No developed economy can function without a reliable and economic supply of electricity but with present UK policies we have been warned that within a few years there will be a risk of power failures while increases in prices to consumers will rise by more than 50 per cent by 2025.
On a standalone basis the situation in Scotland would be even more disastrous. The huge investment required to remedy the neglect and wishful thinking of recent years will require two decades or more to take effect and in the run up to the May elections we urge all political parties in Scotland to put the future of our electricity supplies at the top of their agendas.
The pretence that our electricity can in future be supplied from renewables, mainly wind and marine, has gone on too long. These matters are not a question of opinion; they are answerable to the laws of physics and are readily analysed using normal engineering methods. All of these energy sources are of very low concentrations and intermittent; they are and will remain inherently expensive and no amount of development will have more than a marginal effect on this conclusion.
Nor can wind and marine energy sources be relied on to provide electricity when it is needed; a recent analysis has shown that for over 30 per cent of the time the output from wind farms has dropped to below 10 per cent of their nominal output and during extremely cold weather has fallen to virtually zero. Furthermore it is unfortunately not correct that marine energy constitutes a vast untapped energy resource on our doorstep; studies (now apparently accepted by government) have shown that at best it could provide only a few percent of our electricity supplies and at costs which, including the necessary back up generation, would be entirely unacceptable to consumers.
Fossil fuelled generation (coal or gas) with carbon dioxide capture and underground storage may yet prove a useful technique but it is important to realise that it is an unproven technology on the scale required; that it may never be acceptable to dispose of such huge quantities of gas in underground storage and at present its costs are too uncertain to gamble on its playing a significant part in our forward energy policy.
So by all means let us have some wind power, development programmes for other renewables, home insulation programmes, heat pumps etc but let us not pretend that all these taken together will substitute for proven generation sources such as coal, gas and nuclear.
And if low carbon is to be the principal driver of energy policy, we can build on Scotland’s half century of experience with nuclear, generating some 50 per cent of our electricity requirements, reliably and at low cost.
Scotland needs a balanced electricity system which can deliver economic and reliable supplies; we are at the 11th hour and there is now no more time to lose in getting to grips with this task. There can be nothing more urgent on the political agenda.
Colin Gibson C Eng FIEECCMI (Network director National Grid 1993-97)
Prof Ken W D Ledingham FInstP
Prof Colin R McInnes FREng FRSE
Sir Donald Miller C EngFREng FRSE, Chairman ScottishPower 1982-92
Prof Anthony Trewavas FRS FRSE
Prof Jack Ponton FREng FIChemE