Engineering News

Every Energy Action Causes A Counter Reaction
August 20, 2009

The U.K. Department of Energy and Climate Change just published a report by former British energy minister Malcolm Wicks commissioned by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. In the report, Mr. Wicks says that "the time for market innocence is over" and that "the state must become more active: interventionist, where necessary." Mr. Wicks argues that the historical business model of energy policy - that the market should be allowed to work freely as far as possible - is no longer workable. His view is shaped by the country's rapid shift to import dependency on natural gas for powering Britain's electricity generation plants in light of the sharp fall in its North Sea oil and gas production. Britain was self-sufficient in natural gas as recently as 2004, but now is projected to have to rely on imports for between 45% and 70% of the country's needs by 2020. That may mean greater dependence upon Russian gas supplies down the road, but certainly more dependency on gas supplies from Norway and LNG supplies from the Middle East and Africa in the near-term.

Mr. Wicks is proposing that the U.K. government should look at setting objectives for the fuel mix for the country's electricity generation. Setting these objections would involve specifying, within certain bounds possibly, how much supply should come from natural gas, nuclear, coal and wind. So far the government has signed up to that approach for renewable fuels, which are supposed to satisfy about 30% of the country's electricity generation needs by 2020. So far, the government has not agreed to specifications for other fuels.

Compounding the discussion, and forgetting the criticisms levied by peak oil enthusiasts, is a recent projection from National Grid, which owns the country's electricity and gas transmission networks, suggesting that power demand by 2016 would still be well below its 2008 level. The lower demand outlook is a function of the deep economic recession and the prospect of long-term demand weakness due to a slower than normal economic recovery and uncertainty about the government's commitment to increasing the country's energy efficiency.

According to published announcements, companies have either started or are planning construction of 30,000 megawatts (MW) of gas-fired generation, 8,100MW of coal-fired power, 1,800MW for onshore wind power and 9,200MW for offshore wind power. Two European companies have announced plans to build new nuclear power plants in Britain that envision adding 12,000MW of new capacity, but not before the end of 2017 at the earliest. Given that existing nuclear plants will be shutting down before then, the prospect is Britain will get less electricity from nuclear power by 2020 than it does now. All these new generating projects are confronting the reality that 10,000MW of coal-fired generation is expected to shut down by 2016 to comply with European Union acid rain pollution controls.

Given this report and the confusing realities of the British electricity generation market, a new report suggests that plans for Europe's largest wind farm to be located in the Shetland Islands of Scotland could be at risk from an environmental point of view. The £800 million ($1.3 billion) project involves the construction of 150 large turbines and 68 miles of roads on a 187 square kilometer peat bog. The Scottish government is preparing to grant approval for the project, but concerns have arisen about the impact on the environment from the release of carbon by construction on the bog.

Scottish peat bogs are comprised of water and saturated, undecayed plants. Disturbing of bogs tends to lower their water level allowing peat to dry and oxidize releasing its carbon. Estimates are that Scottish peat bogs hold about three-quarters of all the carbon in British ecosystems, or the equivalent of around a century of emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. A single hectare of peat bog contains more than 5,000 tons of carbon, or 10-times the amount contained in a hectare of forest.

Viking Energy, the developer of the wind farm, says in its application that the "payback time" for the turbines from the carbon released during the project's construction ranges from 2.3 years to 14.9 years. The high end of the payback period is equal to 60% of the estimated life of the wind farm. The risk in the construction is that a whole hillside of waterlogged bog or dried out peat slides and eventually oxidizes releasing the trapped carbon. Such an episode occurred at a wind farm in Derrybrien in Ireland in 2003 potentially canceling out the benefits of building the wind farm. In its filing, Viking Energy suggests there is zero risk of this happening although hill slides are a regular feature of Shetland bogs. Can anyone realistically believe that estimate?

Source: Parks Patton Hoepfl & Brown

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