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Fueling the energy debate

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technical news & reviews

Further to our article on the Energy White Paper (AJ 27.3.03), we welcome contributions on the direction of the UK's energy policy.

Even though CO2 is blamed for global warming (whereas water vapour [cloud cover, for example] gets off scot-free), it is notable that the nuclear industry is, effectively, a non-CO2 producing industry. Yet its place in a future world of efficient production is often dismissed out of hand in a moral sweep of revulsion. This is one of the reasons why nuclear is being run down.

In the spirit of open debate, the AJ would like to hear the views of our readers on future energy sources and their applications: from hydrogen to plutonium; from wave to solar. In particular, we would be interested to hear about the efficiency of production techniques - whether small-scale CHP is more beneficial than a carbon-sourced national grid, for instance. Is the amount of effort needed to cut CO2 emissions by 60 per cent, a waste of energy?

To kick-start the debate, below is a letter from Professor Peter F Smith, RIBA. If you would like to contribute, contact austin. williams@construct. emap. com.

Professor Smith writes: Tony Blair clearly understands the dangers associated with climate change; his problem is to drag a reluctant Treasury into compliance. There is a yawning gap between the rhetoric and the funding commitment - an extra £60 million over the next four years for renewables is less than one tenth the sum needed to bail out the shareholders in the failing nuclear industry.

The killer punch is in the small print, which says that 'everything is subject to market forces'.Why should a company decide to build a wind farm or tidal turbines when it could invest in gas generation, which offers much better returns? As energy minister Brian Wilson points out, under the free-market regime we are almost at the bottom of the European league table in renewables as a percentage of overall national energy generation. This is despite the UK having the best parcel of natural resources in Europe.

The government allocation of £350 million in total for renewables over the next four years is a derisory amount for a fundamental restructuring of the energy infrastructure.

In five years' time renewables may have reached, say, six per cent of supply at the kind of sums being allocated. Then, when nuclear comes up for reconsideration, there will be an overwhelming case for building a new generation of nuclear plants to meet the 20 per cent shortfall when all existing plants have been decommissioned. The stage is being set for new nuclear to be on stream by 2015.

There is a further dimension to this problem. The aspiration of a 60 per cent CO2 reduction by 2050 is based on a UN IPCC recommendation, which in turn assumed an increase in atmospheric concentrations of the gas to 500 parts per million by volume (ppmv) by that date. This was based on the assumption that nations embarked on a serious abatement policy from 1992 onwards. This established a particular curve of increase in CO 2emissions. Instead there is general agreement that the world has not improved on the IPCC's worst-case scenario of 'business as usual' which means that concentrations of the gas are rising in a steeper curve.

To make things worse, there is now evidence from the Hadley Centre and at the Meteorological Office that the rate of accumulation of the gas in the atmosphere might be much greater and more rapid than earlier models assumed. This is most likely to result from factors like rapid die-back in the Amazon rainforest due to water shortage and rising temperatures, releasing huge amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere.

In the light of this, to stabilise concentrations at 500 ppmv could require much more than a 60 per cent reduction. Perhaps 80 per cent is nearer the mark - worldwide.

Add to this the prospect of massive quantities of methane being released from the ocean floor as seas warm, and we begin to see the White Paper in its true perspective. The verdict is that the Energy White Paper places a toe in the water; the government still has to take the plunge.

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