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The Great Debate: Development, Sustainability and Environment

Energy Generation in the New Millennium
Proceedings of a debate held on 17 March 2007 as part of Development, Sustainability and Environment 3
by Caspar Hewett

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Speakers: Mark Wilkinson, Newcastle University, Steven Harrison, Mining Director, the Banks Group

The Chair, David O'Toole, opened the session by welcoming the audience and speakers. He explained that this was the third in a series of The Great Debate discussions on the topic of energy generation. The first Energy Futures held as part of Development, Sustainability and Environment II in October 2005 focused on the viability of renewable energy and nuclear power. The second, The Great Energy Debate held in March 2006 explored a range of possibilities including solar fuel cells, nuclear power, coal and renewables, looking at the part each could play in the future of power generation. This, the third in the series was intended to explore in more depth the possibilities for the future of coal and to take a look at the viability of small scale energy generation in the rural environment. He then introduced the two speakers, Steven Harrison, Mining Director for the Banks Group, speaking for coal and Mark Wilkinson, a PhD. student at Newcastle University speaking on micro-hydro power.

The first speaker, Mark Wilkinson, is from the Kielder area in the North East of England. He opened by pointing out that the large reservoir at Kielder was not built primarily for power but for water resources. However it now generates hydro-electric power also. Drawing attention to the large scale hydro-electric power stations being built in China, for example on the Yangtse river, Wilkinson made the point that this is not the only means to make use of water and gravity as a source of electricity. He went on to introduce his research which is focused on the Eden catchment in the North of England. Experiments are taking place there on generating electricity using renewable resources including heat pump systems and small scale hydro-electric power generation, or ‘micro-hydro’ power.

Wilkinson took the audience on a virtual field trip of the Eden drawing attention to a micro- hydro power station in a beck (small stream) near Sedburgh. It cost about £15,000 to install. The farmer on whose land it is situated loves it – he delights in seeing his electricity clock meter going backwards, indicating that he is putting electricity back into the grid, generating £2 – £5 worth of electricity per day. The farm is in the uplands and the scheme is characterised by 30m head, using 400m of pipe, generating 1.25KW of electricity with an efficiency of about 45%, requiring 9 litres per second of flow in the beck to run. Wilkinson pointed out that there is quite a high initial set up cost, but the system should pay for itself in the long run. The farmer has been so impressed with the system that he is now considering introducing other ‘green’ methods such as temporary storage of water to reduce the risk of flooding.

In the lowlands, where there is insufficient head for a micro-hydro power scheme, other methods are being employed. One example is an experiment in which cold groundwater is drawn from a borehole and hot water is produced using a heat exchange mechanism rather like that used in refrigerators. This is a closed loop system, representing a sustainable source of heating. The water from the 2m borehole stays at around 9 degrees Celsius throughout the year, and the heat exchanger produces hot water at about 40 degrees Celsius which is equivalent to about 8KW of heating. This is a very efficient system which can be used to heat houses. There is also a second system consisting of a ground source heat pump buried in the field which produces 8KW of power.

Steven Harrison The second speaker, Steven Harrison, began by saying that it was nice to be given the opportunity to make the case for something he really believes in. He wanted to draw attention to decisions we have got to make now regarding electricity generation in the UK. Showing a pie chart of the contributions of different sources to current electricity supply he described his take on each. For gas he highlighted the problem of security of supply – he believes gas still has a future, but that we should be cautious about how reliant on it we become. According to Harrison nuclear power has the benefit that it is a clean sustainable form of energy which he thinks is here to stay. He pointed to the urgent need to replace power stations if we are to continue to use nuclear as part of our portfolio of energy sources, especially when you consider how long a nuclear power station takes to commission. Moving on to renewable sources such as hydro-electric, wind and wave power, Harrison argued that the advocates of these sources are over-ambitious with their proposed target of moving to 20% of our power generation by 2020. Large scale generation from these sources is years ahead and we have to be realistic about our current and future requirements. According to Harrison oil will shortly disappear, leaving a serious shortfall in our current capacity.

Coal at the moment represents 33% of our current electricity generation and as such is significant part of our current mix. Harrison argued that this could and should be increased to 50%. He is passionate about coal, believing it has a strong future. The UK has a plentiful supply of coal which is being under-utilised and which we should be using. It is also a relatively cheap source of fuel. The US currently generates 40% of their energy using coal. In the UK we need to be more realistic. China and India are building a future based on coal, but are not burning it cleanly. In the UK we could reduce greenhouse emissions by using indigenous resources, in particular when you consider the emissions resulting from transporting resources from one country to another. Furthermore there are now clean coal technologies that we could make use of. Coal could be used both as an energy source and as a means to produce hydrogen to run clean cars. Another part of Harrison’s vision for the future would involve capturing carbon dioxide. There is know-how today for carbon capture and storage – carbon dioxide could be pumped into aquifers bringing the additional benefit of releasing methane which could be used to generate electricity.

The chair thanked the two speakers and opened up the debate to the audience. Ian Packer wanted to know what effect mining in the UK would have on mining communities. Steven Harrison replied that mining could be done in an environmentally sensitive manner. Sean Wilkinson of Newcastle University pointed out that coal might be cheap but there is still the issue of carbon dioxide emissions, and asked what would the cost be of carbon capture. He also wanted to know what percentage of our energy could be generated using micro-hydro power. Steven Harrison replied that carbon capture is expected to cost £25 – £40 per tonne.

Mark Wilkinson said that the percentage of energy put back into the grid from micro-hydro schemes would be small, but that such schemes represent a sustainable solution for hill farmers and could play a part in a move to better management of the landscape. Challenged on the issue of ‘thinking big’ by Viv Regan of WORLDwrite, he argued that small scale is better than large scale, micro-hydro power is a good solution for rural areas, especially when you consider the difficulties of introducing large hydro-electric schemes. It took about 15 years for the planning to be sorted for Kielder water, plus there is the cost of building large reservoirs to be considered – now it would take 30 years to plan and there is the additional issue that people do not want reservoirs in their back yards.

Diane Packer was concerned about the safety of nuclear power particularly the issue of safe disposal of waste: if we bury it what impact might that have on future generations? Sean Wilkinson pointed out that people are looking at the Finland example. There they are taking a green approach to nuclear power – in particular disposing of their waste on their own soil. Nuclear power was viewed with some trepidation after Chernobyl and there are fears over countries such as Iran developing a nuclear capability – there is the question of what happens if waste gets into the wrong hands, and this is driving new approaches to dealing with nuclear waste. Another member of the audience wondered if there would be the same resistance to nuclear power if Chernobyl had not happened. Michael Savage pointed out that, while safety issues are prominent in people’s minds when it comes to nuclear power, the reality is that the number of expected deaths is much higher for coal than for nuclear. However, for him the main issue is the incompetent failure of planning around the energy generation industry.

Viv Regan wanted to know how we can supply the energy required for everyone’s need globally and asked why Steven Harrison was not bigging up coal more. Caspar Hewett of The Great Debate pointed out that the discussion was focused only on current technologies, asking if anyone had a take on future possibilities such as fusion and wondering where the human imagination comes into the picture.

One participant pointed out that there are two problems with running cars on hydrogen: that it could be dangerous and that very large volumes are needed. Steven Harrison said that the hydrogen option for cars is a big issue in the US at the moment. Lots of money is being pumped into research, so solutions may be on their way. There is the political will to fund this research as the US do not want to be reliant on oil from the Middle East, which highlights an important general point about what technologies are developed – politics and research funding are very closely linked in all of these discussions.

Another member of the audience asked why the waste heat from power stations is not used – there is an efficiency issue here. Steven Harrison agreed – at present power stations only achieve 30% efficiency. This is now improving. For example Lynmouth power station on the North East coast has achieved efficiency up to 40%. The excess heat there is also being used to cultivate leaches for medical use, which Harrison thought was a great example of using the imagination.

There were questions from the floor about technologies such as small scale heat pumps, wind turbines and micro-hydro power, wondering why not scale them up. The question also arose why not use solar panels in rural areas. Mark Wilkinson replied that the big problem with scaling up is the restrictions imposed by the Environment Agency and by other regulations. Before implementing large schemes the effect on eco-systems and habitat has to be assessed, and all sorts of surveys have to be done, which quickly becomes prohibitively expensive. Planning permission for wind turbines can also be very difficult to get, whatever the size of turbine. However, Wilkinson is against wind turbines both big and small believing that small scale hydro-electric power is a much better option for rural areas. When it comes to solar panels the problem in the Eden catchment is the level of sunlight – it is possible to generate some power, but it is not sufficient for household requirements, for example. Solar energy can be used to heat water, but even this is not very efficient – the Eden catchment is cloudy. Even with the solar powered monitoring equipment being used for research there it is necessary to put batteries in regularly! Wilkinson argued that we need to adapt our housing in the UK – introducing measures such as under-floor heating, good insulation and double glazing.

One sixth former in the audience felt that there was a lack of education around coal and stated that his point of view had been changed during the discussion. Sean Wilkinson thought that coal was looking like a strong option for future energy generation, especially with carbon capture thrown into the equation. Steven Harrison argued that we really need to think long term with regard to the energy issue making the point that people are thinking more in the short term today because of climate change issues – a trap we should not allow ourselves to fall into.

Caspar J M Hewett, April 2007

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© C J M Hewett, 2007