Saturday, 31 January 2009

Wasting scarce energy resources

It looks increasingly likely that the gas turbine power station proposed for Pembroke will get the official go-ahead. I have argued against this proposal before and will continue to do so. It's not an easy stance to take when others are queuing up to welcome the jobs (although this week's events elsewhere underline the fact that there's never any guarantee that the construction jobs will go to local people anyway).

But I genuinely believe that it's the wrong thing to do, and however easy it might be to join in with the prevailing consensus, I think it is dishonest and unprincipled for a politician to support the wrong developments for purely local advantage.

Natural gas is a finite resource, at some point we will run out. I don't know when that will be - and nor does anyone else - but we all know that, at some point, run out it will. So if we are going to use it to provide us with energy at all, it is surely important that we do so in the way that makes the best possible use of the resource.

The CCGT station proposed for Pembroke will deliver, overall, less than 50% energy efficiency – that is to say, over half the available energy content of the gas will be simply wasted, thrown away. Yet a number of smaller CHP schemes, situated closer to towns and industries, could burn the same amount of gas and achieve an overall energy efficiency level of around 85%. That means we would not only get almost twice as much energy for a given volume of gas, but we would also halve the level of emissions per unit of useful energy. In terms of which is best for the environment, this is a no-brainer.

Even on the jobs front, a series of smaller CHP stations would not only be better for the environment – it would also probably provide more jobs. And since the same amount of gas would last twice as long for the same energy output, they might even be more secure and long term jobs.

A few days ago, in relation to the proposal for a nuclear station at Wylfa, I argued that we should not be willing to accept jobs at any price, and I'm taking the same line with this development closer to home. We need jobs, but we need jobs which are consistent with our environmental policies, not jobs which undermine them. And those jobs are available if we take the right decisions on energy policy – it's not pie in the sky.

So why is that not happening? That's where we come right back to the way energy policy is (or rather is not) being determined in the UK. Decisions on what type of plant to build where are being left to the free market; so the plant we get is that which makes the most profit for its operators, not that which best fits the environmental needs. That will continue to be the case until we have a government which is prepared to take direct responsibility for ensuring that energy policy matches the commitments made to reducing greenhouse emissions.

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