The huge and often faceless conglomerates that supply our energy needs are frequently seen as “the bad guy”. There’s seldom anything positive said about shale gas production or deep drilling near the polar ice caps. Then there are environmental and human catastrophes like the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon.
On the other hand, if governments are to achieve their targets for increasing the use of renewable energy sources, the cooperation of gas and electric suppliers is absolutely vital. It’s also in the long-term interests of these businesses to invest in new technologies and production methods. There’s a commercial imperative as well as an environmental one. Even if additional fossil fuel supplies are found, even if they are economically viable to harvest, they remain a finite resource. If these organizations are to continue to supply energy to their millions of customers for the foreseeable future, they’re going to have to find other ways of doing it!
So it’s more than a little interesting to look at whose doing what – in business and in government – particularly in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear incident. It may have radically changed policy in some parts of the world, but not in the UK.
A Nuclear Future?
Far from reducing reliance on nuclear power, it’s part of the British government’s stated intention to build on the existing infrastructure. Indeed in November 2012 the Office for Nuclear Regulation granted the first new license for 25 years to the Hinckley Point powerplant in Somerset, run by a subsidiary of EDF Energy.
There are several further approval stages required before any construction can start, but it certainly emphasises current policy. That’s further underlined by the government’s website which states that “the aim is to have the first new nuclear power stations generating electricity from around 2019.”
So while Germany is moving towards closing all its nuclear power stations, the UK wants to build more. In France, where nuclear energy already provides 75% of the electricity supply, they are also continuing to invest. The first of what the French call a “3rd Generation” reactor is already underway, with a second planned. It will bring the country’s total to sixty.
What’s more, it’s an industry of huge value to the French government, which owns around 85% of EDF, the company that runs the reactors. Electricity exports – to the UK and other parts of Europe (including Germany, despite their apparent objection to the fuel source) – bring in â‚¬3 Billion annually. Associated services generate further revenue and then there are the considerable number of jobs these industries provide.
Further afield, China has 17 reactors currently in operation, with another 28 currently being built and plans for even more. That’s a huge investment not just financially but in one particular kind of energy production. It has to be seen as an extremely long-term commitment to this particular power source.
Just What Is “Renewable”?
The big argument, of course, is just what constitutes renewable energy. Some organisations are vehemently opposed to nuclear power, citing the considerable challenges of dealing with spent fuel and the grave risk to human health and the environment as a whole in the event of an accident.
Those in favour will point out that though initial cost are high, its a wise investment for the future and economically viable when compared with the ever-increasing expense of harvesting fossil fuels. Those accidents which have occurred grab the headlines, of course, but the safety record is, generally, very good. The means of disposing of spent fuel are already in place and have been operating successfully for decades. Maybe not an ideal situation, but perhaps the best available at present?
Given the current state of reactor construction around the world, it’s a debate that’s not going to go away any time soon. Nuclear power is a renewable source in as much as relatively small amounts of raw material are required when compared to the other ways gas and electric suppliers provide energy to our homes. While demand continues to grow it’s not easy to see a long term solution where it isn’t a large part of the equation.
Other Resources And Their Contributions
Corporate investment in alternative production methods is at an all time high. Solar farms, wind turbines, wave power, biomass plants and air and ground source heat pumps are all bringing increasing amounts of renewable energy to the grid, delivering so called “green” gas and electricity to our homes and businesses.
There are government-sponsored incentives for producing and using this kind of energy, but there are still enormous obstacles to overcome before we can claim to be anywhere near delivering adequate power from environmentally-friendly sources. The UK government’s target is that by 2020 at least 15% of the nation’s energy needs will be from these renewables – and goal that presents considerable challenges. It also means that at that time a massive 85% will still coming from traditional power production.
It’s a tough situation for everyone involved. On the one hand we know the problems associated with distributing traditional fossil fuels – a situation that can only get more difficult and more expensive. On the other hand there are some huge problems associated with trying to harness the planet’s natural resources.
Wave power has great potential, but getting equipment to work reliably at sea has never been easy. Biomass has already been proven to be effective – but there are questions about large scale viability, because if you grow plants to provide fuel you’re using up space that perhaps ought to be used for food production. We know solar energy can have benefits in small-scale installations when supplying household hot water but, given the climate in northern Europe, do we really have sufficient space for large scale solar farms?
The most established renewable energy we have at the moment is wind power, and it’s where the big energy companies like Centrica (who own British Gas), EDF, SSE and others have considerable involvement. Indeed without the resources of these gigantic consortiums, construction on this scale just wouldn’t be possible.
At the moment the UK’s largest wind farm is the London Array with 175 turbines. It’s one of over 360 such onshore and offshore farms, making Britain the sixth largest producer of wind power in the world. An impressive feat really, but putting the numbers into context shows how far there is still to go.
In 2012 those wind farms produced 19.4 Terrawatt hours of electricity. Big numbers it seems, until you realise that it adds up to little more than 5% of our annual electricity needs.
Sam Jones the author is often asked how to find the best gas and electric suppliers. He recommends that information on electricity and energy prices at uSwitch.com price comparison site is where all of the main providers can be compared to find the best deals and cheapest tariffs
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