Without subsidies, there’d be no nuclear

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Bernard Ingham asks me and the Greens (June 7, 2012) what we want from life. That is a big question and much bigger than our current debate on what is the best energy system for Britain.

Not speaking on behalf of any Greens (I am not a member of the Green Party) I will reply to as many as Bernard Ingham’s points as the editor of HBT will allow – although I remind Mr Ingham that he never answered my questions about climate change put to him last year.

In fact, Mr Ingham does not even address the points I raised in my letter published on 7th June regarding the government’s subsidies to the nuclear industry. Does he agree that the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) spends £6.93 billion a year on managing nuclear waste and other liabilities from Britain’s current nuclear power program – 86% of DECC’s current budget or eight times as much as on securing our future energy and climate security?

Does Mr Ingham agree that the nuclear industry cannot obtain insurance cover for a major nuclear accident and would therefore need the tax payers to pay for the clean-up if the costs are very large?

Does Mr Ingham agree that the nuclear industry receives more government support than the wind turbine industry does and if it was not for those subsidies no nuclear power stations would be built in the UK?

In fact, all energy production in the UK receives subsidies from the tax payers. According to government data, between 2008 and 2010 oil received £69.93 million in support. Coal received £69.93 million and gas received £2,793.31 million. So Mr Ingham is being rather selective when only talking about subsidies to renewable energy.

Mr Ingham also claims that wind turbines “probably causes more rather than less CO2 to be emitted because for every MW of wind supply has to covered by virtually the same amount of coal or gas power generation for when the wind does not blow or blows too hard.” This is a false argument for several reasons:

l The wind will always blow somewhere and electricity can easily be transported over long distances – for example within Europe or even from North Africa.

l No supporter of wind turbines would ever argue that we should rely on wind turbines only. We need solar energy, hydro, tidal, biomass, wave power, etc as well.

l You can store electricity in the form of pumping water up in large lakes/dams in the mountains. In fact, Norway has recently offered to do that for the UK – just as Norway has done for other countries for many years. You can also store electricity in hundreds of thousands of batteries in electric cars that can be put back into the national grid if needed.

l If we do have extra back-up power plants they do not have to be powered by fossil fuels (coal, gas or oil). They can be powered by anaerobic digestive or biomass systems which have been in widespread use in Germany and many other countries for many years.

l Even if Mr Ingham was right that we have to use fossil fuels as a back-up when the wind does not blow or the sun does not shine enough we would still emit a lot less CO2 if we only used those power plants as back-up.

Mr Ingham also uses the billions of poor people in China, India and the rest of the world who have the right to a decent standard of life as an argument against renewable energy, saying it would be too expensive for these countries to produce green energy. His implicit suggestion is that they can afford nuclear power stations and has previously stated that all countries (including Iran and North Korea?) can have these.

In fact, China is investing heavily in renewable technology – both for their domestic needs and for export. China currently produces half of the world’s photovoltaic solar panels. However, many other poor countries cannot afford to do this and should be helped by the rich world as we will all benefit from them using less fossil fuels.

I would be a bit worried if the rich countries instead helped all these poor countries getting nuclear power plants. Renewable energy has the advantage in these countries of being decentralised energy systems and rather cheap to install as these countries often do not have a suitable national grid system.

Mr Ingham also uses the existence of poor people in the Upper Calder Valley to argue against subsidies for renewable energy as he claims these cost each household an extra £100 per year. However, he supports the government’s plans to give subsidies to the nuclear industry via the Contract for Difference which will also lead to an increase in the energy bills for poor people and everyone else!

With the proposed incentives for renewable energy and nuclear energy the two types of energy generation can look as they are being treated equally but the nuclear industry has for decades been given a financial head-start by government.

The government’s incentives for renewable energy via the Feed in Tariffs scheme mainly benefit the middle and upper classes who can afford to make investments in renewable energy systems, while the poor people help to pay for this through their electricity bills – like they will be paying for the Contract for Difference subsidies benefitting the nuclear industry. This is socially unjust. It is also a scandal that so many people live in fuel poverty.

That is why we have set up Pennine Community Power (see www.powerinthecommunity.org) to establish community owned energy systems, where the surplus is reinvested into the community. This is a democratic and socially just model – better than having the French EDF owing nuclear power plants in the UK.

So when Mr Ingham asks what kind of life I want, one of the things I want is to abolish fuel poverty, giving everyone access to affordable energy. I also do not want the UK to be dependent on importing energy from countries like Saudi Arabia and Russia where human rights are not respected. And I do not want my children and grandchildren to be left with large amounts of radioactive waste when no solution has yet been found on what to do with this waste.

Above all, I want the world to avoid catastrophic climate change which would kill millions if not billions of people if we do not make radical changes now. And the poorest people in the world would be hardest hit – although they are the least responsible for creating this problem.

Finn Jensen,

Blackshaw Head.