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Climate Change - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:52 pm on 6th February 2020.

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Photo of Lord Broers Lord Broers Crossbench 3:52 pm, 6th February 2020

My Lords, I welcome this debate and the Absolute Zero report by UK FIRES. It is essential that academic experts with experience in energy issues, both technical and social, work closely with politicians in getting us through the crisis. In the same way, I welcome Greenhouse Gas Removal by the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering.

This huge topic left me wondering whether to discuss something very specific—for example, the real overall systems cost of connecting wind turbines to the grid—or something broad and general. I am opting for the latter; I shall discuss how we should approach this world crisis and what an ideal energy system might look like in the future.

Regrettably, but not unusually for engineers, we find ourselves working on a problem that we cannot quantify accurately. The modelling of how human behaviour is changing weather systems is even more difficult than modelling the weather itself, and, although there have been great advances in weather forecasting, accurate long-range forecasts are still beyond our capability. However, we cannot wait around while we solve this problem. We have no option but to proceed as quickly as possible.

I spent 20 years in industry in the United States and I recall vividly what happened when we ran into serious problems in the development of large systems. Everyone who had knowledge and skills in the areas relevant to the problem, including those in the research laboratories, dropped what they were doing and applied their talents to solving the immediate problem. In that case, delivering the product was more important than working on future technologies. If the product did not reach the market in time, customers would buy from other companies and there would be no future for the company.

However, we are not dealing with a company. We have taken on something far vaster—the future of the planet. Our deadline of 2050 precludes the use of future technologies. We must concentrate more of our innovation on improving ones that have already been demonstrated to be feasible. We should therefore resist calls to work on everything we can think of in the hope of a breakthrough technology that will rescue us. As the UK FIRES report points out, 30 years is not long enough to bring breakthrough technologies to full-scale implementation. Having said that, I am tempted to agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, has just said, because I think there is hope for fusion but probably not until about 2050.

That leaves us with just wind, solar and nuclear for electricity generation, and heat pumps, improved ventilation, insulation and lower temperatures in our buildings for heat. In the end, if we truly harness nuclear, we can use electricity for heat. For transport, we are relying on electrification, perhaps optimistically assuming that the electricity is clean.

The problem with nuclear is cost but analysis of the cost of Hinkley Point shows that it should be possible to realise less than £60 per 100 megawatt hour by reducing the borrowing cost of 9%—after all, it is not the purpose of the energy sector to subsidise the financial sector—and by building replicas of our reactors. We have never built a replica in the UK. China General Nuclear has established the feasibility of the EPRs that we are trying to build at Hinkley Point by having two of them already reliably supplying 1.5 gigawatts each to the grid.

Small and modular nuclear reactors—SMRs—also offer the opportunity for lower costs in the right timescale, and the Government have now offered modest support for their development. Rolls-Royce has for decades built SMRs for submarines and heads a consortium that is proposing to build SMRs that can be located on one-10th of the area needed for large-scale reactors. In addition, they can be built in factories with robotic assembly, and the reactor vessel can even be delivered on a truck. They will supply 220 to 440 megawatts, last for 60 years and supply electricity at a cost of less than £60 per 100 megawatt hours.

The remaining uncertainties with wind turbines are their reliability as they approach their 20 to 25-year lifetime—half that of nuclear plants—the overall systems cost of having to connect several thousand of these massive machines to the grid, which may increase their effective cost to about £50 per 100 megawatt hour, and having their highly variable output efficiently used. None the less, wind turbines have been very effective in rapidly reducing carbon, which is what we need, and they will be essential in meeting our 2050 target.

In the long term, the simplest and most efficient strategy might be to progressively increase nuclear capacity until we reach the level that exists in France—that is, about 70% or even higher. This will of course be a vast political challenge but it would be nice to join France and Scandinavia as a green country on the world energy map.