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THE TIMES April 12, 2005 Election 2005

It's this simple: wind farms the size of London, or safe, clean nuclear plants

My big issue by Philip Stott

ELECTION ROOM 2005 is filled with elephants hidden behind the flimsiest of political camouflage. For me, the bull elephant is the need for a practical energy policy for Britain.

On this issue, I am disenfranchised because all three main parties, despite differing degrees of enthusiasm and rhetoric, share the same outlook: an unconvincing belief that “renewable energy” — wave, wind and solar power — is a credible way to solve Britain’s energy problems.

Political correctness is warping energy policy. Predicating policy, through the doomed Kyoto Protocol, on unpredictable environmental concerns is disastrous. It will slow economic growth, dull our competitive edge, deny much-needed energy expansion and expose us to political turmoil overseas. The result will be a Britain in which the lights go out by 2020, if not earlier, while billions of people in the developing world remain energy-starved.

Lord Broers, this year’s Reith lecturer, has given warning that British energy policy makes over-optimistic assumptions about the potential of “renewables”, such as wind. He argues that “all of these energy sources should carry the costs of their overheads with them. If you have wind power, you have to have back-up from gas generation.”

Kenneth J. Fergusson, the president of the Combustion Engineering Association, develops the case, stating that: “Britain should stop subsidising wind-mills (only building them to the extent that they are commercially viable).” He reminds us that “Britain is heading for a crisis in power supplies to which no amount of preferential treatment for renewable energy sources can do more than make a peripheral contribution for decades to come”.

Professor Ian Fells, a world authority, is equally trenchant: “It needs only a breakdown at one big power station and there is a real risk of the supply system becoming fragile because we don’t have the spare generating capacity we used to.”

To replace a 1,000 megawatt (MW) nuclear station supplying just 1/65th of peak demand requires 30 miles of wave machines; or it would need a wind farm that would cover an area equivalent to Inner London, or for solar power, it would require an area half as much again. If we were to try to replace the output of that 1,000MW nuclear power station with bio-oils or biomass fuels, we would have to cover the entire Scottish Highlands with oil-seed rape or turn Wales into a giant willow coppice.

Yet, as Professor Fells reminds us, by 2020, we will have only one nuclear plant operating. Moreover, we will be importing 90 per cent of our gas from countries such as Algeria, Iran, Iraq, and Russia, while we accept nuclear-generated power from France, which is set to reassert its successful nuclear policy (59 plants and expanding).

A sensible energy policy should aim to provide a reliable mix of energy generation to support economic growth, with the least possible dependence on imported fuels from unstable exporting countries.

That means we must recognise the wisdom of the green guru James Lovelock’s brave declaration that, for the mid-term, there is no alternative to nuclear power. As the Royal Society concludes: “In the short to medium term, it is difficult to see how we can reduce our dependence on fossil fuels without the help of nuclear power.”

Nuclear power — which accounts for 17 per cent of the world’s electricity supply — has the safest record of any major form of energy production. The radiation from a nuclear power station is less than that from a large hospital (and there are fewer superbugs, too). China, Finland, France, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, Taiwan and the US, among others, acknowledge the value of nuclear power for their future. China is planning to build no fewer than 40 nuclear power plants by 2020, while Sweden and France are designing politically enlightened policies for the storage of nuclear waste. Moreover, as Sir David King, the Chief Scientific Adviser, has argued, we must encourage long-term — that’s a 40 to 50-year timeframe — research into nuclear fusion.

In addition, we have to continue to support the efficient use of fossil fuels. On conservative estimates, there are 350 to 500 years of coal reserves in the world, and, with modern technologies, such as gasification, coal is on an exciting road to clean energy.

We must be open about the limitations of “renewables”, including both intermittency of supply and their environmental downsides. Large-scale hydroelectric power necessitates the re-settlement of people, interrupts fish migration and causes loss of habitat. Micro-scale hydroelectric systems become blocked and are able to make only a marginal contribution. Tidal barrages disrupt complex ecosystems. Wind farms kill bird and bat species and despoil rare wilderness.

We need also to be aware of the architectural damage to historic buildings caused by over-enthusiastic schemes for energy efficiency and solar panels, and to carry out more studies into the health problems of heavily insulated houses and offices, such as sick building syndrome. Finally, we need to support realistic work on alternative fuels, including compressed air, hydrogen fuel cells, sodium borohydride and biofuels.

Can we please shed the political paranoia about “saving the world”, and, focus instead on practical energy? The failure of our political parties to be realistic about future energy demand could be catastrophic. I do not want to see the economic success of the UK falter because of “green” whimsy. Drop the cant and energise Britain.

Philip Stott is Emeritus Professor of Biogeography in the University of London