The alternatives to coal for electricity generation

For 2014-15, 26.7% of UK electricity was generated from coal, 29.7% from gas, 22.2% from nuclear,19.3% from renewables and 2.1% from other sources. Coal is the most prolific carbon emitter, so the argument goes that we should replace it. The question is with what?

Liberal Democrats, and particularly Scottish ones, are grappling with the question over whether to oppose fracking outright. Leaving aside new forms of energy (and leaving aside carbon capture), the decision on how to replace coal for electricity generation seems quite simple: gas, or nuclear, or renewables; or a combination of the three.

All three are possible, the technology is there. Frack and we maintain or grow gas, or invest in new nuclear, or erect more wind turbines and solar panels.

A decision between the three is a political decision. It depends on your commitment to the green agenda and tackling climate change, your receptiveness to lobbying from the oil and nuclear industries and your view of short and long term costs.

For me, the goal is to have a form of energy that we can all use that is 100% zero carbon. That energy is will be electricity –indeed, you can already as a domestic consumer buy 100% renewable electricity.

In the last 5 years, the single biggest change in our energy generation has been renewables, entirely, we now see, because the Lib Dems ran the Department for Energy and Climate Change for 5 years. During this period,electricity from renewables had gone from about 7 to 19%.

If we were still in government, by 2020 renewables would account for about 35% of all electricity generation. But as we are not, it will probably level off at 20-25%. Winning in politics matters!

This article does not deal with industrial use of gas, nor of maintaining the domestic gas grid – though I note that newly built homes generally don’t offer gas. If those in favour of fracking want to make the case for fracked gas for the domestic and industrial grid, I look forward to reading it.

For Liberal Democrats who are committed to reducing climate change, our first aim is to replace  coal with renewables, and our second aim 10 years away is to replace gas with renewables. Fracked gas has no place in our long term electricity generation.


* William Hobhouse lives in Bath and is co-founder of the Lib Dem Campaign for Manufacturing.

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  • Richard Underhill 7th Mar '16 - 9:25am

    The resignation of the chief finance officer of EDF implies a doubt about the financing of new nuclear power stations. Tories who made claims about the power station being built in Finland were wrong at the time and very clearly wrong now.

  • And, clearly Ed Davey was wrong on several counts in the approving of Hinkley – cost to the consumer, cost in contracting, practicality in terms of delays, modernity or otherwise of design, safety, disposal of long-term radioactive waste etc.. It seemed counterintuitive to move towards nuclear again when most countries are moving away. Other signals from EDF, eg the considerable opposition from trade union reps on the Board indicated this was not going to be straightforward. If going ahead is going to mean even higher costs to consumers in UK, why on earth would you do it?

    In relation to the article, no mention of energy saving, smart power etc as a source of equating supply with demand.

  • The real problem after the carbon emissions consideration, is which fuel source is likely to still be abundant in 40+ years, based on current consumption levels and projections and can be most efficiently delivered to our power stations…

    Additionally, we need to include the fuel we use for transport in our considerations, because with electric vehicles, we are effectively moving the burning of fossil fuels from the individual vehicle to a big power station.

    From the available information, fracking in the UK will never deliver anything beyond 1~2% of our total annual consumption and hence won’t be available in sufficient bulk to warrant it’s consideration as a fuel source outside of niche markets. Due to the shortsightedness of successive governments, much of our coal reserves have been put beyond reach. So it seems our best long-term fuel sources are: (imported) coal, (imported) oil+gas and (imported) uranium-based nuclear, with R&D investment being made to replace uranium with thorium, whilst maintaining our spend on the fusion lottery ticket.

    Renewables do offer some hope, but only if we are level headed about their usage. Additionally, we need to revise our thinking about energy consumption. So whilst farmers already knew which crops grow best in particular regions and latitudes, perhaps we need to think about our use of energy in similar ways. Hence build aluminum smelters in Iceland where they can take advantage of the abundant supply of natural energy. Yes this means two things, firstly accepting that certain industries such as onshore steel manufacture may go offshore but also that such arrangements will involve greater interdependence between nations – something that belonging to a large trading block may assist…

  • Jenny barnes 7th Mar '16 - 5:25pm

    Better to build aluminium, cement, steel etc plants in hot sunny places wher they can run on concentrated solar power.
    Electric cars still,have all the problems of cars. High energy use, congestion, etc. Redesign cities, and more cycling and walking and efficient public transportis a better bet. We may need to import long haul electricity onHVDC cables too.

  • David Evans 7th Mar '16 - 6:43pm

    Jenny, If I remember my O level Geography correctly Norway has had a large Aluminium industry for a long time because it uses Hydro-electricity.

  • Chris Davies 7th Mar '16 - 9:11pm

    At 1025 this morning renewables (wind and solar, excluding the burning of biomass in hitherto coal power stations) was providing less than 5% of UK electricity. The previous time I logged on it was providing less than 2%, although I have seen it reach 16% when the wind is blowing just right.

    And when the wind is not blowing what is replacing it? All too often vile diesel generators pumping out CO2 and particulates in order that the wind energy companies can comply with their contractual obligations.

    Renewables have a major role to play in reducing climate change obligations, but across the world fossil fuels will still be generating 70% of electricity by 2030 and perhaps by 2040. Demand is increasing faster than renewables can supply, and the electricity storage systems needed are still not available at a price and convenience that is acceota

  • Chris Davies 7th Mar '16 - 9:14pm

    Renewables have a major role to play in reducing climate change obligations, but across the world fossil fuels will still be generating 70% of electricity by 2030 and perhaps by 2040. Demand is increasing faster than renewables can supply, and the electricity storage systems needed are still not available at a price and convenience that is acceptable to most of the world’s consumers and governments.

    My house is heated by gas. So are the homes of most of my neighbours. To replace that with electricity in order to reduce

  • Chris Davies 7th Mar '16 - 9:21pm

    Oh forget It. A pen was good enough for Lloyd George and Gladstone. If this system doesn’t let me write without posting comments before I have finished I can’t be bothered. I like getting old and cantankerous. (Tony Greaves is my hero).


  • Jenny Barnes 8th Mar '16 - 8:33am

    david. Yes, they also make a lot of nitrogenous fertiliser, which is a heavy user of electricity. Even better, though, would be to use their hydro as back up for more intermittent renewables, even maybe some as pumped storage, with HVDC to the UK, Denmark, & Germany. Denmark in particular has a lot of wind power, which they can’t always use, so this would provide another route for using that.

    As hinkley point (3GW) now doesn’t look like it will go ahead, other nuclear plant and coal is closing over the next decade or so, we’re going to need something in the region of 12-15 GW of new power stations over that period. Some can no doubt be increased deployment of existing renewable technology (wind,mostly), but I suspect the optimum solution will include around 10GW of CCGT gas. At least that avoids the doubled carbon output from the equivalent coal stations, and the probability that nuclear just won’t happen. We should be looking hard at long haul HVDC grids and solar power where it’s workable. Morocco have recently built a 0.5 GW concentrated solar plant, for example.

    I believe it’s the government’s responsibility to keep the lights on – profit making companies know that and will hold the government to ransom, so a new nationalised UK power production organisation is needed to make sure that the taxpayers are not wildly overcharged.

  • nigel hunter 8th Mar '16 - 10:49pm

    Queen Elizabeth reservoir has a solar power unit on its surface to provide energy to its nearby land users One idea for all reservoirs to utilise These could be utilised with wind generators on nearby high ground to be used as a backup etc.. We should use or imagination and creativity to develop our energy resources. A national energy policy would be great. One where profit for the big boys does not come first will not happen under the Tories ‘cos of their ideology and “frit” to face them.

  • David Garlick 9th Mar '16 - 11:40am

    Spot on William!

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