Some thoughts on renewable energy in the UK
We started the new year with a very interesting speaker on an important and topical subject. Ian Laidlaw is a former lecturer in geography and environmental science at the University of Wales, and gave a talk entitled Some thoughts on renewable energy in the UK. Ian has no axe to grind, whether for the green lobby, or those acquiring licenses to frack for shale gas in our national parks. He gave us an objective overview which exposed some curious paradoxes.
World carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels have increased exponentially since the 1950’s and are currently at record levels, with coal burning the major contributor. The conventional wisdom, often challenged, is that these man- made ‘greenhouse gases’ control the earth’s temperature and cause climate change if not global warming. The solution to this perceived problem is to replace burning of fossil fuels with renewable energy.
Our government through the Climate Change Act 2008 has committed the UK to achieving an 80% cut in greenhouse gases by 2050, with 34% reduction to be achieved by 2020. This is to come from a five fold increase in renewable energy this decade. We have certainly taken action: renewables’ share of electricity generation in the UK has increased from 11.3% in 2012 to 23.5% in the 3rd quarter of 2015.
Ian then cantered swiftly through the technical problems, high costs and limitations of the various forms of renewable energy such as sunlight [not enough, particularly in winter] wind [either too much or too little], flowing water, tides, waves [disappointing], geothermal heat [great if you live in Iceland, too deep to access in the UK even if we try to get to it through our redundant deep coalmines]. He was quite a fan of nuclear power, although Stella Dodd was clearly not reassured to learn how much cheaper it would be if not so heavily regulated for safety. Biomass, ie wood burning, is certainly renewable but has the serious disadvantage of producing more CO2 than burning coal. This is what we’re now doing at Drax power station.
Ian pointed out that we in the UK contribute less than 2% of world Carbon Dioxide emissions. India and China are still planning to continue to increase their use of coal, with a huge expansion of coal fired power plants planned and under construction. China alone uses half of the coal burned each year world-wide.
He posed the question: is it really worth exporting all our heavy industries overseas with no net benefit to the planet ?
This was a joint meeting, partners clearly attending out of intellectual curiosity rather than social reasons. Ian has since graciously commented to me -
May I thank the Roundhay Rotarians for their kind reception and most discerning questioning.