Renewable energy sources are being looked at with new favour and Britain has the resources to benefit, writes Daniel Butler.
"Wind energy is today's exciting technology," says Roger Kelly, director of the Centre for Alternative Technology. "But tomorrow it will probably be wave power." He has reason to be pleased with himself. For years the prospect of cheap, non-polluting energy has been generally regarded as unrealistic, a dream confined to a handful of "dark green" environmentalists such as Kelly and his colleagues. Times have changed, however. Concern about the environment and, in particular, the greenhouse effect has prompted legislation from governments across Europe and the search is on for "green" energy.
Friends of the Earth claim that electricity generation, because of its appetite for fossil fuels, is the principal contributor to global warming. One kilowatt-hour (kWh) produces 1kg of CO2 - and the industry produces 33% of the UK's CO2 emissions. To compound the sins, coal-fired power stations are the main source of acid rain, producing 71% of Britain's SO2 and 29% of NO2 emissions. Kelly and his colleagues, based in a disused slate quarry in north Wales since the '60s, may have some of the answers.
The industry certainly needs them. Europe is currently considering a series of "polluter pays" measures, including a proposed carbon tax. EC initiatives have resulted in a commitment to reducing emissions. Britain has promised a 60% cut in SO2 by the year 2000 and a 30% cut in NO2 by 1998 (compared to 1980 figures). A White Paper has set a target of 1,000 megawatts (MW) of renewably generated energy by 2000, and believes this could be 24% of all electricity by 2025.
Coal-fired stations are being fitted with flue gas de-sulphurisation (FGD) equipment (8,000MW of capacity so far) and cleaner plants are being developed (British Coal has a design which cuts SO2 by 99% and NO2 by 80-90%). There is also a general turn to natural gas - 50% efficient, compared to coal's 37%. And new Combined Heat and Power (CHP) systems are up to twice as efficient as conventional plants. According to experts, if CHP capacity can reach 30,000MW by 2020, CO2 emissions would fall by 15%.
Britain's generators are keen to seem green. Powergen has invested heavily in new CHP gas turbines at Rye House and Killingholme (900MW). National Power has launched an expensive "moving pylons" television campaign to advertise its gas-fired plants and is looking at importing "cleaner" coal. As a result British Coal is also working on a clean-burn project at Grimethorpe.
Nuclear power is also keen to promote its environmentally-friendly credentials. Its backers (which included Margaret Thatcher when she was prime minister) point out that it generates none of the problem gases and say that renewable power relies on untested technology, has high costs, and that supplies are unreliable.
These arguments are taken seriously by France which, with over 80% of its electricity generated from 57 plants, is by far Europe's most nuclear nation. The pro-nuclear lobby has been strengthened by a 1989 estimate that, were Europe's nuclear generators to be closed down, CO2 emissions would rise by 550 million tonnes per year.
But nuclear power has its problems, not least that of public distrust. More important, however, is the industry's failure to compete on costs. Margaret Thatcher abandoned the attempt to privatise the nuclear industry along with the conventional generators when accountants looked in detail at the industry's books for the first time. Even according to Nuclear Electric's own figures, coal-fired power stations can generate electricity at 3.2p per kWh, compared to projections of 3.6-4.4p per kWh for Sizewell B.
Equally important is the failure to find a satisfactory way of dealing with waste products. So far every effort to dispose of high-level waste has run into either technical or public opinion problems. And de-commissioning is a headache too. Nuclear Electric has 16 out of the worldwide 19 power stations which are over 25 years old, and faces huge costs (estimated at £3.2 billion in 1988, but rising to £10 billion in 1990). The latest scheme tentatively proposes burying former plants. Its chances of political, let alone public, appearance appear slim. "Simply claiming to be green because you don't produce CO2 isn't the answer," snorts Tom Barker, one of Kelly's colleagues. "You can't just trade one environmental cost off against another and say you've solved the problem."
Ironically, even "dark green" environmentalists dream of a nuclear solution to the search for renewable energy. As Barker states across the former quarry, he dreams of a nuclear future: "Fusion - now that's the answer," he mutters. "But," he adds quickly, "that is still very much a pipe dream."
Fusion is the process of super-heating atomic particles until the bond together (as opposed to fission where particles decay into by-products). This releases vast amounts of energy, but creates no waste. Unfortunately, however, it is still just a dream, though recent research has been encouraging.
There are alternatives - but these have had a difficult time during the last 10 years. A major problem is funding. Apart from hydro-electric power, all renewable energy proposals need substantial research and development. This has always lacked investment, but government grants tumbled from a peak of £17.1 million in 1981 to £12.7 million in 1986-7. Even today, after interest has revived somewhat, the Government's boast of having spent £17 million on 300 wave projects between 1974 and 1990 looks inadequate to say the least.
The future of renewable energy sources is beginning to look brighter, however. Prompted by public interest and the EC, politicians are now looking on alternative energy projects with favour. The Department of Energy itself officially estimates that renewables could provide 20% of Britain's energy, with wind power alone providing 10% by 2025. Dr Michael Flood, of Friends of the Earth, agrees with the figures but says that percentage could rise to 50-75% by 2050 if the appropriate investment were forthcoming.
The turning point came with the privatisation of electricity in 1989 and 1990. The national grid was opened up to small generators and the big operators were forced to subsidise alternative power through the Non-Fossil Fuel Obligation (NFFO). This obliges generators using fossil fuels to buy a given proportion of electricity from renewable sources, regardless of cost.
Critics complain that the NFFO is designed principally to subsidise the nuclear industry (£1.25 billion in 1990) and to allow the Government to dodge its own responsibilities. Whatever the motive, it appears to be beginning to pay dividends.
One of the first working projects started near Camelford in Cornwall at the beginning of the year. The 10 turbines sited on a bleak hillside begin to turn when the windspeed reaches 11mph, with power peaking at 29mph. At full output, the three-bladed propellers will produce enough electricity for 3,000 homes. The owner, Peter Edwards, estimates that there should be sufficient wind to generate electricity 75% of the time. Wind energy has several practical attractions. Unlike some forms of renewable power (solar, for example), production peaks with demand - in the winter.
In addition, the technology is relatively cheap and well-proven. The Wind Energy Group (a consortium formed by Taylor Woodrow and British Aerospace) makes the MS-3 turbine. With two, 33-metre blades made of laminated wood or glassfibre, at a windspeed of 25mph, it can generate 300kW of energy, enough to supply 250 houses. In addition, supporters claim it could be a valuable source of income for Britain's beleaguered upland farmers.
As a result it is not surprising that current government and industry funding favours wind projects. In November 1991 the Department of Energy agreed to fund 58 projects across the country with a total projected output of 111MW. And prompted by the NFFO, National Power has formed its own company, National Wind Power, in conjunction with the Wind Energy Group (the latter founded by former Centre for Alternative Technology workers).
Naturally there are drawbacks. Wind farms need planning permission and environmentalists and local people are often worried by possible sight and noise pollution from turbines up to 250 feet high and at least 300 yards apart. Others worry about the possible threat to migrating birds.
"Any energy conversion technology has its costs," sighs Kelly. "It's for society to choose how high these should be." He believes that wind energy's benefits clearly outweigh its costs. As a result, so far only four of the planned 58 projects have been given the go-ahead and few experts expect more than half of these to be built. Even if all the problems were to be overcome, National Power estimates that at most only 10% of Britain's energy needs could be met by wind power - and that 1,000 farms would be needed to achieve this figure.
The sea also has its attractions. Until the early '80s Britain led the world in wave energy technology, an advantage which was lost in 1984 when it was pronounced uneconomic by the Energy Technology Support Unit (which, environmentalists hiss, is part of the Atomic Energy Authority) and government money was cut. Following a reappraisal at the end of the decade, however, the grants have returned and a project, run by the Wave Energy Group of Queen's University, Belfast, has been established off the west coast of Scotland on Islay. This works on air being forced from one compartment to another by the waves. Though a prototype, it is expected to produce enough energy for 4,000 people, at 6-7p per kWh.
After its dark years, wave energy is beginning to attract attention again and the Islay project is only one of five promising designs. As early as 1982 the National Engineering Laboratory had designs to build a 4MW "Oscillating Water Column" and Coventry Polytechnic has developed a £10-million "Clam" designed to pump air from one compartment to another. Bristol University has opted for an underwater rotating cylinder which would avoid stormy conditions on the surface and there is always the famous "Salter Duck" - developed in Edinburgh - which could be revived.
As with wind energy, Britain is potentially one of Europe's ideal locations for wave power, but, as sceptics are quick to point out, the days when a significant proportion of the country's electricity could be generated by waves are still a long way off. Unlike wind-generated energy, much of the technology has yet to be settled on. Even when agreed, construction of the large sites necessary poses technical and environmental problems. Were these to be overcome, huge off-shore generators could still pose a major obstacle to Britain's busy shipping lines.
If replacing electricity generated from fossil fuels with renewable energy were the sole aim, an alternative already exists. Iceland sits on a massive fault in the earth's crust, which produces abundant supplies of thermal power from hot springs. It is estimated that its reserves have the energy equivalent of the entire Saudi Arabian oil field. A scheme to export power to Britain was first put forward in 1981, relying on a 910 km-cable running via the Faroe Isles.
In 1987 a company was formed to buy 10 gigawatts from Iceland (equivalent to the output of eight conventional power stations). At 2p per kWh, this compared very favourably with 3.5p per kWh for coal-fired electricity, 4.2p for nuclear fission and up to 12p for wind power.
But the project has run into problems, not so much of cost (it would take an estimated £2.5 billion to supply two cities the size of Glasgow), but strategic. There is an understandable political and commercial reluctance to rely too heavily on imported power. Little progress has been made on the project, though the Icelanders claim that, given the go-ahead soon, it could be in place by the end of the century.
While research continues into renewable sources of energy and while its costs remain prohibitively high, Britain is bound to be reliant on conventionally generated electricity. But there is room for economy. The Department of Energy estimates that a 20% saving in energy is possible (£7 billion in today's pries). Again, help has been patchy. The Energy Efficiency Office has a budget of only £40 million (£26 million targeted at domestic users). This works out at 75p per capita, compared with a Dutch figure of £9.60.
Many companies have already discovered that it pays to invest to economise on energy. By installing a new fuelling system in its Manchester plant, United Biscuits is saving £300,000 a year (with a pay-back period of three years). Hoover's Merthyr Tydfil plant has cut 60% from its energy bills (saving £350,000) and IBM has saved about £500,000. It set a target of 20% savings in 1984-89, but realised 25.6%. Most improvements cost little or nothing. Now the target is a 4% year-on-year saving in the second five-year period.
Whatever the possible savings, the search for non-polluting sources of energy will continue with huge rewards for success. Most avenues are still under-developed, export potential is huge and Britain, with an abundance of wind and waves could be in the forefront. Ironically, thanks to the NFFO, it could be today's fossil fuel users who benefit.
Daniel Butler is a freelance writer.