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A new threat emerges to the UK’s renewable energy sources

coal-powerA surprise threat to the UK’s chances of meeting its targets for renewable energy sources has emerged.  The UK subsidizes some renewables directly through government grants, and some indirectly by forcing consumers to pay more on their energy bills.  Several renewables are pursued simultaneously, including wind power, solar power, wave power and biofuels.  Now the Chairman of the Environment Agency, Lord Smith has identified a new threat – coal.  That is correct, coal, and cheap coal at that.  The point is that the price of coal has been falling on world markets, falling to such an extent that coal-produced power is now among the cheaper options.  Unfortunately it is also one of the most, if not the most, polluting option, putting out lots of CO2 and other noxious gases and particulates, plus (for certain types of coal) lots of suplhur.

Why is coal so cheap, even though the Chinese are building one new power station a week that uses it, and plan to continue doing so for at least a decade?  The answer is gas, our new friend shale gas produced by fracturing technology (fracking) principally in the United States so far, but soon to become more widespread.  Shale gas is so cheap that people prefer it for their power stations, reducing the demand and the price of coal.  Is pollutes less than half as much as coal and helps countries reduce their emissions without relying on the much more expensive renewables.  Lord Smith wants the UK to develop its own reserves of shale gas, but with a proviso that power stations using it capture and store their CO2 emissions.  This is fair enough.  The immediate energy future is gas, cleaner, easier to transport and easier to use than coal.  There is no economic case for wind power, and precious little if any environmental case.  Biofuels using food crops make no sense at all.  Wave power is expensive and limited.  But solar power, meaning photovoltaic power, is coming down in price very rapidly and stands ready to take over from gas in the future.  The UK might lack the sunshine to make full use of it, but we can buy power from those who can.  Until then, however, it is gas.

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3 Responses

  1. ” There is no case for wind power ” is a statement which indicates the writer has little comprehension about the subject. During the recent debacle about the UK nearing it’s depletion of natural gas storage, wind energy supplied 16% of the UK’s electrical energy. The source of this energy was free, unpolluted and with no waste disposal needs. Wind will never supply 100% of our electrical requirements and it would be foolish to even think about that possibility but it does provide a substantial energy input at zero cost at source. This energy is available forever with no threat to it’s supply from external markets.

  2. No, it’s not “little comprehension” behind my statement, but the fact that economists factor in full costs including those of construction, servicing and replacement, plus the stand-by back-up power for when the wind fails to deliver. These make wind-power very expensive rather than ‘free,’ and it means UK businesses face higher energy bills than their rivals in future.

  3. Thank you for your interest in my comments on wind energy. The big argument about continuity of supply is generally about days lost when the wind is insufficient to generate electricity. It often surprises people when they find out that the UK average for lost days of wind power is less than 15% per annum. Conventional power stations are designed to have progressive down times due to maintenance and their average annual output is vectored in to the overall equation. This places them in a similar position to wind energy where the overall energy input available to the National Grid is the important factor. Wind generators have a payback period of around 7 years today with a maintained lifespan of 30 years plus. The unit cost is reducing as more are built, consequently the payback is also reducing. Electricity generation will always require spare capacity to meet peak demand and downtime on plant. Wind energy adds to this capacity.

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