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Electricity

One source of energy that is absolutely essential to our way of life is electricity (see the Aftermath page). You only have to think of the problems that are caused by a power cut of a few hours. Can we switch our electricity generation from fossil fuels to renewables in the short time we have available? Using freely downloadable data, let us examine the problems facing the UK.

Go to the UK government trade and industry site and you can download Excel files that give you information on the generation and consumption of electricity in 2004. Examining these can show us some of the problems ahead. The results are somewhat simplified to enable everyone to follow the reasoning and allow you to follow your own process. For instance, power plants, especially renewables, do not run continuously so the capacity is a theoretical maximum.

(Note: pumped storage hydro stations have been removed from the data as they are electric storage systems rather than electricity generators.)

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Power Stations

One of these files shows the number of power stations in the UK and the fuel they use. These have been summarised in the charts below.

UK Stations (Max & Ave)

L1. UK Power Stations (Maximum and Average Capacity)

UK Stations (Count)

L2. UK Power Stations (Total Count)

The most noticeable feature of these two charts is the poor showing of renewables. While the maximum hydroelectric station is not large (153MW at Sloy), the next largest is 75MW and the mean is just 20MW so there are many small hydro plants and little opportunity to build any larger ones in a densely-populated country like the UK. Wind fares even worse. The largest wind plants at present (2004) in the UK are two offshore farms at 60MW which doesn't come anywhere near even the average for the fossil fuel and nuclear categories. The complete absence of solar power stations and the low number (in count and output) of biomass/waste is significant. At the moment, it is clear how dependent the UK relies on the finite and polluting fuels of coal, gas and nuclear.This is emphasised even further in chart L3 which shows that 81% of the total capacity is produced by fossil fuels and only 3% by renewables.

UK Stations (Capacity)

L3. UK Power Stations (Total Capacity)

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Future Replacement

Renewables

If we are to replace fossil-fuel powered power stations with renewables, it is hard to see from the figures used above how we could do so in the short time left. (It is true that there will be improvements to the technology to produce more output, but there also be an increase in demand). There is little room in the UK to expand hydroelectricity which is very dependent on geographical situation except as local generators contributing small amounts to the national total. Wind power has a larger potential; 500 and 600MW farms are being planned, but even these massive enterprises would only be the size of the average gas-powered station. Solar-powered stations do not exist as yet. The world's largest solar plant is being planned which would produce 116MW. But this is in sunny Portugal and would cover a area of 250 hectares. The potential in the UK is much lower and, again, even 116MW is much lower than the average gas, coal or nuclear station. Bio/waste plants are few and small scale, and tidal power is still far from making a significant contribution.

Nuclear

The one fuel that has been left out of the calculations so far is the tricky subject of nuclear. As it is neither infinite nor pollution-free, replacing fossil fuels would be jumping from the frying pan into the fire. Even if we went for that, to go from the 16% for present nuclear to replacing the 80% of fossil fuels would require an enormous number of new stations. A very simple calculation shows that fossil fuels presently produce around 60,000MW. Divide that by the average 1000MW nuclear station will give you 60 new stations (five times the present number).

Hydrogen

If we wished to move over to a clean hydrogen economy and keep anywhere near the present number of vehicles on the road, we would have to increase the number of renewable power stations by a far greater amount. Since using electricity to create hydrogen to propel vehicles is rather inefficient (with a final value of something like 30% of the original energy of the electricity), it is hard to see how we could create such a system with even nuclear power, let alone renewables.

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Have a look at the page on efficiency for more information.

Information on Specific Fuels

Unconventional Oils : Natural Gas : Coal : Nuclear : Renewables : Hydrogen

 

Contents

Power stations

Future replacement

 

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