The recent controversy over the change in stance of Friends of the Earth on Nuclear power or not has got us thinking about energy again.
For most of us the questions around renewable energy can be separated into two broad areas, the things that impact our lives on a day to day basis and the longer term and perhaps slightly more difficult to define goals of national and global energy policies.
Lets be blunt about this, wanting to reduce carbon emissions to combat climate change is something which most of us can get on board with but on a day to day basis the things which affect our lives are; do the lights go on? Is my house warm enough? And what does this cost me?
In this sense maybe renewables aren’t that great. Green levies which are put on to everyone’s energy bills to subsidise the expansion of renewable energy infrastructure increase the cost of domestic energy and consumers may not be getting a good deal out of this.
And the environmental argument isn’t quite as straight forward as you might think. Hydroelectric is great as part of a mixture of generation techniques but its not a solution on its own but the environmental impacts can be huge and there are limited number of suitable sites. Wind turbines must be sensitively sited and often require a fair bit of concrete to build the foundations. Concrete is quite a CO2 heavy building material and an average of 300m3 per turbine is not unreasonable. If they’re sited in a peat bog as many in the UK are then the excavation of peat will release CO2 as well. The construction of these facilities is not without more immediate environmental impacts due to the risks of fuel spillages etc (our area or interest) inherent with building things in environmentally sensitive locations. However, over the lifespan of the wind turbine it will release much less CO2 per KWH of electricity than other forms of power generation. Similarly the production of solar panels is energy intensive which involves a carbon footprint and large scale projects can have a large visual impact. As EDF say their technology is low carbon, not zero carbon emissions. But the sun shines every day (it might not seem like it but it does) so why not try to capture this energy?
And other forms of energy generation are not without their complications. Nuclear energy is haunted by the spectres of past disasters and is also not as low carbon as is often claimed. There’s an awful lot of concrete in a nuclear power station and the mining and processing of the fuel is quite an energy intensive process not to mention the issues around high level waste disposal.
Fossil fuels, even modern cleaner plants emit CO2 and have the associated drilling and mining impacts. As for novel sources of combustible fuels such as biomass fuel plants a recent government report shows that while a good idea in principle the reality is more complicated and relies on a transparent and accountable supply chain. Anerobic digesters and energy from waste systems are great and should be utilised more widely but they do still emit CO2. Then there’s new sources of fossil gas but lets not open that Fracking can of worms. However these methods do produce reliable electricity at a defined cost and can often be sited (relatively) close to poplulation centers thus reducing the transmission losses of generating electricity from a large number of widely distibuted sites which affects many renewable schemes.
So it’s not as clear a picture as you might think, it seems that for every pro there’s some cons so why do we need renewable energy? Well, on balance while it’s a very complex issue the pros mostly outweigh the cons and the one thing which answers those questions at the start of the post is a simple one, energy security. If you want a reliable supply of energy at a defined cost over the long term you require a diverse range of energy generation techniques which are not reliant upon imports or the whims of foreign governments. It makes sense to consider all the options but some things are clear, the UK is a small island sitting off the north west coast of europe so we are in a favourable location for wind and wave generation and we have the technological expertise to exploit these and other novel forms of energy generation. We have finite resources of fossil fuels and we’re reliant upon imports for pretty much every other source of energy. When viewed with that in mind renewables are not a ruse by the electricity generators to drive up bills in the name of a green agenda they are a pragmatic route to keeping the lights on.