, heat, synthetic transport fuels/electric vehicle charging, agriculture inputs etc.). This would represent growth in total energy production in the UK of 30% between now and 2050, which I think is far more realistic when considering necessary oil/gas replacement and demographic changes, with only modest gains with energy efficiency (i.e., commensurate with historical experience). If >90% of this energy is delivered with nuclear (gen III+), I suspect — even if calculated using a back-of-the-envelope approach — that such an alternative scenario would be shown to be by far the cheapest and most complete, low-risk (in terms of probability of failure) option for achieving a fossil-fuel-free energy future.

In sum then, the problems with the RAE study seems to be four-fold:

1) Like Mackay’s work, it ignores the economics underpinning this massive energy transformation. Yet I (and my guest commenters, such as Peter Lang and Steve Kirsch) have argued that a non-economic approach, whether physically possible or not, can lead to seriously misleading conclusions about what is possible or desirable. If the $$ don’t add up, the plan fails.

2) It makes heroic assumptions about the gains to be made with energy efficiency and conservation — gains that would be unprecedented — indeed quite unlike the historical energy development of any developed nation — and would, for the first time, constitute a wholesale contradiction of Jevon’s Paradox / Khazzoom-Brookes postulate. History is the best guide to the probable, rather than the possible.

3) Although the RAE say they rely only on existing technology, they don’t really. After all, a fleet of Pelamis wave machines, stacked 4 or 5 deep along 1,000 miles of the British coast, is bordering on fantasy. Likewise, coal or gas with CCS is totally unproven on the scale required, and is hard to imagine will every be economically competitive. Of the low-carbon energy sources used in the scenarios, only Gen II/Gen III has been shown, historically, to be scalable and economic. (see France for details)

4) In an apparent effort to ensure a ‘diversified’ energy supply, the planning locks in — with absolutely no option — a huge tranche of intermittent renewables (33 GWe), along with an extraordinarily large amount of biomass (26 to 45 GWe). If these fail to achieve their maximum conceivable potential, then all 4 of the RAE scenarios go belly up.

Bishop: “I’m afraid you’ve got a bad egg, Mr Jones”; Curate: “Oh, no, my Lord, I assure you that parts of it are excellent!” “True Humility” by George du Maurier, originally published in Punch, 1895.

So, I’m forced to conclude that the RAE report is a Curate’s Egg. Good in parts… but it’s the bad bits that spoil the whole meal. Thus,  my seemingly vain search for a realistic energy plan — released by an august body that government might actually listen to — goes on

1 Comment »

  1. The real solution is to convert renewable energy into heat to raise steam to turn our existing steam turbines. It is not necessary to burn anything to heat water.

    Comment by Andrew H Mackay — March 29, 2010 @ 5:53 am

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