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Heavyweight physics prof weighs into climate/energy scrap

Zero-carbon UK plans for all: Greens, nimbys, even Libs

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Then, there’s the hard-green option for those who won’t have nukes or coal at all — plan G. “Greenpeace, I know, love wind,” says Mackay, “so plan G is dedicated to them, because it has lots of wind.”

Nudging up the wave contribution … and bumping up wind power by a whopping 24 to 32 kWh per day per person … wind delivers 64 per cent of all the electricity.

Under this plan, world wind power in 2007 is multiplied by four, with all of the increase being placed on or around the British Isles. Roughly one hundred of Britain’s major lakes and lochs would be required for the associated pumped storage systems.

This plan gets 14% of its electricity from other countries.

The immense dependence of plan G on renewables, especially wind, creates difficulties for our main method of balancing supply and demand, namely adjusting the charging rate of millions of rechargeable batteries for transport. So in plan G we have to include substantial additional pumped storage facilities, capable of balancing out the fluctuations in wind on a timescale of days … Most major lochs in Scotland would be part of pumped storage systems.

It’s worth noting that in earlier analysis, MacKay suggested that pumped storage on this scale would be very hard to achieve using existing lakes and lochs. In actuality, vast amounts of seawater would probably get pumped up and down mountains and cliffs routinely to bridge the huge demand swings of a mostly-electric Britain and the massive variations in a mostly-wind powered grid.

MacKay made no effort to cost plan G, but he offers maps and figures indicating the staggering scale of the engineering. Britain would be literally covered with — and girdled by — massive wind farms, tidal barriers and wave barrages, and every sizeable body of water in the land would rise and fall to the strange new tides of the national grid. We would have literally rebuilt the British Isles as a single mighty renewable generator, pouring concrete and erecting steel on a scale so far matched only by human habitation — industrialising the land and sea in a way that would make intensive agribusiness look like a wildlife refuge. And still we’d be importing power.

That’s the reality of the Greenpeace plan for the UK, in hard numbers. You can see why MacKay is worried about their response.

Finally, having done is-it-feasible plans driven by greater or lesser amounts of different agendas, MacKay considers what would happen if you simply dispense with oil and gas, insist that coal must be carbon free, and let the market work within that framework.

E stands for ‘economics’. On a level economic playing field with a strong price signal preventing the emission of CO2, we don’t get a diverse solution, we get an economically optimal solution that delivers the required power at the lowest cost. And when ‘clean coal’ and nuclear go head to head on price, it’s nuclear that wins. (The capital cost of regular dirty coal power stations is £1 billion per GW, about the same as nuclear; but the capital cost of clean coal power, including carbon capture and storage, is roughly £2 billion per GW.) Offshore wind also loses to nuclear, but I’ve assumed that onshore wind costs about the same. My final plan is a rough guess for what would happen in a liberated energy market with a strong carbon price.

This plan has a ten-fold increase in our nuclear power over 2007 levels. 110GW is roughly double France’s nuclear fleet. I included a little tide because I believe a well-designed tidal lagoon facility can compete with nuclear power. In this plan, Britain has no energy imports except for the uranium…

The nice thing about MacKay’s numbers is that you can try out your pet theories with them, and have some confidence in the results. The prof confirmed to The Reg that he’s thinking of an online tool which might let people try out their favourite policies.

In the meantime, you can read his book — even help him finish it, maybe.

No matter what your feelings about MacKay’s results and his politics — just for instance, he’s quite sympathetic to the idea of not paying that part of your taxes which goes to the military (a few per cent, in the UK) — you disregard his maths and physics at your peril. His work is a serious contribution to the energy debate. ®

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