DECCimation

Into the valley of career death rode the junior 200… As Adam Vaughan reported on 10th November 2015, the UK Government Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) is to shed 200 of its 1,600 staff as a result of the Spending Review, ordered by George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Second Lord of the Treasury. I wonder just where the jobs will be disappearing from.

Obviously, the work on nuclear power plant decommissioning and the disposal of radioactive nuclear waste and radioactive nuclear fuel needs to continue, and it needs to be government-led, as the experiment in privatisation of these functions went spectactularly over-budget, so it had to be brought back into public hands. But would all this work be best handled by a government agency, rather than DECC ? We already have the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority – should all work on decommissioning and waste disposal be delegated to them ? Shouldn’t DECC be concentrating on energy technologies of the future, instead of trying to fix problems from our nuclear past ? Should not the “policy reset” that many are hinting at address the advancement of renewable energies ? That, surely, should be DECC’s core activity.

There are many items of work that DECC could undertake, that don’t cost a penny in subsidy, that would advance the deployment of renewable energy technologies. Developing a model of energy transition that people believe in would be a good first move. Instead of depending heavily on new nuclear power, with its huge price tag, complex support arrangements, heavy public subsidy and long and ill-determined lead times for construction, DECC modelling could show the present reality, and the gradual dropping off of coal-fired power generation and nuclear power plants – revealing an integrated balance of variable renewable energy and flexible Natural Gas for both heating and backup/stopgap/topup electricity generation. New DECC modelling could show what a progressive transition from Natural Gas to Renewable Gas would look like, and how it would meet the climate change carbon emissions reductions budgets. DECC models of the future of UK energy could include the appearance of integrated gas systems – recycling carbon dioxide emissions into new gas fuels. When the wind is blowing and the sun is shining and not all renewable power is consumed, the UK could then be making gas to store for when the sun sets and the sky is becalmed.

It may take a few years before DECC finally realises that there is no future for coal and nuclear power. Massive projects will fail, or go slow. Financing will be uncertain and backers will run away screaming. Coal-fired power plants are already being left aside in National Grid planning for electricity markets. It will not be long before coal goes the way of the dinosaurs. What we will be left with, if we are clever, is a massive improved network of solar and wind power assets, and Natural Gas-fired power generation to back them up – even if these need to be renationalised because they are required to run flexibly – so shareholders cannot be sure of their dividends. The loan guarantees that DECC tried to throw at new nuclear power will be diverted to Natural Gas power plant investment, possibly; but even then, building and operating a gas-fired power plant could not make an economic case.

It is time to recognise that “baseload” always-on power generation is dead, just as the departing chief of National Grid, Steve Holliday, has indicated. Hopefully, he’s not departing National Grid because he doesn’t believe in the future of coal or nuclear. The plain facts, as the data shows, existing coal and nuclear power plants are unreliable and insecure. Investment into new coal and nuclear plants is at best, uncertain, and for many, dubious. It is possible that gas assets will need to be renationalised. We must resort to a gas-and-power future, for transport as well as heating and power generation. And within 20 years, we must transition to low carbon gas. If only DECC could admit this.

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