Environment Essay: UK energy policy


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The main problem for the UK and other countries has been the unmanaged release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere resulting from the use of fossil fuels in energy generation. There is convincing evidence that this is causing major changes in the Earth's climate, the consequences of which could threaten the health and livelihoods of so many people on this planet.

The major issue that Governments worldwide are now facing is how to meet increasing energy demands from an ever increasing world population. The issue is politically charged, with differing opinions on how nuclear, renewable and energy efficient measures should contribute to future energy policy. From the governments point of view, energy policies must be driven by the aim of ensuring an adequate and secure supply of affordable energy whilst also properly dealing with the production of wastes, including both carbon dioxide and radioactive materials.

The Government’s figures show that UK carbon dioxide emissions have increased over the last two years, and although Kyoto targets are likely to be reached, the UK's energy policies must aim for cuts in emissions of 60 per cent in the longer term (defra, 2005). One of the major challenges facing the UK is how to generate electricity whilst minimising the damage that can be caused by waste products. In the short to medium term, some scientists comment that it will be difficult to reduce dependence on fossil fuels without the help of nuclear power (Royal Society, 2005).

At present, the UK relies on nuclear power to generate about a quarter of the UK's electricity demands. All nuclear power stations are scheduled to reach the ends of their lives within the next 30 years. Unless the rate of development of both renewables and energy efficiency measures makes up for the loss of capacity resulting from the phasing out of nuclear power, the UK will become more reliant on fossil fuels, which is obviously not consistent with an overall aim of drastically reducing carbon dioxide emissions. According to the Government's own estimates, we will be more dependent on fossil fuels to generate electricity in 2010 than we were in 1995 (defra, 2005).

Whilst the UK has made relatively well funded policy commitments to increasing its renewable energy capacity throughout the 1990s, it would still be hard to argue with the European Renewable Energy Study description of renewable resources ‘playing an almost negligible role in the United Kingdom's energy balance' (TERES, 1994). Since that 1994 report the UK's efforts have seen it rise only from 15th to 14th by 2002, on a list ranking the 15 EU countries on the fraction of energy they obtain from renewable sources. Production amounts to only 3% of total primary energy use in the UK, with 46% of this figure coming from hydropower (Smith, 2002). The reasons for this low figure can be broken down into a number of categories, including problems with planning regulations, poorly thought out support mechanisms and a general lack of political will.

Whilst having provided prior support for the support of R&D efforts in renewable energy, significant efforts in providing UK policy on developing their potential can be traced to the oil crises of the 1970s, as with the efforts of so many of its competitors. Elliott provides an extensive overview of renewable energy R&D funding in the UK up the late 1980s, and the underlying policy basis for it (Elliott, 1989). Elliott records that wave energy came to be the most favoured of the new renewable energy technologies in the late 1970s and received considerable government support on this basis. This was to change following a 1982 review by the Advisory Council on Research and Development for fuel and power (ACORD), along with a report from the Energy Technology Support Unit (ETSU) (HMSO, 1982). This led to the reassessment of wave as unlikely ever to achieve a sufficiently low price to make it economically viable.

Wind had initially been classified as one of the technologies least likely to develop to an economically viable stage and was thus provided with only a low level of funding. ACORD support of wind led to favourable government policy and funding for R,D&D, though the government stood firmly against providing direct financial grant aid to try to move the technology from the demonstration phase towards being fully commercial. This policy of eschewing grants was to remain intact up to the 2001 announcement of £40 million to support a limited number of offshore wind developments and the expansion of biofuel use.

One of the problems often cited in connection with the development of renewable and nuclear sources of energy is that they appear to be uneconomic compared to fossil fuels. This is based on what the Royal Society considers a flawed assumption, that there is no cost associated with pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The Government needs to introduce a charge for the right to produce carbon dioxide, through for example a carbon tax or a system of tradable emissions permits. Such measures are required to balance the economic arguments surrounding energy generation.

The end of 2001 saw the announcement of a wide range of new instruments aimed at revitalising the UK's efforts regarding renewable energy. Current plans for future policy in the UK centre on achieving a target of 10% of all electrical generation from renewable energy sources by 2010. The central mechanism aimed at achieving this end is the newly introduced Renewables Obligation (RO). However, to date, not all of these have reached the statute books and begun to have an impact in real terms.

The governments future energy policy must focus on how to ensure a secure supply of affordable energy, how to manage the waste products of energy generation regardless of whether it is in the form of radioactive materials or carbon dioxide, and how to increase energy efficiency. The fact that DEFRA is responsible for dealing with waste, while Department for Trade and Industry deals with the commissioning and operation of power stations, must not prevent a coherent approach to policy that meets our future energy requirements whilst properly managing any waste that is produced.

www.defra.gov.uk (accessed 2005)
Elliott D. Renewable energy R&D in the UK: a strategic overview. Technology Analysis & Strategic Management 1989;1(2):22337.
ETSU. Strategic review of renewable energy technologies. London: HMSO, 1982.
Smith A Watson J The renewables obligation: can it deliver? Brighton, SPRU, University of Sussex, 2002, 6.
TERES. The European Renewable Energy Study. Luxembourg, Advisory Council on Research and Development, European Commission, 1994.

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