7 October 2006

(Micro) power to the people!

By Liam Carroll

There has been plenty of debate in recent years about the virtues or otherwise of different forms of electricity generation. Faced with the prospect of cataclysmic climate change and dependency on foreign supplied fossil fuels, there has been general agreement that we have to move away from conventional gas and coal-fired power generation. Much of this argument has raged over whether we should have more giant off shore, or on-shore wind farms, new nuclear power stations or both.

Slightly over looked in this debate has been the role that micro-generation can play. Micro-generators are basically small scale methods of generating electricity that you can fit in, or on, your home or business premises. Small scale wind generators are a fairly familiar sight these days, but less well known methods of producing electricity from renewable resources include the wood chip-fired combined heat and power boilers that heat your water and your home and generate electricity at the same time. Pretty cool. The only problem of course is that they tend to be expensive. This means people don't buy them, which means that they never breakthrough into mass production, and therefore the price only comes down gradually. If they were cheap, we wouldn’t be having a debate about nuclear energy.

We are having a debate about nuclear energy though, however experts like Dr Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre on Climate Change Research has described the level of debate as 'abysmal'. Here are the reasons: by 2016 we are going to lose between 15 and 20GW of power which, out of a current capacity of 76GW, is quite a lot. Nearly all of our recently built generating capacity has been gas fired plant, which is still by far the most economic way to generate electricity. The Nuclear Industry Association has said, and these are the optimistic assumptions of the industry, that it would take 10-11 years to go through the regulatory process and construction phase before a new nuclear power station could start commercial operation. This is based on the assumption that the Government will be successful in 'fast tracking' the planning and consents process. It may well not be, and there are plenty of other resourcing problems for the industry – both in terms of available skills and vital components like reactor pressure vessel heads – that are likely to slow down the delivery of nuclear power. In short, low carbon generation from nuclear power is not going to arrive in a hurry, if at all.

This was pointed out by the Environmental Audit Committee in their report Keeping the Lights On: "over the next ten years, nuclear power cannot contribute either to the need for more generating capacity or to carbon reductions as it simply could not be built in time." And according to Tyndall Centre Director Kevin Anderson "With the UK's emissions of carbon dioxide continuing to rise, urgent action is necessary to curb the UK's contribution to climate change," and that "we simply do not have the luxury of waiting the decadal timeframe necessary to bring about such a supply transition (to low carbon generation from nuclear)." In other words we have to cut our emissions now and we have to bring in low carbon generation now, not in 11-16 years time. If nuclear can't be built on time we need renewables, and we need them in quantities.

Let us return to the world of micro-generation. The Micropower Council claims that micro-generation is on the verge of a mass market breakthrough. Photo-voltaics (solar panels), are in fact the fastest growing form of power generation in the world, showing an increase of 55% of installed capacity last year. This is mainly thanks to countries like Germany and Japan that lead the world in fitting solar panels. Germany installed 600MW last year – about half the capacity of Sizewell B. That represents a nuclear power station every two years.

Now the Micropower Council claims that Government needs to make its intentions clear on the desirability of mass market forms of generation. If they did so, by setting targets or supplying grants, then investors would quickly bring forward the money to set up mass production facilities. This is really quite an achievable task, and indeed a vital one if we are to seriously set about the task of producing electricity while only producing a small amount of CO2 (in production and shipping). The Government has not set targets for what proportion of the mix should come from micro-generation, but they could and there is still time to pressure them because the Energy White Paper is not due until March 2007. To find out more visit the Micropower Council website at http://www.micropower.co.uk/.