Wednesday, July 16, 2008


So, before I was so rudely interrupted by Tom Brake's legislatory indiscretion, I was writing about some energy news the blogosphere has missed. A more cynical mind would suggest that that omission was a tad convenient...

Microgeneration is one of those policies that ticks all the liberal boxes. The mere idea of millions of individual households all selling electricity they generated themselves undoubtedly generates warm fuzzy feelings in many of our number. It certainly generates warm fuzzy feelings in policy working group members, warranting its own subsection of last year's Zero Carbon Britain policy paper.

You might expect, therefore, the blogosphere to herald the publication of a report commissioned by a consortium including DBERR, various Regional Development Agencies, a couple of NGOs and the odd utility company that, if media reports are to be believed, promises a bright future for the various technologies concerned. Then again, it's entirely possible that the bloggers, unlike the journalists but like the good folks at The Register, actually read the report...

The headline figure is, it is true, quite good; a possible 30 MtCO2 reduction in emissions by 2030, which would represent a 5% cut on present UK total emissions. From the end of the first paragraph of the headline summary, however, things start to go downhill.

The immediate barrier to adoption of microgeneration is entirely financial. Not only do the existing technologies have significant up-front costs, but consumers continue to attach a higher importance to those up-front costs than to any subsequent long-term savings. In countries where microgeneration has proliferated, it has done so through massive subsidy, both in terms of funding for installation and guaranteed prices for excess generation sold to the market (the “feed-in tariff” of myth and legend...)

Moreover, when we talk about wide scale uptake of microgeneration, we should not con ourselves that we are looking forward to a world of wind turbines on every roof. The reality is that the truly attractive technology is combined heat and power; right now, micro combined heat and power is attractive at a subsidy of 5p/kWh, while micro renewables are only attractive at 40p/kWh.

And as the split there suggests, combined heat and power may well be microgeneration, but it is fossil fuel microgeneration, so the carbon benefits are non-existent. To hit that 30MtCO2 target, therefore, fuel cell combined heat and power technology is needed. It may well come about, but any assessment of time scales is of necessity an estimate whose optimism must be accounted for.

All in all, the optimistic scenario from paragraph one (and, indeed, from the headlines in The Grauniad and elsewhere) delivers 110 TWh of heat and 30TWh of electricity, of which 16 TWh of heat and 4 TWh of electricity are renewable. The cost?

£21 billion. By 2020. And £5.5 billion per year thereafter.

Of course, the press coverage downplays both the fossil fuelled element and the cost, while making the normal lazy comparison with, in this case, “five nuclear power stations.” Unfortunately, that number is utter bollocks, appearing nowhere in the report. In reality, the zero-carbon element of the microgeneration proposed is worth half a Sizewell B a year (two if you consider total energy and not just electrical). Furthermore, a new Sizewell B costs at most £3 billion, so for the same subsidy needed to give microgeneration a shot you could get twice as much electricity and three times as much zero-carbon energy from new nuclear build.

The numbers go on and on, but I fear there's little point. As I said at the start, we like microgeneration not because it is green, but because it is the opposite of the monolithic, centralised system that nuclear in particular represents. We should remember, however, that our creed is not devolution per se; it is devolution to the lowest level practicable. Microgeneration may entice us, but if it cannot deliver the level of milk and honey we seek, we must discard it.


Joe Otten said...

The carbon benefits of gas micro-CHP are surely similar to gas large scale CHP, that is substantial compared to the generation of electricity using gas turbines.

I think micro-CHP has a potential added benefit if we go down the smart metering route. I don't really care when my water is heated, so long as I have hot water. So my micro-CHP could respond to electricity demand on the grid. That would go some way to making intermittent renewables more viable.

Steph Ashley said...

Gareth, please please tell me you're not an advocate for nuclear power? Your post is ambiguous in that respect. I sincerely hope not. It's not merely the fact that it's a monolithic, centralised system (nice choice of words by the way) that puts *me* off - it's a matter of global security. Producing enough clean energy for the planet by dotting nuclear power stations all over it is comparable to solving your garden slug problem by surrounding your house with land mines.

Anonymous said...

Like to see a bit more of what you do as a councillor in dear old Llandaff!