Dodging the issues

ulian Miller, director of Automatic Environmental Controls (AEC), discusses the failures behind government energy policy.

The UK government’s climate change targets, to achieve a 20 per cent reduction in carbon emissions by 2010 and a 60 per cent reduction by 2050, might seem ambitious. However, in reality they can be achieved, but only by adopting a two-tier approach to our energy policy. The current energy policy focuses heavily on energy generation rather than consumption; it oversimplifies the use of renewable energy and all but ignores the potential of Combined Heat and Power (CHP). A re-examination of these issues could put the government on track to meet the 2010 climate change targets and beyond.

Generation or consumption?

The fundamental flaw with the current energy policy is its one tier approach to achieving both targets, primarily focusing on energy consumption to meet the climate change targets. Common sense dictates that a successful long-term energy policy has to be two-tier with sufficient emphasis on both consumption and generation. In brief, the short-term targets can be achieved right now by cutting current consumption using existing technology to increase efficiency. However the longer-term targets will only be met by a paradigm shift in supply, probably moving from the current carbon base to a hydrogen base supplemented by renewables. This change will require a change in technology to ensure that the solution is economically viable in the long term.

In the short term however, the BRE (Building Research Establishment) estimates that over 90 per cent of heating and ventilation systems are inadequate, costing industry and commerce over £500 million per annum. This money doesn’t have to be lost. By implementing some very simple changes, AEC has demonstrated that the majority of buildings could immediately increase energy efficiency; reducing emissions at a low cost, in most cases reducing energy bills by between 20 and 40 per cent. This reduction in energy demand could lead to a dramatic reduction in CO2 emissions thus creating a situation where both the environment and business wins.

Renewable energy

The current apparent oversimplification of renewable energy use is set to cause problems in the future. Without a doubt, renewable energy has a role in the future of our energy supply and in helping to achieve CO2 reduction goals. However, the current strategy has failed to consider the complexities involved in its implementation. Firstly, these energy sources, such as wind and wave power, must be ‘sustainable’ in the broadest meaning of the word and stand up to economic as well as environmental scrutiny. These so-called ‘renewable’ energy sources are not currently economically competitive thus they are not truly sustainable. It may be that some consumers are happy to pay a premium for ‘green energy’. This is very much like the situation with organic food, where customers expect to pay more for food that they perceive to be environmentally ethical because they perceive it to be healthier. Just how much of a premium will people be prepared to pay for the environmental ‘feel good’ factor with energy? In order for renewables to have a long-term future their economics must stack up against all alternative forms of generation.

There appears to be a belief with energy, as with other areas of the economy that the problem will go away if enough money is thrown at it. Energy Minister, Brian Wilson has promised £82M towards offshore wind schemes. However, simply throwing £82M at wind power will not solve anything. Subsidies or grants will not change general attitudes or energy consumption patterns, nor will it make these forms of renewable energy economically sustainable in the long term. When the money runs out, we will be back to square one. Furthermore, government grants will primarily be welcomed by sustainable energy groups but it must also be borne in mind that they also have a vested interest in making profits however noble their environmental credentials.

Combined heat and power

The recent, much-heralded, White Paper virtually ignores the potential behind CHP. This is a grave error, as CHP could and should play a significant role in helping to reach the government’s emissions targets.

The current poor reputation of CHP is pretty much self-inflicted. For years, the CHP industry has lived behind the image of energy efficiency by championing the joint myths of providing ‘cheap’ electricity and ‘free’ heat, without particularly quantifying either, or more particularly not giving this information to the end users. As a result, the lack of clarity and transparency in the relative efficiency of CHP, it is currently very difficult to justify on a financial basis as energy managers and engineers just do not know what the benefits really are. CHP should be given a second chance; a little time spent looking at the proper economics of CHP could reap substantial rewards in the future.

Overall, the government’s energy strategy could be improved if it focused on the key areas outlined. It needs to encourage companies to implement an intelligent energy policy to make energy use more efficient now and in the future. Reducing consumption will help considerably in meeting the 2010 targets, while to achieve a 60 per cent reduction in C02 emissions by 2050, the government will have to look to alternative technology. This probably means moving from a carbon-based economy to a hydrogen-based one. Wind power, as with a number of other ‘sustainable’ energy sources, may have its part to play, but this will be measured on economic criteria as well as environmental ones.

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