Monday, 10 March 2014

Fracking, Nuclear, Renewables, or Fusion - What Is Our Energy Future?

Written by William Syddall
Senior Consultant, Energy & Sustainability, Global Corporate Services

CBRE’s Will Syddall attended a forward looking and far reaching energy debate at the EcoBuild conference in London last week.
“Fracking, nuclear, renewables, or fusion - what is our energy future?” was discussed by:
• Paul Ekins (Professor of Energy and Environmental Policy, University College London),
• Paul Golby (Chairman of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, and former CEO, E.ON),
• Steven Cowley, CEO, UK Atomic Energy Authority, Director of the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy);
• Nina Skorupska, CEO, Renewable Energy Association.
Here Will shares the key issues and summarises the differing views:

What’s the challenge?

Paul Ekins outlined our energy ‘tri-lemma’ – the need to tackle climate change, keep lights on as ageing power stations are decommissioned; and manage energy costs and fuel poverty. To achieve our 2050 climate change targets we’ll need (i) near zero-carbon electricity (i.e. most of our electricity from renewables and nuclear) (ii) no gas (iii) no fuel combustion for transport. In turn, to achieve this vision will require affordable 3rd generation nuclear power, breakthroughs in energy storage, smart grids to manage inflexibility of renewables, smart meters; and some carbon capture and storage. This is future is achievable and affordable, but only if led through coherent government policy.

Where are we now?

Nina Skorupska pointed out that renewables have seen massive cost reductions in the last 10 years, with solar and wind having cost parity with fossil fuels in their ideal locations. However, policy support is for renewables support is being punted around and still insignificant compared to tax breaks for fossil fuels. In 2012 only 4.2% of electricity was from renewables, while our 2020 target is 15%.

Paul Ekins criticised the lack of coherent government policy - energy policy is subject to internal battles within the Conservative party, leading to constant changes and withdrawl of support, with the end result being that companies are not investing in energy infrastructure. Paul Golby stated that Politicians working to 5 year electoral cycles are under pressure and respond unhelpfully – Ed Millband’s energy price freeze pledge being a prime example.

What about the future?

According to Paul Golby, politicians have to put the national interest above party politics and work across parties, with business to develop a clear delivery plan for a low carbon future. Targets will do nothing on their own and there is no panacea – we will need a diverse mix of energy sources and the UK needs massive investment in skills and technology.

Paul Ekins is persuaded that shale gas can be a transition fuel to 2030, but it will need proper regulation to manage potentially serious environmental impacts. However, it won’t slash gas prices, as was once claimed, as the UK is in a common European gas market. By 2030, we need to be weened off gas.

Steven Cowley feels that in the long term (timescales of hundreds to thousands of years), there are 3 technologies that hold the key to a sustainable energy future: solar, advanced nuclear fission; and nuclear fusion. All need massive investment in research to perfect and scale the technology.

What was your key takeaway?

There’s hope, but we have to invent the future – it won’t invent itself.

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