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MacKay: disputed findings

I have looked vary carefully at Professor David MacKay's book, "Renewable Energy without the Hot Air" and dispute much of his findings.

He cites the uncertainties in the model he has created, but fails to accumulate those uncertainties into an overall order of magnitude by which his calculations could be wrong. My initial estimate, without analysing the raw data in any detail, is that his calculation could be out by as much as 100 times. I do not believe that it is sensible to opt for a costly and less safe generating mode, such as nuclear, without trying to clarify some of those uncertainties. The other weakness in his calculations mean that the contribution which could be made by small scale renewables, local heat and power, waste to energy, biochar, heat sink and solar heating, are all seriously underestimated. There is no room in the model to consider such small sources, therefore they do not figure in the final calculations. Small scale generation has several advantages over large centralised power schemes, not least it sensitises people to energy efficency in their communities and contributes to alleviating fuel poverty. Finally, Dr MacKay seems to rule out the purchase of power from outside the UK. If this were done, it would be the first time in our history. We have never been independent of the need to import fossil fuels, even at the height of North Sea gas production. To aim for this nirvanah would rule out the option of using, say, solar power from steam generation in areas of high sunlight, such as Spain or Africa. If we developed the kind of intelligent grid needed to transport this electricity from those regions without significant power loss on the transmission lines, i.e. a lower voltage DC system, not the high voltage AC system currently in use, it would better support the wide variety of small scale suppliers which I believe is vital to our future.

David MacKay's book is an admirable attempt to adress the issues, but unfortunately this is a serious miscalculation by him. They are based on the worst of worst case scenarios, especially solar, a lack of any significant generation for three or more sucessive days, which although seems possible, is in fact not, as solar generates even when the sun is not shining, albeit a smaller amount. He appears to rule out any recharging of the existing pumped storage solutions in that time, which he implies will not happen without nuclear. He also, as I stated in earlier posts, does not take into account ANY small scale renewable resources, such as waste to power, biochar, heat sink, solar heating, etc. On carbon impacts, rather than just energy budgets, I believe that biochar, with its potential to "lock up" carbon and produce hydrogen for electricity generation could have huge potential. Producing carbon from waste by pyrolisis and locking it away either as a soil conditioner or burying it, seeems very attractive.

Simply put, nuclear energy displaces renewables in the energy mix, it does not live contentedly alongside it. Countries which have a high proportion of generation by nuclear have a significantly lower proportion of renewables. Why? Just a matter of a distorted market and economics.

If in the UK had a truely free market in electricity a mixed economy may work, but we don't. If we did have, and nuclear power were cost effective, we probably would have new build already. The major up front costs of nuclear power are the capital costs of the build. The highest costs of nuclear do not start coming home to roost until after the station has been up and running for a few years, for waste disposal, and then forty to sixty years later, when the station is decommissioned. In spite of the government policy that "no nuclear power station will be built unless the full cost, including the cost of decommissioning and a waste disposal are borne by the industry" this is not what is taking place.

The history of the nuclear levy in its various forms are lamentable, which is why the tax payer is paying at least £83 billion and maybe as much as £150 billion for decommissioning existing reactors. I have not seen any convincing argument that the costs of decommissioning the new builds will be any lower than the existing builds; indeed the use of hot fuel may make these costs even higher, so I will not be content with the levy proposed in the energy bill unless it is set to gather that sort of money into the contigencies fund. In addition, this money is gathered over the first forty year life of the power station, substantially subsidising the capital costs of the industry. Also, the government will take repsonsibility for nuclear waste a mere fifty years after being handed over to the government, in spite of it needing to be managed for several thousand years. Of course, the renewables industry has its subsidies too, but not for capital costs as far as I am aware and not at the sort of levels which will be available to the nuclear industry.

Once a nuclear power station of the current designs are up and running, they cannot be closed down or production reduced significantly without taking the station out of production for at least a week. Although new designs may allow refuelling without shutting down and more variation of the amount of electricity produced, there is no clear statement from the industry which of the reactors proposed for the UK actually are able to do this and how much variation will be possible. These are significant health and safety as well as production issues.

Imagine the scenario if a nuclear generating company were to be in financial difficulties ten years after opening a new nuclear power station (not so far fetched; see below). The government will be faced with allowing the company to go bankrupt and have a nuclear power station with only a fraction of the decommissioning costs recovered and a gap in the energy produced, or allow the company to raise electricity prices. Those of us who old enough to remember the electricty privatisation in the eighties will remember that this is exactly what happened. The taxpayer paid £6 billion in direct support for the industry, excused to the EU competition authorities as money for decommissioning but all of which was spent on the industry running costs, and the "nuclear levy" which increased all domestic electricity bills by around £100 per year to prepare the industry for privatisation. can someone tell me what has changed?

The only fortunate note in this sorry saga is that EdF are around £32 billion in debt and Areva are nearer £40 billion. If these companies were not over 80% owned by the French government I suggest that they would probably be bankrupt, especially the construction arm, Areva. E.ON are also in debt and are likely to be concentrating on their business in Germany in order to repair and update control systems in their existing reators. The Adam Smith Institute have concluded that they are unlikely to be able to build new nuclear in the UK in the near future.

Peter Rowberry