‘Sustainable’ power to the people?

‘Citizen’ Ken Livingstone’s London energy plan might sound ambitious, but it simply repeats many of the fairytales about green energy.

Rob Johnston

Topics Science & Tech

Every London neighbourhood will have a municipal waste incinerator, a couple of sawdust-burning furnaces or a gigantic sewage reservoir bubbling methane and other flammable gases. Roads and parks will be dug up to lay an entirely new system of hot water distribution to homes and offices that, in turn, will be re-plumbed. Thousands of combined heat and power plants – each the size of a small block of flats – will take over from central gas and electricity as the main suppliers of energy to the city.

This extraordinarily ambitious plan (perhaps verging on megalomania) is London mayor Ken Livingstone’s misty-eyed vision for the capital’s ‘decentralised energy’ future to meet the challenge of climate change. Distracted by recent allegations about Ken’s abrasive personality, cronyism and ‘drinking on duty’, the press has overlooked the most important aspect of Ken’s mayoral reign since 2000 – some truly disastrous policies.

Plans to supply London’s energy for the next 20 years have been outlined in a series of grandiose strategies with ever-more portentous introductions. For example, Livingstone opens Action Today to Protect Tomorrow: The Mayor’s Climate Change Action Plan with this: ‘It is almost impossible to exaggerate the danger of climate change. I have no doubt that it is the single biggest threat to the future development of human civilisation.’ (1) But the contents of the plan reflect the banal and impractical thinking that characterises the green movement and ensures that the proposed ‘carbon savings’ will be illusory.

Livingstone’s ‘top priority for reducing carbon emissions’ is to build combined heating and power (CHP – or, with cooling, CCHP) stations. Proponents claim that CHP power plants are ‘sustainable’ because as they generate electricity, unwanted heat is transferred into water rather than released into the air. This heated water is pumped to nearby buildings to substitute for central heating and hot water. Depending on the size of the CHP plant and the density of housing, it can supply hundreds or thousands of properties – but the rapid cooling of water in pipes means that it is only useful for infrastructure fairly close by – hence the need for localised plants.

The mayor wants CHP plants to burn domestic and industrial waste, biomass (in the form of pellets manufactured from sawdust or dried plants), and sewage (dehydrated solid sludge or gases released by microbial digestion).

In fact, the vast majority of CHP plants burn gas – not as polluting as coal, but a high-carbon fossil fuel nonetheless. Using waste (either rubbish or sewage) as a fuel is still experimental and inefficient. Biomass is, essentially, wood burning and not only produces carbon dioxide but also dioxin. Ironically, dioxin is usually the greens’ scary (if much exaggerated) poison of choice, the mere mention of which is expected to seal any eco-argument – but such fears seem to have been forgotten in the push for sustainable energy.

CHP plants can operate at 80 per cent efficiency (the rate at which the energy potential of fuel is converted to heat or power) compared with 40 per cent for coal stations. But the original energy content of, for example, biomass is tiny. Small biomass plants simply cannot generate the high-pressure steam of a large fossil-fuel furnace. For electricity generation, biomass plants operate at only 10 per cent efficiency and to build up a decent head of steam, the electrical turbines must be bypassed so all the power can go into heat generation (2).

Throughout Livingstone’s plans, ‘decentralised energy’ and CHP are assumed to be ‘renewable’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘low carbon’. This fiction – common in environmental circles – is believed because it coincides with other fairytales about the moral superiority of recycling. Surely it is better to use waste, sewage and biomass for energy generation rather than landfill?

Only nine per cent of Britain’s waste is domestic (which puts the greens’ enthusiasm for recycling household rubbish into perspective); the vast majority of waste – 91 per cent – comes from industry, agriculture, construction, mining and so on. The most efficient method of disposal would be landfill. This method can also produce a small amount of energy, through the burning of the methane that is produced as the organic matter decomposes. But EU regulations now require member states to institute expensive landfill taxes. So there will soon be huge mountains of waste to dispose of somehow.

The honest approach would be to say: ‘We’ve got it, we don’t want it; if we burn it, we’ll at least get some use out of it.’ But prior opposition to incinerators by the very greens with whom Livingstone is now working means he needs to convince the public that incineration is not the noxious polluter it one was, but is really a ‘sustainable’ source of energy.

Actually, these ‘sustainable’ sources of fuel are simply a method of sending carbon dioxide back into the air without the inconvenient delay of storing it in the Earth’s crust for millennia. The energy used in collecting the fuel, processing it into a usable form, transporting it to CHP plants and disposing of solid waste is simply ignored. And until some practical form of carbon-capture and storage is developed, carbon dioxide will still be released into the atmosphere. The whole process will really increase CO2 levels in the atmosphere – less than coal burning, certainly, but it will not reduce CO2 levels as would nuclear power.

To supplement the CHP scenario, Livingstone also proposes to build huge wind turbines (3). With disarming honesty, the listed ‘advantages’ of the various proposed sites usually start with ‘high profile’ locations (eg, near the Millennium Dome, the Olympic Park, the Thames Gateway), which reveal their true purpose – propaganda value for the mayor’s green credentials.

As has been noted on spiked previously, the experience of Denmark suggests that wind power and decentralised energy – especially with CHP – are highly incompatible (4). Wind undermines both the economics and energy efficiency of CHP and it is doubtful whether the Danes have saved any carbon emissions at all as a result of their massive investment in CHP and offshore wind power. Denmark’s ‘sustainable’ energy strategy results in the country having to import at least 10 per cent of its electricity from neighbouring Sweden, where half the electricity supply is nuclear.

If the mayor truly wanted to reduce carbon emissions quickly and significantly, he could negotiate a cheap ‘nuclear tariff’ for Londoners and pay for each household to replace its gas boiler with an electric one – a rather cheaper option than ‘decentralised energy’ – and follow the example of the Israeli government in planning to roll out an electric car scheme with battery-replacement stations instead of petrol stations.

An all-electric London supplied by nuclear power stations would reduce carbon emissions from transport and heating to, as near as damn it, zero – an effective, achievable and affordable way to make London truly the world’s first eco-city. But in the anything-but-nuclear world of environmentalism, that kind of thinking is taboo.

Rob Johnston is a writer on the environment, health and science.

Previously on spiked

Rob Johnston said that the answer to our energy problems is not blowing in the wind and looked at 10 myths about nuclear power. Joe Kaplinsky and James Woudhuysen argued that the UK government’s consultation on nuclear power focused on changing our behaviour. Joe Kaplinsky demanded that the government put a positive case for nuclear power. As part of spiked‘s ‘Future of Energy’ debate, Malcolm Grimston argued that nuclear was the only proven, low-carbon technology. Or read more at spiked issue Energy.

(1) Action Today to Protect Tomorrow: The Mayor’s Climate Change Action Plan, February 2007

(2) Biomass as a renewable energy source, Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution

(3) London wind & biomass study summary report: Feasibility of the potential for stand alone wind and biomass plants in London, London Energy Partnership, 2006

(4) See Energy – the answer is not blowing in the wind, by Rob Johnston

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


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