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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

What lies behind the Government’s renewed interest in the Severn barrage?

A lasting monument to the EU's renewables targets
It has been reported that David Cameron’s attention has fixed on the old idea of building a Severn barrage to provide renewable energy. Much of the reporting puts this in the context of the politics of infrastructure spending; however there may be another reason that we have previously highlighted for his renewed interest. That being that he has little choice if his own desire to comply with the UK’s EU target of producing 15% of its energy form renewable sources by 2020 is to be met.

The EU’s renewable target, (agreed by Tony Blair in 2007) requires the UK to shift from just 1.3% of total energy from renewables in 2005, the baseline year under the EU Directive, to 15% by 2020 – the largest proposed increase of any member state (see graph below). The Government predicts that this will come at a net cost of £66bn to the UK over 20 years. This is a huge cost given that the UK already faces a major energy generation challenge – a quarter of existing power plants in the UK are due to close by 2020 – and that Britain should be in the enviable position of being one of the EU’s top energy producers, largely due to North Sea oil and gas, which makes it far less reliant on traditional energy imports than other member states.

The consensus is that the 15% target is likely to require the UK to produce 30-35% of its electricity from renewables by 2020, because it is far harder to source energy for transport or heating from renewables. The UK currently has one of the lowest proportions of electricity generated by renewables in the EU, illustrating the scale of the challenge.

So why do EU rules make the barrage almost a certainty?Article 5(2) of the original proposed renewables directive (requested by Britain) made it clear that the UK would have to build the controversial Severn Barrage in order to meet its EU renewables target.

The proposed article stated that:

“Member States may apply to the Commission for account to be taken, for the purposes of paragraph 1, of the construction of renewable energy plants with very long lead-times on their territory under the following conditions:

(a) construction of the renewable energy plant must have started by 2016;

(b) the renewable energy plant must have a production capacity equal to or in excess of 5000 MW;

(c) it must not be possible for the plant to become operational by 2020;

(d) it must be possible for the plant to become operational by 2022."

Given the extremely specific description (something five times more powerful than a large nuclear power plant which will be built between 2020 and 2022), this can only realistically have refered to the barrage.

Expensive stuff given this was possibly all based on a "mistake"
In 2008, the UK Government's former chief scientific adviser, Sir David King, suggested that Prime Minister Tony Blair and the other EU leaders did not understand what they were committing themselves to when agreeing the target:

"I think there was some degree of confusion at the heads of states meeting dealing with this. If they had said 20% renewables on the electricity grids across the European Union by 2020, we would have had a realistic target but by saying 20% of all energy, I actually wonder whether that wasn't a mistake."

Tony Blair thought he had signed up to  increase this: 15% of electricity from renewables

But he actually committed the UK to this: 15% renewable share of all energy by 2020
Leaving this: A UK renewables gap even the barrage might not fill

Source: Open Europe: The EU Climate Action and Renewable Energy Package: Are we about to be locked into the wrong policy? (2008)

But the whole idea was rather muddled in any event
Focusing on renewable energy from a climate change point of view sounds good but the 2020 rush to renewables is illogical as it ignores and actually diverts resources away from the easier and cheaper CO2 reduction wins to be gained from all other technologies (clean gas, clean coal, CCS, reducing consumption or even renewables that are at an earlier stage of technological development).

Several aspects of the EU’s climate change policy (forgetting the UK’s own self-imposed targets) are also self-defeating, including the competing and complex nature of the individual policies: the Emissions Trading System (ETS), which is essentially meant to be a market-based carbon pricing framework, and the aforementioned renewables target, which is essentially designed to change the energy mix of member states, often through subsidy.

In practice, forcing electricity generators towards prescribed renewable technologies, such as wind, through the 2020 target and government subsidy lowers the carbon price under the ETS because firms are being subsidised to meet the cap. This undermines the ETS’ carbon pricing function, which is meant to be the driver of investment in the cheapest low carbon alternatives.

A similar conflict can be seen between the EU’s initial push for a biofuels target, and the subsequent move to sustainability criteria, and additional production costs, due to the previously unforeseen impact certain biofuel production had on food prices and land use. All told, this policy mix is unlikely to be the best value for money option in reducing CO2 emissions.


perdix said...

It's usually a mistake to have overarching targets for such a complicated mix. There is a reported problem with the carbon price for our new build nuclear stations. Are the Chinese still building new coal-powered stations at a high rate?

Rik said...

I am less negative.

Global warming is simply a big issue (and subsequently) a big challenge. As big as the organic soybean eaters want us to believe we have to see. But seen the long 'reactiontime' something to prepare for, were it only out of 'safety first' reasons.

Starting from there most likely a lot of experimenting will be required and at a larger scale (simply to see if it works in practice at such a scale. You likely cannot afford to get out all the small problems in a first generation (also costwise)).
As there is no silver bullet simply different techniques have to be studied and explored.
One is this one. And as a country I think it simply looks much better than several others, like sun and wind.

-Storage looks to remain a huge problem so you need 24/7 solutions (and no 'only on a clear day and when there is wind' ones (we are not living in the middle ages anymore).
-Wind and sun are easily copyable so you will run more or les directly into cheaper competition. This looks more like a large enginering project in which the UK is simply strong and most likely will be able to keep its competitive advantage much longer. Plus there is not much competition.
-IPR protection for most sun and wind technology looks imho simply completely illusive. The 3rd world if already starting with that will never gonna pay for it.

Of course countries like the UK (and even more so in the organic soy bean side of Europe) will also have to grow up. There are most likely no great solutions. You get either expensive energy (bad for competition and standard of living (may be not for GDP but at the end it is standard of living that counts) or enviromental problems. You can not have your cake and eat it (and buy one extra with borrowed money).
Also a growng economy is most likely simply needed to pay for all this stuff. Therefor my first priority would be use the money to start growing again. And use the the alternative energy expirements just for that. But as said on a large scale like here.

Nick de Cusa said...

0.8C increase in 130 years, and probably less. And no more increase for 15 years. Current temps and increase fully in line with exit from the little ice age. Not out of the ordinary, in line with recent climate during the roman empire, and the medieval warm period. Please, who can give me one reason to believe in the "man made / CO2" version of facts ? Much appreciated, looking forward to that, thanks.

Rollo said...

No doubt we are where we are because of stupid mistakes and Blair's over-inflated opinion of himself. But the Severn Barrier, though expensive, will mostly be money spent in this country, which is a good thing; and it will reduce our dependency on imported oil and gas, another good thing; and will reduce carbon emissions eventually, another good thing.

Average Englishman said...

More EU nonsense. Climate change may well be occurring but there is no proof at all that if it is happening then it is definitely due to man made emissions (that is, Global Warming). These two very different things are often confused in the media as being one and the same. Climate change happens from time to time and the citizens of Earth need to adapt to it. Greenland was not called Greenland by our ancestors because it was covered in ice at that time.

Also, the UK's consumers should not be bankrupted to satisfy the vanity of 'right on' green friendly politicians when the changes proposed to UK energy production would make so little difference to the planet's ecosystem as a whole. For example, one coal mine is burning in China at present with a fire that is too big and too far underground to be put out, that kicks out more CO2 each year than the entire vehicle population of the USA. There are also plenty more coal mine fires burning in China and elsewhere that along with volcano's etc., are throwing vast amounts of unhelpful gas into the atmosphere, (my source was a BBC Radio 4 programme that was broadcast a year or so ago). Also, the Chinese and others continue to
build new coal fired power stations at an alarming rate to more than nullify any benefit from UK carbon reduction. If Global Warming is in fact happening then the EU bureaucrats should harass India, China etc., and not yours truly UK tax payer.
Cameron and all need to wake up to the views of their voters and make policy that suits the good people of the UK not their masters in Brussels.

Still, this will all help to bring the day of an EU 'in-out' referendum for the UK closer, so I suppose it cannot be considered all bad news.

Anonymous said...

"The EU’s renewable target, (agreed by Tony Blair in 2007) requires the UK to shift from just 1.3% of total energy from renewables in 2005 ..."

Have we forgotten that, under our system of government, no government is bound by the decisions of the previous government.

The EUSSR can bleat all it wants, if the UK does not want to continue to ruin its economy chasing idiotic "renewable" white whales, then ti doesn't have to.

Of course, the fact that Cameron and Clegg are both Eurofascists. means that the UK will, again, bend over for the EUSSR.

Bugsy said...

The simpler view is that we are jumping through EU hoops to satisfy box ticking. No government in the last thirty or so years has had a credible plan to provide energy, particularly electricity in to the future.

Patrick Barron said...

The so-called "renewables" are our era's fallacious answer to a ficticious problem. There is no such thing as a non-renewable resource. All resources will be exploited according to their capitalized value. They will NEVER be exhausted as long as they are privately owned, because their value will increase as their supply diminished. Of course, this increase in price will spur more production from existing resources and new production from new resources. The earth is an inexhaustable resource that will be exploited properly as long as we have a capitalist system of private ownership of the means of production and money prices.

id said...

A few rules of thumb

1/ Nothing - repeat nothing - happens in this country now without the EU being there pulling the strings.

2/ The EU has always been, and will remain, wrong about almost everything (rather like Shirley Williams for the last 45 years, but on a larger, more fatuous and more dangerous scale.

3/ The world is now on a long-term cooling trend.

4/ Few politicians understand numbers or costs - as confirmed by their expenses claims and much else, including HS1, HS2, speed cameras, the NHS and a great deal else.

5/ Nothing we do in this country will have any measurable effect on global emissions, but could very easily reduce us to starvation and freezing to death.

6. Why is Huhne being prosecuted for identifying the driver but not for his energy policies or for trying to get us into the euro?

Anonymous said...

And once it is built then a single terrorist attack/bomb will close the U.K. down once and for all.

Rik said...

@Nearly all
1. It is not really relevant whether the global warming is manmade or not. What is relevant is whether we will face problems because of it PLUS if so we can do something against it.
Anyway there are indications in both directions, the clearly stronger ones that at least a bigger part of it is man made.
The problem being you do not want to be wrong on this one and you simply cannot afford to be wrong as well.
Anyway2 traditional sources may/will simply dry up not far from now and become 2,3,4 times as expensive. One simply has to work on alternatives, especially as the only big scale alternative nuclear has its own disadvantages. You simply donot want 3/4 of the world's governments running nuclear powerplants for instance.
2. The answers on both first questions is most likely yes and yes.
3. Especially Western people simply could relatively easily without half or more of the stuff they consume. But if we did we would ruin the economy big time. In my street the average family owns 3-4 cars while cars are roughly 3x the UK price. They could do well on 1 or 2, but it is simply mainly convenience and status.
What more important is: do people want to buy the stuff?
In that respect this is a project of which the technology has a high potential of being sold in the future. Contrary to say sun or wind, which is one time sold next time copied (and sold by somebody else for half the price), plus the 'copy time', for those technologies is much shorter.
Next to the fact that every selfrespecting organic soy bean eater already does it (market will simply most likely be completely overcrowded, as we see now.
And the fact that this is 24/7 technology not 12/3or4 and not knowing properly when that 12 and 3 and 4 will happen.
Simply R&D in a sector with substantial potential and a country like the UK simply needs more R&D and R&D that can be transformed into UK jobs. And this simply ticks those boxes.
4. The fact that something is EU driven does not necessarily mean that it is crap. It often is, but for investment like this one should look at causality not correlation.
5. This is new stuff. There are no guarantees only chances and probabbilities (most probabilities will be extremely difficult to estimate). However if a country like the UK wants to have a standard of living that is among the highest in the world it has to in the group ahead of the field and that simply means clever investing in a lot of new stuff and relevant education. If not there will always be a place in the group comprising of countries like Somalia, Haiti and Afghanistan.
6. A successful terrorist attack only on other targets could at present cause even more damage.

Average Englishman said...

Other contributors have pointed out that:
*Notwithstanding whether climate change is man made or not, it would surely be a good idea to do something about it if possible. True enough but let us consider in the UK what measures may or may not be prudent and worthwhile without the evangelical 'green' hysteria being generated in some quarters and being supported by Brussels. I have children too and want a world for them that is at least as good as I have enjoyed but some cold logic is required here not politicians from the EU or UK wanting to leave a very dubious legacy.
*Not everything driven by the EU is crap. True again, even our masters in Brussels can't get everything wrong but I do not need an EU bureaucrat waving a stick to tell me what I do and do not need to do in my own country. I want proper democratic control over my countryside and energy costs.
*It wouldn't be a bad idea to put some money into UK infrastructure to help get the economy going and to stop some UK imports into the bargain. Again a good point but one that should be considered having regards to the costs verses benefits from a UK perspective. If the UK saved the dump trucks full of money that the Government wastes on the EU and is used to fund all those pompous officials who love to order us about then a whole lot more money would be available for UK infrastructure would it not?

In short, I have a general doubt that climate change is happening at all and if it is, an even bigger skepticism that mankind can do anything about it, although I actually do have an open mind and am prepared to be convinced. In addition, I expect my democratically elected politicians to act in the interests of their UK electorate and not be either bullied by the EU or indulge in their own lust for 'green glory' at my expense.

From discussions with my peers I believe that many other people feel the same way as I do.

ProfEng said...

Rollo, what is to be gained by spending money on subsidising electricity generation even if it generates some employment.
The Severn Barrage will be lucky if it can generate an annual average of 3 GW [that is 2 x 1.5 GW fossil fuelled or nuclear power stations which will cost half as much and can be fed directly into the National Grid].
Note, it is an average 3GW which means that it will enforce new fossil fuelled backup because the Severn Barrage will be an intermittent supply, not continuous and secure like the two conventional power stations you would not see built.