New Microgeneration report - what it actually says

Home fires burning won't keep the lights on

This scenario would see 16 renewable (eg, low or zero carbon) terawatt-hours of heat and another two or four of leccy produced, equivalent to 1 per cent of the UK's total energy consumption turning green. In total, microgen would be delivering 118 terawatt-hours of heat and 30 of electricity. (Tables 3, 4 and 28 in the report).

This is said by the microgeneration industry and the Guardian to represent "as much energy as 5 nuclear power stations", though Element Energy confirmed to the Reg yesterday that they never said that.

Just for reference, Sizewell B - the only existing UK nuke station planned to last beyond 2023 - produces a little less than nine electric terawatt-hours annually and no useable heat.

The £21bn-subsidy microgen plan would produce as much clean electricity as half a nuclear power station, then, or as much clean energy all up as two nuke stations. Not five. Including dirty carbon-smeared CHP production, the whole £21bn microgen base would be about equal to seventeen Sizewell Bs - not five.

This subsidy plan would continue to cost the taxpayer £5.5bn each year forever, according to the report - that's as much as we currently spend on defence procurement, or enough money to buy 55 terawatt-hours of electricity every year at consumer prices, well over 15 per cent of the national leccy bill. And of course, we'd all still be paying our normal energy bills as well, and we'd still have done nothing to clean up the other 99 per cent of our energy usage.

By comparison, a nuclear power station half again as big as Sizewell B is said by French makers EDF to cost about £2bn and by most other people to cost about £3bn. Four billion quid's worth of nuke stations would produce as much low-to-zero-carbon electricity as the headline microgen plan, which would cost conservatively five times as much just in subsidies - forget about the costs to the users. Even given swingeing regulatory, maintenance, staffing, decommissioning and waste-management costs (plus some pocket change for fuel) it's not surprising that the nuclear energy industry - unlike the microgeneration one - does not consider that it needs any subsidy at all in the UK.

Locking us in to carbon

And there's the rub. Microgeneration will only happen if it's subsidised; and it only makes sense to subsidise it if this does something good, like seriously reducing our carbon emissions or freeing us from the need to buy gas from Russia. But microgeneration reduces our carbon emissions by a few per cent at the absolute outside - more probably by less than 1 per cent - and it certainly doesn't wean us off gas.

Overall, no policy scenario leads to a dramatic decline in reliance on imported natural gas and hence security of supply by 2050.

And it gets worse. If grid electricity can be decarbonised even partially - by building wind farms or nuclear stations, say - the eco benefits of microgeneration disappear. We would find ourselves subsidising people to spew carbon unnecessarily, in fact. The report shows quite clearly that if the carbon burden of grid power can be halved, then burning gas in the home becomes a very eco-unfriendly thing to do, no matter how cunning the machinery used. Subsidies for CHP et al would then be highly un-green, as they would actually drive up carbon emissions rather than reduce them. Only heat-pumps, and perhaps some biomass kit, would be eco-worthwhile if grid electricity were less dirty.

The report's authors offer a stark warning to anyone fancying that micro-CHP plant.

There are reasons to believe ... that the grid will decarbonise rapidly. Key factors are:

• Possible expansion of nuclear capacity

• The EU’s 2020 target

• The Large Combustion Plant Directive ... expected to lead to a reduction in the number of coal plants connected to the grid

• Implementation of Carbon Capture

If a rapid decarbonisation and expansion (to cope with new heating demand) of the grid is possible then it may be prudent to encourage uptake of efficient electric heating technologies (essentially heat pumps) instead of, for example, micro-CHP ... it is important that this issue is tackled before substantial microgeneration support schemes are put in place. It would be possible to ‘lock-in’ UK consumers to the wrong microgeneration technology ... if overall energy policy is not thought through in a joined up and long-term fashion.

Or in other words, microgen subsidies would be stupid if we have any aspirations toward decarbonising the grid.

Did anyone actually read this?

In the end, everyone's drawing their own conclusions about this report. The microgeneration makers see it as an ironclad case for big subsidies. At least one other of the report's backers vehemently disagrees, headlining their release "Subsidy Unnecessary as Rising Fuel Prices will Make Microgeneration Attractive". This seems to be flying in the face of the report, to say the least of it:

Annual fuel prices rises have very small short-term effects ... By 2030, the combination of fuel price rises and reductions in capital costs are sufficient to increase the microgeneration stock ...

More abrupt price changes have a much larger effect ... doubling of fossil fuel prices drives uptake in nearly 10 million homes by 2030. The vast majority of this is CHP ... Biomass uptake remains comparatively low ... A 50 per cent decrease in fuel prices leads to a substantial reduction of microgeneration ...

A doubling of biomass prices [as might occur if lots of people used biomass] is sufficient to make wood chip and pellet boilers extremely unattractive ...

Conclusion – moderate fuel price rises lead to a large increase in microgen uptake relative to the base case by 2050, but overall numbers remain small compared with conventional technologies such as condensing boilers.

Most of the press so far are parroting the microgeneration makers' five-nuke-stations release.

As far as we at Vulture Central can see, what this report actually suggests is that lower carbon emissions and energy security are both a lot easier to achieve nationally using the electric grid than in the home using the gas network. As for trying to achieve these aims in the home without burning stuff - eg, using rooftop solar electric, wind turbines etc - that barely made a difference in any scenario, though it did offer the chance to piss away a lot of cash.

Given that Element Energy and most of the people who funded them are either well-disposed or at worst neutral to the general idea of microgeneration, that's actually a pretty damning indictment.®

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