United Kingdom

United Kingdom

Conflict over energy and environment

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Britain's conflicting energy and environmental policy objectives have been highlighted by a recent government review, with not only gas plant, but also a wind station caught up in the controversy. On the one hand the government is alarmed at the continuing proliferation of gas fired power plant at the expense of the country's declining coal industry, while on the other hand gas is best placed to help the UK meet its tough environmental targets. So, too, are renewables, but they do not even merit a mention in the review of energy sources for power generation.

The review, announced by Prime Minister Tony Blair on December 3, was accompanied by an immediate government moratorium on consents for all new power plant above 10 MW. All affected proposed power projects, with one sole exception -- a wind farm -- are gas fired, evidence that the "dash for gas" shows no sign of abating. Britain's switch to gas following privatisation of the electricity supply industry in 1990 has been instrumental in helping the country meet -- comfortably -- its Rio commitments on carbon dioxide emissions.

Yet the real issue at stake is security of supply. On December 1 David Jones, chief executive of the National Grid Company, expressed his concerns for security of supply against the background of the vast amounts of gas fired generation coming onto the market. Not only do gas plant fail to provide the system-stabilising inertia of steam turbine generators, they also force consumers be overly reliant on one energy source. Jones' fears were illustrated as far back as December 1995 when the UK grid system came within a whisker of collapse. During a period of peak demand, three large gas fired stations failed to generate due to lack of fuel under their interruptible gas supply contracts.

Pressure from miners

Another reason for the review, some cynics might argue -- and which might explain its timing -- is that on the day of the announcement several bus loads of miners were on their way to Westminster to protest at the continuing contraction of the coal industry. That the decision to impose a moratorium is largely political is borne out by the total lack of warning or any prior knowledge among officials at the Department of Trade and Industry.

Disappointingly, no direct mention of renewable energy is made in the review's terms of reference. But it is to consider the objective of sustainable development, including the meeting of environmental targets. Moreover the role renewables play in increasing diversity of energy supplies should argue strongly in their favour.

Wind farm stopped

The wind farm caught up in the moratorium on consents for new power plant above 10 MW is a giant 80 MW project, proposed some years ago by Ecogen for Humble Hill in the Kielder forest, Northumberland. The project, however, would almost certainly be eligible to be excepted from the government's block on consents. Exemptions are also on the cards for industrial combined heat and power (CHP) plant.

Tim Kirby of Ecogen does not expect his project to be affected by the moratorium, but has been warned by the DTI that his scheme is, nonetheless, unlikely to be determined within the time scale of the review. He had hoped for an early decision claiming that there are no outstanding issues to be dealt with. The only unresolved objector is the Ministry of Defence, which is concerned about the wind farm's effect on radar. Kirby believes that any lingering doubts over the issue should have been scotched by evidence from a recent Swedish study (Windpower Monthly, January 1998).

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