The UK government’s new energy policy is, to nobody’s surprise, much like their old energy policy. Attention has focused on the lack of support for energy efficiency measures like insulation. There is a more fundamental criticism that needs urgent debate.
It was left to Andrea Leadsom, former UK energy Secretary to identify the key problem. She told the BBC last week that the quickest, cheapest way to increase renewable energy supply, and reduce dependence on fossil fuels, is to build wind turbines and solar farms in the countryside (everything stated about wind below could apply equally to solar). The obstacle, Leadsom said, was that developers tended to place their wind farms in places convenient to plug them into the national grid, and these places are rarely in the most windy locations.
My own local windfarm in East Sussex is a perfect example. Sometimes the blades do not turn even when a stiff breeze comes in across the channel. It was placed there because it is two miles from the former nuclear power station at Dungeness. So the cost of connecting to the grid was negligible.
The solution is staring us in the face – build wind turbines where the wind is – and then instead of feeding it into the grid -send it direct to nearby communities – at a large discount.
Technically, this is completely feasible.
At the moment, turbines are connected to the high voltage lines in order to carry the power to the central generating stations where it is then redirected out again. Instead the power could be distributed locally using whatever local transmission lines already exist. But the Utility companies are not geared up for that.
This needs a regulatory revolution similar to the one that forced BT to open up to competition 25 years ago. The phone lines were made available to any company wanting to offer a service on them, as long as they met minimum technical standards. The same could happen for electricity.
Local communities could be served by a single turbine, or a group of them, – financed by an individual entrepreneur, a local community or a giant multinational. With the latest IPCC report stressing the vital urgency of reducing fossil fuel usage now, huge opposition is to be expected from the energy industry to a change in the regulatory arrangements.
The current system does not allow individual consumers to take the benefit of low prices at times of low demand. “Balancing locally demand and supply is still not being incentivised through the system,” said Professor of Net Zero at Surrey University, Subesh Batt. “The regulators need to look into this and support it.
“That goes back to the issue of how we ensure that the return on the investment does not leave the local community and improves their overall quality of life and prosperity.
The urgent task therefore is not extracting more oil from the North sea – it is radically reforming regulation of the energy industry. And the exact same reforms could enable another surprising contribution to the energy mix.While the green movement has reluctantly embraced nuclear power in recent years, it has not clearly distinguished between the dangers of huge nuclear reactors, recently weaponised by Putin in the Ukraine, and the extreme safety of tiny nuclear power plants.
Micro-nuclear power has been technically feasible for the past 50 years. Instead of building one huge nuclear power station, we could build hundreds, even thousands, of tiny ones. Each local council in Britain could be allocated one from central government funding to get the ball rolling. All that is needed is permission to plug them in to the local grid.
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