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Last Updated:  Monday, 24 February, 2003, 14:29 GMT
Changing the face of energy

By Mary Gahan
BBC News Online business reporter

A worker at the Powergen wind farm near Peebles
Planning rules could be relaxed for wind farms
Wind, waves and sunshine will all play a greater part in heating our homes and supplying power for industry in the future.

At least that is the plan from the government, which wants to change the face of the energy industry to try to cut the UK's carbon dioxide emissions.

The long-awaited Energy White Paper proposes moving away from nuclear power and fossil fuels to embrace cleaner, greener energy.

But it is not going to be an easy switch to make.

Gas and coal are the main fuels used to produce electricity at the moment - between them they account for more than two-thirds of electricity generation.

If the government is to hit its target of cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 60% by 2050, then these two fossil fuels can no longer be allowed to dominate the industry.

Ageing power stations

It will be easy enough to cut the amount of gas and coal used for electricity generation - the headache comes in trying to replace these fuels with something else.

Nuclear fuel could have been the answer because there are no carbon emissions.

But nuclear power generation is enormously controversial because of the dangers posed by radiation and because of its high cost.

Electricity generation 2001
Natural gas 37%
Coal 33.5%
Nuclear 22%
Imports 3%
Other fuels 2.5%
Hydro 1%
Source: DTI

Nuclear's share of the electricity generation market peaked five years ago, at 26%, but has slipped back to 22%.

The country's nuclear power stations are ageing, they are gradually being closed down and no new ones are being built.

By 2023 the most modern plant, Sizewell B, in Suffolk, will be the only one still in production providing just 4% of the UK's current electricity needs.

The UK's leading science academy, the Royal Society, argues that new nuclear power stations will be needed to fill the gap because renewable energy will not come on stream quickly enough.

And although the government is pinning its hopes on renewable energy, it has been careful to keep open the option of building new nuclear power stations.

Too expensive?

In 2001, renewables accounted for just 2.6% of electricity generated in the UK and the government is aiming to increase it to 10% by 2010.

The power sources are there; the problem is one of cost.

Renewable energy sources 2001
Biofuels and wastes 85.6%
Hydro (large scale) 10.7%
Wind 2.7%
Small scale hydro 0.6%
Geothermal and active solar heating 0.4%
Source: DTI

Hydro power currently supplies 1% of the country's electricity but the World Energy Council (WEC) says the UK could make much better use of tides along its west coast to provide energy.

It says that if all reasonably exploitable estuaries were used, annual generation of electricity from tidal power plants alone would amount to about 15% of the UK's electricity consumption.

The government carried out feasibility studies for two big schemes on the Severn and Mersey estuaries and for a series of smaller schemes but it concluded that none of them was "financially attractive".


Waves are another form of renewable energy and at one time the UK had one of the largest government-sponsored research and development programmes on wave energy, covering a wide range of devices.

But the WEC says the programme has been greatly reduced.

Wind farms have been built, but local communities invariably campaign against them because of the way they change the landscape.

Energy minister Brian Wilson says he wants to make it easier for such projects to get planning permission in the face of local objections.

The government is also insisting it will subsidise renewable energy.

Edward Milform, Renewable Energy World newsletter
"It's going to be essential that we find some way of putting costs on the pollution that power generation causes"

Q&A: The costs of going green?
24 Feb 03 |  Business
'Windiest' farm goes live
08 Jul 02 |  Scotland

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