Go renewable, not nuclear - Clean, green energy works

Renewable energy options are a practical alternative to nuclear.

Echoing Margaret Thatcher, Gordon Brown insists "there is no alternative" to nuclear power in order to meet the UK's future energy needs. The announcement that the government is giving the go ahead to a new generation of nuclear plants is based on this premise. Ministers warn that renewable sources of energy are not able to provide enough electricity to meet our needs.

This is nonsense. There is plenty of renewable capacity, including renewable sources that can provide constant supply and be timed to meet peaks of demand.

But the starting point for any serious energy policy has got to be energy saving. Reducing wastage in energy production and saving on wasteful energy consumption are two very simple measures that can slash our energy needs; making a new generation of nuclear power plants unnecessary and redundant.

The government's 2002 Energy Review advised that the UK could cut its energy needs by one-third through a comprehensive programme of energy conservation in homes, offices and factories, including double-glazing, loft insulation, draft exclusion, energy-efficient boilers and appliances, and switching to low-energy light bulbs. This large-scale energy saving programme would, in addition, create tens of thousands of new jobs and boost the economy.

More efficient industrial motors in factories could enable us to save enough electricity to shut down four nuclear power stations, according to Friends of the Earth. If the whole country switched to low energy light bulbs, we could save the equivalent of the electricity generated by one nuclear power plant.

Currently, around 60% to 70% of energy is lost in conventional oil, gas and coal-fired power stations. There could be immense savings through more efficient fuel-to-energy conversion technologies and by building combined heat and power plants to pump waste hot air and water into local factories and homes.

In addition to saving huge amounts of energy through conservation, we can also generate vast amounts of energy from renewable sources that are credible, practical and effective. The government's own estimates, commissioned from the Carbon Trust, suggest that all the UK's energy needs could be met from sustainable, non-global warming sources.

Microgeneration is a massively under-exploited system of energy generation in the UK. A study undertaken by the Energy Saving Trust for the Department of Trade & Industry
suggested that by 2050, microgeneration could provide 30% to 40% of the UK's electricity needs and help reduce household carbon emissions by 15%.
The forms of microgeneration identified as viable included solar photovoltaics, wind turbines and small-scale hydro (in suitable areas), ground source heat pumps (GSHP), bio-energy, mini-combined heat and power, and hydrogen energy and fuel cells.

Off-shore wind farms could comfortably generate the same amount of electricity as 12 nuclear power stations. One recent report suggested that existing and proposed wind turbines could produce 20GW of clean electricity - around 17% of our total electricity needs - by 2020.

Friends of the Earth calculates that wave power could match the electricity output of 8.5 nuclear reactors. Since waves are constant in the rougher seas where wave power facilities would be sited, wave energy can help ensure constant supplies of electricity.

Tidal power is another major option. It is capable of producing around 12% of our electricity needs. Just one project, the proposed Severn estuary tidal lagoons scheme, has the potential to fulfil almost 7% of the UK's electricity demand. An additional 5% or more of UK demand could be met by tidal schemes in Liverpool Bay and several other estuaries.

The great strength of the tidal lagoons system, as opposed to the tidal barrage proposed for the Severn estuary, is that its impact on the environment is much less and its generating power much greater (around 25% to 40% greater). Moreover, tidal lagoons can help solve the energy baseload problem by capturing and holding incoming tides in giant reservoirs and then releasing the tides through turbines to generate power at times of peak demand.

A variation on the tidal lagoons system involves under-sea turbines that turn and generate power based on the ebb and flow of the tides. These can be submerged out of sight at depths of up to 20 to 40 metres to take advantage of deeper sea tidal flows. Since tides are constant, this renewable source can provide constant power to the grid.

Other renewable sources include solar power, which actually generates energy from light, with or without the sun's rays. This means that it works even in less sun-endowed climates like the UK's. Within five years, Germany will generate as much of its electricity from solar power as we currently generate from nuclear (around 20%). We could match and exceed Germany if we made solar panels the universal, mandatory roofing material for all domestic, industrial, commercial and public buildings.

New cheap, ultra-thin solar foil has the potential to be mass applied to rooves and a wide range of other surfaces. This would massively increase the UK's solar generating capacity. Using this technology the US company Nanosolar says it can cut the cost of solar power to 50p a watt and can build a 10MW solar power station within nine months, compared to the 10-plus years for a coal-fired plant and at least 15 years for a nuclear reactor. If we need a quick-fix to an energy shortfall, solar is one of the fastest, cheapest options.

Further big breakthroughs in solar technology are being pioneered by the Cardiff-based company, G24 Innovations, which has developed much cheaper ways of producing solar energy than traditional photovoltaic panels.

Another alternative is rolling hydro power, which involves placing turbines on river-beds to capture the power of river flows; and mini-hydro electric schemes, which can operate productively on even very small streams.

A new frontier technology is hydro pressure from the gas pipe network. Mini-turbines in gas pipes could utilise natural variations and changes in gas pressure to produce electricity. This technology is producing promising test results in the US, Switzerland and Italy.

Geo-thermal power has some potential in the UK, but our best bet would to import from Iceland, via undersea cables, electricity generated from its geo-thermal (and hydro) sources. Having access to renewable energy from Iceland as a back up, could be another way to ensure baseload top-ups at times when demand surges.

One other possible import is electricity produced by concentrated solar power (CSP). This technology, already successfully trialled in the US and Spain, involves giant mirror farms in desert regions like southern Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Cyprus and north Africa.

CSP uses these mirrors to concentrate the sun's rays to create intense heat to drive turbines and generate electricity, which could then be exported by grid to the UK and elsewhere.

The heat captured in the day can be stored overnight to provide on-going electric power after dark; which means that constant energy can be supplied to the grid until the next sunrise. Scientists have calculated that by covering less than 1% of the world's desert regions with the concentrated solar power stations, we could produce enough power to meet the entire world's electricity needs.

One very positive side benefit of CSP technology it that could also aid the economic development of sun-rich but often arid, under-developed regions. In particular, an energy partnership between the UK-EU and north African countries could be the basis of a new north-south alliance, which may also increase the chances of these countries embracing democratisation and rejecting fundamentalism.

All these various practical non-nuclear energy options are discussed by Roger Higman of Friends of the Earth, in my online TV programme Talking With Tatchell, which you can watch here:

So far, the government has not even considered most of these alternatives, which is a big shame and a clear dereliction of its public responsibilities. It is has instead sought to ram through a biased, flawed consultation that was skewed in favour of the nuclear option, as I explained in my previous article.

I would urge MPs of all parties to reject Gordon Brown's "there is no alternative" mantra, and to vote down the nuclear option. Renewable green energy technologies are cheaper, faster, safer and cleaner than nuclear, gas, coal or oil - and they can produce all our energy needs, in perpetuity.

Published: 11/01/2008