Tough questions on future power
By Jeremy Lovell
LONDON (Reuters) - Public consultation on Britain's future energy needs ends on Friday with divided camps leaving the government with tough choices on power supplies.
Bound by pledges to slash greenhouse gas emissions, the government must decide the shape of the country's electricity supply network for coming decades as demand booms and North Sea oil and gas run out.
On one side of the debate is the so-called "big power" lobby promoting coal and nuclear generation. On the other, the green alternative advocating a wider mix of power sources including those coming from individuals' own efforts.
"Now there is a real chance to give power to the people," said Philip Sellwood, head of the Energy Saving Trust (EST), a body funded by both government and industry which promotes energy efficiency.
"It would be extremely unfortunate if we say this is a large-scale technology solution. We would fail to deliver on the environment, security of supply or cost," he told Reuters.
The government has said it risks missing its own emissions targets and critics say the energy review -- to report by mid-year after receiving 2,000 submissions -- cloaks a decision already taken to build a new generation of nuclear power plants.
Lobbyists for "big power" nuclear and coal stations -- most of which must be closed within a few years due to age -- have campaigned for replacement plants, arguing that on cost, security and cleanliness they win the argument.
Between them, nuclear and coal provide around 60 percent of the country's electricity.
"You need a solid backbone of power. If decentralised worked, we would have done it already," coal industry spokesman David Brewer said, citing capital costs as the major inhibitor.
Greenpeace and the Green Alliance lobby group have argued for the ageing national grid -- which dates from the 1950s -- to be scrapped in favour of microgeneration, renewables like wind and waves, combined heat and power (CHP) and energy efficiency.
But currently renewables provide less than four percent of power, solar panels and roof-top windmills barely register and CHP which uses heat lost in normal generation is not widespread.
Advocates say that, with government help, microgeneration and energy efficiency could account for 40 percent of the nation's power on their own with every home a mini power station.
"The combination of energy efficiency and microgeneration is a seriously expandable solution," said the EST's Sellwood. "Not only that, but together they would cut CO2 emissions by 15 percent."
Opponents also note that clean coal using carbon capture and storage is in its infancy and that new nuclear technology is untried as hardly any plants have been built anywhere in the 20 years since the Chernobyl disaster in April 1986.
The government says it has not yet decided to back new nuclear and that it recognises there are serious public concerns over waste and security from attack.
Public opinion has swung gradually back in favour of nuclear, but only when taken as an option in the war on global warming, and the group of eight rich nations is expected to endorse nuclear power at a Moscow summit in July.
But for Sellwood it would give the wrong message to a public well aware of the climate crisis and deeply worried by steeply rising energy costs -- a new EST survey shows that Britons worry more about energy bills than personal health or debts.
"It would tell consumers they don't have to do anything -- the government will do it for them," he said. "Surely, if we are going to have a sustainable, low-carbon society then we have to have low-carbon citizens."