Crumbling Britain: power

Nowhere has the government let us down more than in the area of power generation. We have falling to bits Britain on the roads and at the power socket. We have carried on trading on our old nuclear power stations in the hope that something will turn up. We have added a few windmills, and trusted to consultation documents and the promise of a great nuclear debate to keep us warm in future years. I guess the strategy is to let us burn all those consultation documents on open fires as the power winds down as nuclear stations are retired on days when the wind is not blowing.

It’s strange that the government has been so remiss in this area. It does not take much public money after all – most power stations can be run without public subsidy, and those that need subsidy can obtain it by charging consumers overall a higher price, distributing the proceeds in the way the government demands. The industry needs permissions – health and safety permits, planning permissions and the rest. It also needs guidance on the government’s view on how much money should be spent on moving to a lower carbon model and how the excess cost is going to paid for. That’s not asking much, you might think, but so far it has eluded DTI and BERR Secretaries of State.

The UK needs to replace more than a quarter of its current capacity in nuclear and coal with more modern plant and possibly with different fuels. It also needs to add a bit to give a better safety margin in an economy where rapid inward migration is raising demand, and here increasing reliance at the margin on wind power will require more stand by plant for calm days. The government is indicating that it wishes to replace nuclear with nuclear – otherwise the carbon output rises if the industry substitutes modern coal or gas stations.

Why doesn’t the government get on with it, and make more rapid progress? Why is there still so much delay in agreeing what is needed with the industry and granting the necessary approvals? Do we really have to wait two years for the new planning system to be introduced before a planning application for a new power station can be considered? Is this yet another device to push these decisions beyond the next Election, so the current Secretary of State knows he is free of the obligation, and the government as a whole will probably be off the hook? Or is this the unintended consequence of a well intentioned idea? Either way, it makes it more likely we will be rationed or short of power before the end of the decade.

This is perhaps the easiest of all the capacity bottlenecks and shortfalls to remedy. Decisions now on the carbon regime, the approved technologies and the sites for new stations would lead to a major new building programme. The UK could then look forward to a future with enough power.


  1. Neil Craig
    August 5, 2008

    The easiest & the most vital. I think the cuts will be more than 25% because in 2015 new EU emission controls come in which will close much of our coal generating capacity. By comparison windnills produce 1% of our electricity.

    The French say they would be able to open their first reactor in 2017 but this is purely because the regulatory hoops will take 5 years to jump through. The actual building can be done in 3 1/2 years.

    It is unlikely there will be blackouts in London during the 2012 Olympics – but only because they will take place in the rest of the country.

    You are quite right that this is easily solved. It is a problem created entirely by government preventing the market building the power stations we need. All that is required is for the government to stop preventing the solution.

    The correlation between economic growth & electricity capacity is well documented. It takes $6.14 of GNP to make 1 kwh of electricity in Britain. The world average is $3.90, the developed world average is $3.49 & China's is $2.45. If we lose even 25% & the economy doesn't decline we will equaling countries such as Colombia ($8.21) where the rule of law is an optional extra.… June 14th to 17th

  2. riddiford of England
    August 5, 2008

    Fortunately for once this situation does not apparently owe its genesis to the European Commission because no mention is made thereof.

    The following confirms and expands your correct diagnosis.

  3. anoneumouse
    August 5, 2008

    You really should read

    They have been following this and blogging about it for the past 4 years.

  4. David Hannah
    August 5, 2008

    With our ageing nuclear plants set to be closed, and no indigenous expertise to replace them (thanks to the sale of Westinghouse) it seems that we're now beholden to the French to replace them. It should be quite apparent that an incoming Conservative government will be faced with a severe energy crisis. Ever keen to find itself a purpose, the EU has embraced the global warming scam wholeheartedly as a means of conferring some kind of legitimacy on its activities. The EU's Large Combustion Plants Directive will further erode what generating capacity we already have.

    However, with an impending energy crises on our hands, coupled with record energy prices and an economic downturn, the UK can ill afford to indulge the EU's carbon obsession by spending vast sums of money on an expensive and token contribution to our energy needs, such as wind farms.

    Can you assure us that a future Conservative government will take ALL measures necessary to ensure that the lights stay on, including the disregarding of any EU directives/initiatives that undermine Britain's energy requirements? If not, David Cameron faces the prospect of explaining the introduction of a three day week to the nation from a candlelit House of Commons.

    1. Neil Craig
      August 6, 2008

      The problem David is that when the lights go out it is far to late to take all measures & that is when it will get noticed. You have to start an absolute minimum of 5 years ahead & that means from when you start building capacity not from when you start the planning enquiries & whilt papers. That means now or possibly even a couple of years ago.

      Something with a lead time of less than 5 years would be increasing the capacity of the connector to France

      The only thing I can think of which would work when the lights go out would be if our nuclear submarines were taken off duty & attached to the grid. It may well come to that.

      1. David Hannah
        August 6, 2008

        I fear you may be right. Given that the present Government has all but disbanded the Royal Navy, it may be an option under consideration. Perhaps the new HMS Astute will be required to pull up alongside Westminster Pier with some jump leads in the not too distant future. "Make tea, not war!"; it should go down very well with the rank and file of the Labour Party.

      2. Derek W. Buxton
        August 7, 2008

        Patrick, london,

        I replied to your post on the use of incinerators but on the next topic dated 6th August. What you suggest was I recall attempted in Scotland I think some little time ago as part of a large complex. After building the lot it was shut down by a regulator, it was to burn scrap board from a nearby mill but as it was "waste" they were stopped..

  5. Mark Demmen
    August 5, 2008

    Hello Mr Redwood,

    Would I be remiss to point out that Mr Cameron and the rest of the party leadership are rather late converts to the view that nuclear power is a necessity, and still exhibit considerable equivocation? Are you sure they won't bottle as well?

    David MacKay, at Cambirdge, has written on the science and engineering of energy supply, and should be compulsory reading for DC and the others, especially with regard to those bl**dy windmills.

  6. Derek W. Buxton
    August 5, 2008

    This subject has been covered at length on the blogs, especially EU Referendum but is hardly mentioned in the MSM. It is without doubt a major problem, forget AGW, that is the stuff of myth, we need answers to this pressing problem. Opinion seems to be that nuclear is best but not a short term remedy, windmills are a waste of time and space. Something quick is needed, possibly coal, much quicker to build a coal fired power station than anything else. Of course the problem should have been raised years ago, with most things dependant on computers power shut downs will be disastrous, far more so than at the time of the miners strike.

    The other thing is that the EU is taking a stand on energy and since most of our energy is supplied by other EU countries we will suffer most. Can your leader not get to grips with this, my take on him is no, he does not even know how bad it is.

  7. mikestallard
    August 5, 2008

    Down at the grass roots, we just get terrifying bits and pieces of gossip.
    Did Gordon Brown really say, for instance, "Europe will become like Saudi Arabia with its oil when wind power is introduced?" Probably not.
    What is going on with France and its nuclear power, for instance? Are they buying us up or what? Will they also let us into their system when we need it in the winter months?
    How much influence did the ("Atomkraft – Nie Danke") 1970s have on, say Mr Blair? Do these Labour politicians of a certain age really confuse power stations with World War III?
    What is the EU on about with its hardly considered adoption of global warming and (is it 30%?) "renewable energy" project?
    Finally did you see those Lefties at the power station last night? And Why was Arthur Scargill of carbon producing coal the guest speaker?
    Me, I've already bought my emergency light.

  8. Freeborn John
    August 5, 2008

    The high cost and poor reliability of electricity in Asian cities has been one of the factors restraining off-shoring from US technology regions like the Research Triangle Park area in North Carolina, which benefits from the availability of cheap power from a local nuclear station. If we want to keep our existing FDI in the UK then we must be mindful that UK power needs to be competitive with the USA both in terms of price and reliability. It is easy to defer new capacity or pile on costs with green taxes, but the brownouts or high-cost electricity will result in jobs lost from the UK as this is definately a factor taken into accout when investing internationally.

  9. Martin Cole
    August 5, 2008

    I hope that one in this series might be "Crumbling Britain : Parliament"

    All your critiques are valid but cannot be solely attributed to decisions post 1997.

    Read in conjunction with your blog on the Cameron conservative position within the EU there seems little hope for Britain.

    Read in conjunction with Cameron's actual statements and the typical posting and comment on the Conservative Home blog there is no hope at all.

  10. DiscoveredJoys
    August 5, 2008

    It may be fanciful of me, but I think I can see a common thread emerging in this interesting series. It is not the debate about state or private control, or even the money required for investment. The thread is one of the willingness (guts) to make tough decisions.

    Most of the delay and reluctance to repair or increase our infrastructure appears to be down to politicians (at local and national levels) being unwilling to say "I know some people will suffer, but the work is badly needed, and it is in the interest of the general poulation to go ahead". They are aided and abetted by various interest groups.

    Most town's traffic problems could be solved (by better road or light rail, trams etc) easily if only it was acceptable to knock a few houses and buildings down. Most of our power problems could be easily solved if the plans for new or extended sites went through with minimal delay.

    Before anyone asks, I would be horrified if my house was to be pulled down to make space for a new road or park and ride site – but as long as I was given fair compensation I would have to accept it if that was the way things were done.

    When the Olympic Games were held in Munich (I am told) that they completely reworked their public transport system. Buses followed circumferential routes, light railways followed radial routes, buses and trains arrived and departed from co-located stations/stops at the same time, and a single ticket paid for the entire trip on both bus and train. Of course some houses had to be demolished to make space, and car parking in the city centre was made very expensive. It couldn't happen here with our multiple public enquiries,appeals and protests, and heaven help us if someone happens to find a rare newt…

    Should schemes which affect people go ahead without some consultation? Of course not. But it should be done, once, and completed. There are too many people in the UK interested in applying the brakes… not enough people intent on delivering what is needed.

  11. Johnny Norfolk
    August 6, 2008

    Labour are reeping what they have sown. Plenty of time to ban fox hunting, tobacco smoking,bin police, Lords Reform etc etc.

    Whilst they are dealing with these issues they have not been interested in roads or energy apart from messing about with wind farms and the like.
    They have put us at risk with lack of realistic energy policy..
    Another Labour mess that the BBC has never investigated like it should have done .

    Yet another area that we will all suffer from, thanks to Labours mis management, or lack of it.

  12. Jeffg
    August 6, 2008

    Looking beyond the immediate crisis, it seems inevitable that nuclear power will supply an increasing proportion of the world's energy. At some point (probably about 30 years) we will have a uranium shortage. This arises only because current light water reactors burn the rare uranium isotope U235.

    Breeder reactors on the other hand (indirectly) burn either U238, or thorium. There is about one hundred times as much easily recoverable U238 as U235, and about three hundred times as much thorium – thousands of years supply for the whole world.

    Breeder technology has been developed since the 1950s in the form of the sodium cooled fast breeder – but it has proved unreliable and is arguably dangerous because of the extreme reactivity of sodium, and the fact that the fuel is almost bomb material.

    However, there are other breeder reactor technologies which are much less developed, but have the potential to be safer than current light water reactors. They also create less than one hundred times the volume of nuclear waste per unit of electricity generated. My favourite example is the liquid fluoride reactor. This was initially developed in the USA half a century ago – two working prototypes were made in just a few years. However, for a number of short term reasons, including the fact that it can breed only rather slowly from thorium, and not at all from uranium, the technology was abandoned in the 1970s.

    So what has this to do with Britain's energy policy?

    There is now probably nothing that can (or rather will) be done to prevent electricity rationing towards the end of the term of the next government. At best, we are going to have to spend huge sums importing technology from France because we no longer have the capability to build nuclear power stations ourselves, despite the fact that we once lead the world. Fifteen years ago this was both predictable and preventable – but largely because of a complete lack of any scientific or engineering understanding by the political class, nothing was done.

    So how about some action now to prevent the uranium crisis in 30 years time? We probably still have just enough expertise left in Britain to start development of something like the liquid fluoride breeder reactor. We could also buy in expertise from maybe India. So long as we don't allow it to become an international collaboration, costs would be small compared to the amount we are currently spending on totally useless 'renewables'. It could even revitalise our nuclear industry and help reverse our slide towards becoming a technologically third rate country. Eventually, we could supply the technology to the world.

  13. riddiford of England
    August 6, 2008

    where did my comment go ?
    was it moderated out ?

    I would be grateful to know why.

    Reply: It would not have been moderated had it contained anything libellous or inflammatory. However, it may also have been accidently lost in the spam filter. Please feel free to submit it again.

  14. paul coombes
    August 6, 2008

    Since I whole heartedly agree with David Hannah, I am disappointed that you have not replied to him.

    Reply: John is on holiday at the moment and is blogging away from the office. I am moderating comments on his behalf until he returns next week. He will be reading through all the comment threads when he gets back.

  15. Patrick, London
    August 6, 2008

    One potentially helpful policy option here would be to ban landfill waste completely and incinerate it for power. Modern high temperature waste-to-power plants can generate Gigawatt outputs and do not release toxins.

    Landfill releases methane – 23 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than CO2. The CO2 from burning waste would anyway have been released from burning something other than rubbish.

    It is policy madness to dig for hydrocarbons, turn a good percentage into packaging, use it once and then rebury it. What a waste.

    Since garbage concentrates in large urban areas I'd advocate building a giant plant at the Rainham landfill site in the Thames estuary (London's largest) to take ALL of London's rubbish and generate power.

    For those interested and who understand that this is not a fantasy option, take a look at the website of Covanta Corp in the USA and their successful business model to see what I'm talking about.

    This is not only a realistic option to source feedstock for a serious level of power generation with rubbish. It is also very 'green' and could be executed quickly by an incoming Tory administration. The Rainham proposal already has a very suitable site on the Thames close to London.

    Perhaps John will float the proposal with Boris and Alan Duncan!

    1. Neil Craig
      August 6, 2008

      Yes but will it make money or will it need subsidy? You don't say. Also how many Gigawatts would your Rainham plant produce, bearing in mind that the average nuclear station produces only 1? Power policy, indeed all infrastructure, cannot be usefully discussed without getting the numbers right. If it turns out that it costs more to recycle then it, by definition, cannot be justified as being less wasteful.

      Cutting landfill area is fine. Whether burning stuff & producing CO2 is more or less green than letting it rot to produce methane which then turns into CO2 is not obvious. Nor is it obvious that it is worth spending any of the public's cash on it.

      1. patrick, london
        August 7, 2008


        To be clear, a medium sized waste-to-energy plant takes about 2,800 tons of waste per day and generates about 70 MW. For the example given of Covanta in the US – they have over 30 plants with total capacity over 1 GW. Apologies if I implied that each plany could produce 1 GW, which rereading the oroignal post does appear to be the implication. (Although there's no technical reason a single plant of 10 times normal capacity is impractical – the limiting factor is usually the amount of available waste to burn).

        In terms of 'green ecomnomics' the CO2 the net gain would be: Methane saved from landfill, +/- the CO2 from burning waste compared to coal/oil/other CO2 for the same amount of power output. Using waste would, of course, also substitute imported feedstock with locally sourced.

        In terms of true economics, I don't know what the capital cost of such a plant is. Clearly the revenue stream would be from sale of power at the market rate. On the cost side waste will be free or orders of magnitude cheaper than oil/coal/etc. (Would local authorities even pay to have it removed? Don't know). As a nation we would save the cost of imported feedstock – to whom the benefit accrued would depend on the contractual arrangements.

        1. Neil Craig
          August 7, 2008

          Thanks Patrick, you clearly are informed. I would be happy with incineration (not believing in catastrophic warming I don't even worry about CO2). My only concern was that it be economically viable – i am afraid so much power policy is done as if money grows on trees that i get overly suspicious on the subject.

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