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Last Updated: Thursday, 10 November 2005, 13:42 GMT
Energy gap: The cultural roots
By Richard Black
Environment Correspondent, BBC News website

Pylons against a dark sky.  Image: PA
Will Britain's grid have enough power to distribute in a decade?
Other countries seem to find it so easy: Finland has committed itself to nuclear expansion, Germany is installing solar panels at the speed of light, and Iceland is exploiting its geothermal and hydropower resources beyond its own needs.

So why is Britain - the world's fourth largest economy, a nuclear pioneer, blessed with wind, wave and tidal potential beyond the normal lot of nations, a once mighty coal producer, provider of innovators to the world, and with a generation's worth of North Sea booty to invest - facing an enormous shortfall in electricity provision while others are not?

This is the unspoken question behind a report compiled from the contributions of 150 academics, entrepreneurs and business people drawn from across the energy sector under the aegis of the Geological Society of London (GSL).

Its headline conclusion is that within a decade, Britain will be producing only about 80% of the electricity it needs unless big decisions are taken - and taken soon.

Candle flame.  Image: BBC

But the consensus among these 150 experts is that decisions are not being taken.

"Despite its rhetoric about global climate change, the government is drip-feeding the renewables sector - barely keeping it alive," said Jeremy Leggett of the solar power company solarcentury.

"There are long time intervals involved in the replacement process for nuclear," observed Charles Curtis of Manchester University and the nuclear company Nirex. "We should be starting to prepare ourselves now."

Jeremy Leggett believes renewables and energy efficiency are the way forward for a non-nuclear Britain; whereas Charles Curtis says renewables have a role to play, but a substantial nuclear capacity will still be needed.

On the need for urgent action, though, they are united.

Déjà vu

It's not as though the energy gap has suddenly burst through the floor like a pantomime demon.

Five years ago the Royal Commission on Environment Pollution (RCEP) said that rising energy demands, together with a policy of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, posed "...a radical challenge for the UK; a challenge that cannot be met successfully unless the government's energy policies and its environmental policies are coherent."

Businessmen with solar cell in front of German stock exchange.  Image: Thomas Lohnes/AFP/Getty
Germany: Big growth in solar panels and a booming business sector
Reducing energy use should be a priority, it said, but the government needed "...to give much higher priority to energy efficiency, a change in public attitudes, with people linking their own day-to-day use of energy with fossil fuel consumption and the threat of climate change."

These arguments are echoed
almost word for word in the GSL report, as are the importance of stimulating renewables, the need to grapple with the nuclear issue imminently, and the potential of clean coal technologies.

Little appears to have changed.

Aspirations into action

Talking to energy and environment experts who regularly pass through the revolving doors of Whitehall, a clear picture emerges of a government which is not structurally or ideologically equipped to take these major decisions.

One common complaint is fragmentation; and here's an example.

Senior officials just don't believe that you can get energy this way
Jeremy Leggett
The minister charged with managing climate change issues is Elliot Morley, who sits within Defra.

But virtually all sources of greenhouse gas emissions are controlled by other ministries: industry by the DTI, transport by the DFT, and houses by the ODPM.

Just as Defra's Climate Change Review is coming to a conclusion, the DTI has started its Energy Review.

Then there is the Treasury, which can set or veto taxes and other financial approaches to reducing emissions.

In the early days of Tony Blair's government, this fragmented picture was cemented together by a Cabinet "enforcer", John Prescott, who could bang heads together and ensure that different departments were singing the same tune.

Now, the complaint goes, Mr Prescott has been removed from his head-banging role, and there is no-one with the same powers; the result is discord.

The irony is that over the last year, Mr Blair has led the international community in unifying debates on energy and climate.

A year ago, the Kyoto Protocol process existed in magnificent isolation, debating the niceties of CO2 levels, impacts and mitigation; energy issues meanwhile were the providence of other fora, such as the OECD.

Through its term in the G8 presidency, the UK government has sought to bridge this divide; and Mr Blair's comments last week, to energy and environment ministers gathered under G8 auspices in London, cemented the two agendas.

From now on, he implied, energy supply and security debates would be joined at the hip with climate issues.

But Mr Blair has not reformed the structures of his own government to reflect his new international perspective.

Bunker mentality

The choices before the myriad ministers involved are not, admittedly, the easiest.

Finland, apparently, found few problems in deciding to build a significant new nuclear power station and an underground repository to store its waste.

Finnish MP Mikko Elo

"There is very little opposition to nuclear power - and that is partly because of the economic benefits it brings," Finnish MP Mikko Elo told these pages.

"I noticed that in Britain, politicians didn't want to discuss nuclear power before the election, but I don't think that is a good thing... the more people understand nuclear power, the less they will oppose it."

In Britain, the nuclear industry is trying to discard its cultural heritage of taking decisions in an impenetrable concrete bunker, but the legacy of suspicion will not be easy to discard.

There is also the security issue. This week the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee heard, in the course of its own inquiry into energy options, that nuclear terrorism of some kind is "inevitable".

"The security concerns of new build need to be faced up to," Keith Barnham from Imperial College London told the committee.

Governments generally don't like planning far beyond the end of their own term of office; but delegates from nuclear companies told the committee that the key time frames in their business are at least decadal: 10 to 15 years to build a station, and a total period of about 80 years from planning to decommissioning.

Whatever regulations were drawn up for new build, they said, investors needed to be sure that future changes would not impinge on business plans.

There is a similar message from companies involved in "clean" coal technologies.

Chinese coal worker

Mitsui Babcock says emissions from coal-fired power stations can be reduced by 20% simply by using modern, efficient boilers; by a further 20% by mixing renewably grown biomass in with the fuel; and by 95% using carbon capture and storage.

"Our view is that it's too late for the energy gap to be filled by nuclear," the company's director of policy liaison, Mike Farley, told the BBC News website.

"To fill it with clean coal, we would need to build at least 2GW of capacity annually starting in 2006 through to 2011."

The key factor which would encourage that new build, he believes, would be for the government to set a programme for pricing carbon dioxide emissions beyond 2012, when the current European Emission Trading Scheme comes to an end.

And renewables? They are being held back, Jeremy Leggett believes, by an institutional culture within Whitehall.

"Too many senior officials just don't believe that you can get energy this way," he said.

"They believe that you get it from building a big box and putting in it a big coal-fired boiler or a nuclear reactor; it's just the culture."

He points to the example of Germany, which last year installed 100 times more solar capacity than the UK, as a country which has got its act together renewably.

The GSL report paves the way for a raft of government actions; but then so did the RCEP report half a decade ago.

The choices are little different; but time has moved inexorably onwards to the point when either the Whitehall barriers will soon have to collapse, or the lights will go out.

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