A few days kayaking on the Norfolk Coast prompts these thoughts on energy supply. Having wild camped on the coast under clear skies the full extent of the relatively new "Sheringham Shoal" windfarm really struck me. Whilst on a clear day you can see the turbines at night each one is identified by a red navigation light, there a lot of them.

On the following day I then read about the conversion of Drax Power Station to run on biomass and the latest developments on fracking with Ineos offering financial incentives to land owners.

The drive to reduce carbon emissions has been on the political agenda for some time now and all part of the sustainability agenda. The big industrial nations have recognised that this has to be addressed and some are doing more than others to achieve this. UK plc has it's own targets with the headline target to reduce emissions by some 80% by 2050 (from the 1990 baseline). This commitment has driven the migration to renewable energy and we have seen the dramatic increase in wind and solar energy generation. In parallel with this the coal fired power stations have over the last 20 years added flue gas de-sulphurisation plants, added clean burn technology, developed carbon capture technology and in a few cases moving to biomass as an alternative to coal. However not all stations could achieve emission targets so some have closed. It does have to be remembered that approximately 30% of UK energy is generated from coal and more power station closures are planned to meet emission targets.

So what about Drax. In short I remain to be convinced as to the logic (and carbon cost) of felling timber from the USA to feed a huge power station in Yorkshire. Reports over the weekend talk about the proposal to use timber from North Carolina to feed Drax. The report says that timber will not be clear felled and only offcuts/thinnings will be used. This material will be processed into pellets and a new pellatizing plant has been built. Pellets are quite volatile so they are to be stored in purpose built stores (really substantial concrete structures) and nitrogen will be pumped through the pellets to reduce risk of combustion. From here the pellets will be shipped to the UK with 3 bulk carrier loads a week. Once landed put into another purpose built store and then transport by rail to Drax. Guess what they are then stored in three more stores or domes as they were described. Just to give you an idea of scale the domes, described as the worlds largest are 300ft high!!

So it's easy use some offcuts, make them into pellets, use a few trucks/trains/ships to transport them 3,800 miles. I almost forgot to mention Drax will consume 7 million tonnes of pellets per annum. The best bit is that in one of the reports I read it stated that the whole project is "carbon neutral" as are using "sustainable timber sources". No mention of the huge carbon cost of getting a tree from North Carolina to Drax.

Further digging and I found other sources which state that the burning of pellets produces 3% more carbon dioxide than burning coal (870g/MWhr) whereas gas produces 400g/MHhr. Other questions that spring to mind are quite how to you replace the biodiversity value of 100 year old woodland and what is to stop clear felling if the demand/price is right.

So we have the UK's largest coal fired station converting to biomass and in the process allegedly "going green". UK plc can demonstrate reductions in carbon emissions but globally what is the true impact?

I now move onto fracking, another contentious energy source. This project has really hit the buffers with considerable public opposition. From I have read so far shale gas extraction does not bring with it the huge risks many are claiming. The potential resource is huge and would provide certainty of supply and potential lower energy prices. But with the opposition many schemes have stalled and in addition there are land ownership issues. The Crown own the shale gas but to extract it a deal has to be struck with the surface owner to build the extraction plant. Rents offered to date do not appear to have enticed the land owners and it was reported last week that Ineos who own rights to various exploration blocks are offering the 4% of the revenue to the landowners and 2% to the local communities. It will be interesting to see if positions change and it would be great if those funds could be used to improve the environmental performance of buildings in the locality.

This offer could really achieve what the Aggregates Levy has failed to deliver. Whilst accepted that the introduction of the levy increased the use of recycled and secondary aggregates it hasn't done nearly enough for those who live close to extraction sites. In the early years a % of the levy was channelled through to local projects but this ended some time ago. I believe this is quite wrong and would advocate that at least 10% and preferably 20% of the levy is made available to the local community.

I find the whole energy debate frustrating as successive governments simple fail to get a grip of reality and hate making decisions which loose votes. The UK has about a 2% margin an capacity/demand and thrown a lot of funding to develop renewable energy. Great but when the wind doesn't blow you still have to have the capacity to generate power and this is going to have to be from nuclear, gas or coal. Investment in nuclear reactor research has dropped 99% over the past 20 years. We can afford to spend £3Bn decommissioning plants but apparently can't afford to spend anything on R&D. Wind power generation dropped 20% in Q2 2014 despite installed much more capacity. Weather patterns appear to be changing with longer periods of high pressure or intense low pressure when in both cases wind doesn't generate any energy. 

To my mind we have to invest in nuclear, gas and clean coal technology with some urgency. It would also seem a bonus if we could rely on are own energy sources.

By the way the wind turbines off the Norfolk Coast were stationery.


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