As the government's Energy Review veers ever closer to the conclusion that nuclear power is the only answer to climate change, a new report by non-profit research agency the World Alliance for Decentralised Energy (WADE) demolishes this myth.
The report, Decentralising UK Energy, studies several possible future UK energy scenarios based on the key criteria of cutting carbon emissions; security of supply; and cost (both of production and to domestic customers).
In particular the report compares models of two possible future scenarios: centralised generation using nuclear power, and a decentralised system, in which energy is predominantly produced close to its point of use using renewables and combined heat and power.
Its finding suggests that the decentralised system would provide the UK with enormous benefits over the nuclear option. Any centralised model is, by definition, vulnerable to massive system failure in the face of an attack or natural catastrophe. It's also extremely inefficient; over 60% of the energy going into a power station (whether fuelled by oil, gas, coal or nuclear) is wasted as heat, while another 3.5% is lost as the electricity travels round the national grid. So all in all, over two-thirds of all energy going into a power station is wasted.
Overall, WADE reports that the decentralised solution is far superior, being:
- cleaner - CO2 emissions are 17% lower than in the nuclear scenario.
- cheaper - overall capital costs are over £1 billion lower than in the nuclear scenario and the retail costs of electricity to the end user are lower too. The model doesn't include the cost of managing nuclear waste, so in reality the cost advantage will be much greater than the ﾣ1bn. Recent estimates of the existing nuclear waste cost are as high as £70 billion.
- more secure - UK gas consumption is 14% lower than in the nuclear scenario.
So what would a decentralised energy system look like?
Imagine a system in which electricity is produced near where it is going to be used. Individual buildings - residential, commercial and industrial - stop just being consumers of energy and start generating it. Whether through solar panels, wind turbines or combined heat and power units, buildings start generating electricity for use by the local community.
Any heat produced as a by-product of electricity generation is channelled through underground networks to heat the community; virtually no energy is lost as waste heat, or in transmission. Regions become self-sufficient. Being small and diverse, the electricity supply is far less vulnerable to massive failure or attack. Householders, local councils and local communities are empowered to act to stop climate change, completely transforming the way society thinks about energy production and use.
Sound unrealistic? In the Netherlands, 40% of electricity is created using decentralised systems. In Finland, over 90% of Helsinki is heated by community heat networks. And here in the UK more than 1,000 hospitals, leisure centres and homes already use decentralised energy and utilities systems. Woking Borough Council has reduced emissions from its own buildings by an astonishing 77% through use of renewable technologies and its own local grid system.
What's it all going to cost?
In the long run, it will cost us less than our current wasteful systems - and less than investing in a new generation of nuclear reactors, as Blair wants to do. As decentralised energy models are adopted and the market for renewable technologies is boosted across the country and throughout Europe, costs will continue to decrease. In Decentralising UK Energy, a decentralised scenario is shown to be £1 bn cheaper than a nuclear scenario, even before the ever escalating costs of nuclear waste disposal are taken into account.
The WADE report has presented the smart, cost-effective solution to our future energy needs, and one that is attracting considerable interest and support across the British political spectrum, with the Tories, Liberal Democrats and London's Labour Mayor Ken Livingston supporting a decentralised approach. Only the government remains welded to a 1950s view of the future using massive, wasteful power stations instead of devolving power generation to where it's actually needed.