8. Infrastructure investment
Every day tens of thousands of people drive down the M1 and do not stop to think that it was designed in the 1950s and built in the 1960s. The M25 was completed in 1986 but was largely built in the 1970s. As a result most of the design work was undertaken in the 1960s and early 70s. Every year there is comment in the press about a possible water shortage yet no one ever points out that the problem is almost entirely due to a lack of storage capacity rather than a lack of rainfall. The last large reservoir that was built in the UK was Kilder, and before that Rutland. Kilder was completed in 1975 which means that it was designed in the 1960s. In the South East the last large water retaining structure was the Bewl reservoir outside London which was first filled in 1978. The current water supply problems are exactly what should be expected. The water companies have not made any real attempt to store water since privatisation but have just collected it using the cheapest possible methods. The privatised water companies have no interest in long term investment. The Government has not pressurised them to act because building large reservoirs always causes a public outcry and the cost of any new investment will have to be recovered from the consumer. The key point is that insufficient resources have been sunk into the country's infrastructure ever since the utilities were privatised. Investment in the future is not a good thing for shareholders or the Government. Keeping down the cost of living is all that any politician is interested in. There are currently proposals being prepared for several new reservoirs to be built in the South East. It remains to be seen how many of them actually get built and when.
A similar story can be told about power generation. The last large coal fired power station was commissioned in 1974. The last nuclear power station to be completed was Sizewell B in 1995 although it was designed in the 1980s. Gas fired power stations are small and cheap to build and these have been the preferred method for generating power over the last twenty years. Unfortunately they are dependent upon a dwindling supply of North Sea gas increasingly supplemented by imported gas. In other words the country's base electrical load is being largely provided by power stations that were designed in the 1950s and 1960s and commissioned in the 1960s and 70s. If the UK were to experience a very bad winter, such as occurred in 1963, then the grid would collapse as the base generating capacity is inadequate to meet such an eventuality.
After the Second World War a great deal of money and effort went into the nuclear programme. In the 1980s the British Government took the decision to close down the programme and dismantled most of the research infrastructure to save money. Today most of the men in Britain that know how to build a nuclear power station have retired. Since the programme was at its peak forty years ago the industrial infrastructure that is needed to produce and machine the advanced alloys that are used in nuclear power stations has been lost. The factories where the complex components could be fabricated have been destroyed. If Britain wants to have nuclear power stations it will be necessary to import most of the components and the technical expertise but at an enormous cost. Even if a new construction programme was started tomorrow the country does not have the necessary workers to produce a large number of power stations. Thousands of skilled construction workers and electricians would be needed. The fact that there is not sufficient manufacturing capacity for materials like cement is just one problem that is being ignored.
All the Magnox reactors are to be decommissioned by 2010. The Advanced Gas Cooled Reactors will require a major inspection in 2023. Some of them may be able to go on for a few more years. Only Sizewell B will be left to run on until 2035. If nuclear power stations are to be the main method of electrical generation for the future then how many would have to be constructed? The new generation of nuclear power stations that are currently under consideration will have twice the output of the old ones that they will have to replace. To supply a good reliable base load there would have to be at least 25 of them. To provide the bulk of the country's electrical needs there would have to be 50 of them. If hydrogen were to be the vehicle fuel of the future then another 50 would be needed. As it takes 5 years to build a nuclear power station between 5 and 12 units would have to be under construction at any time. It is not just a question of building the power stations but a whole new electrical distribution infrastructure to handle their output. New storage schemes like the Dinorwig Power Station would have to be built to buffer peak loads and to allow the power stations to maintain a constant output. The conclusion is that it will be impossible for the country to generate sufficient electricity to meet its needs in 10 years time by the use of nuclear power even if the Government was to sanction such a course of action tomorrow. As it is the Government is prepared to engage in a consultation process which is a way of postponing the need to make a decision until well after the next election. More importantly who is going to pay for the programme? The British Government does not have the necessary resources and British consumers will not be able to absorb the massive increase in electricity prices that will be necessary to fund such an expensive programme.
In the short term coal fired power stations will be needed to fill the gap that will be left as the old nuclear power stations are decommissioned. The current obsession with global warming means that these new power stations will be extremely complex if the carbon dioxide that they produce is to be fixed. If more coal fired power stations were to be built in the short term the electricity that they would generate will be very expensive if they are to have the latest anti pollution technology in place. This is in stark contract with the Chinese who are only interested in generating as much power as possible with the minimum cost.
Almost all the new urban homes that have been built in Britain in the last twenty years derive their hot water and heating from natural gas. A large part of the electricity that is used in Britain is obtained by burning gas. As gas becomes progressively more expensive and supplies restricted so a decision will have to be made to use the gas either for heating and cooking, or for electrical generation. The International Energy Agency (the industrialised countries energy watchdog) warned in July 2007 that "oil looks extremely tight in five years time" and there are "prospects of even tighter natural gas markets at the turn of the decade". This means increases in the price of petrol to rival that of the 1970s and a huge increase in the cost of running domestic gas fired central heating. However as might be expected this warning was ignored by the British Government. As half the electricity in the UK is generated from natural gas the price of electricity will also have to increase massively within the next ten years. It is clear that the price of gas will rise very rapidly in the next five years and that it will be in very short supply in 20 years time. At present the UK could only function for a few weeks if the supplies of gas from Russia were to be cut off. No decision has been made as to what is to be the future use for this fast diminishing resource. Certainly it cannot be used to generate electricity for much longer. This problem is not currently on the political agenda.
The British Government is proud of the way that the UK has controlled its Greenhouse gas emissions since the Kyoto protocol was signed. What it does not add back into the UK data is the amount of energy that goes into manufacturing the consumer goods that the UK population consumes. As far the British Government is concerned the energy used in say China to provide the goods that the British population consume should go into the Chinese account. If a proper audit was carried out and the real amount of energy that is consumed by the population of the UK during the course of each year was accumulated the end result would show a very worrying trend. That is not what the Government wants so it again presents misleading data and trumpets its success.
The idea of alternative energy sources is of great comfort to many people. Unfortunately none of the ideas make commercial sense and the fact that no one has ever produced a full scale working system is never considered to be important. Photovoltaic cells do work in summer but not in winter in northern latitudes. They do not work very well on cloudy days or when they get old and dirty. Tidal systems do work but only for a maximum of 12 hours a day. Building wind turbines involves the consumption of large amounts of high energy materials such as concrete, steel and composites so their payback period is very long, and their maintenance and operating costs are high. Wind turbines are not particularly productive if they are more than one mile from the sea. Even at the coast there are days when the wind does not blow. As a result it will always be necessary to provide the base load by conventional methods whatever alternative energy source is used. This means having gas fired power stations on permanent standby because nuclear and coal fired power stations cannot be turned on and off at will. The fundamental shortcomings that exist with all renewable energy sources is that it is necessary to have two sets of capital costs and a complex distribution system. Transporting electricity is very wasteful. The very notion of transmitting electricity across the country from say wind turbines on the west coast of Britain to London would be pointless due to the level of wastage. There are undoubtedly ways of securing energy from nature but the systems only work commercially if the upfront energy input that goes into building the systems and the long term maintenance costs are ignored. As a result the electricity that 'renewables' can provide will cost three times as much as that which is produced by a simple old fashioned coal fired power station. This is not considered to be an acceptable message to give the general public so they are subjected to a barrage of misleading information about alternative energy sources.
The world is using more petrol and diesel than ever before and it is inevitable that supplies will become more expensive. The easy to access reserves have almost gone. Old fields can be kept running for a bit longer and hard to access fields will be opened up. However every time that new technology is needed to extract a bit more oil from the ground so the cost of the resulting fuel goes up. Bio fuels have potential but to replace all the fossil fuel that is used today the whole planet would have to be covered with vegetation twice over so this is not a practical option.
The Government and the motor industry are keen to reassure the population that the hydrogen fuel cell is the future for motor cars because private transport is now taken to be essential by the bulk of the electorate. There are chemical methods for creating hydrogen but the only 'clean' solution is to electrolyse water. This means using huge amounts of electricity but no one talks about where this is to come from. If nuclear power were to be used to provide the electricity for the UK's hydrogen needs then another fifty power stations would have to be built. A very complex and expensive infrastructure would also have to be put in place for the hydrogen to be stored and distributed. All the existing vehicles on the road would have to be replaced.
Fuel cells have been available for many years and it is possible to run a car on hydrogen. The fact that the principle works does not mean that it will ever be commercially viable for the bulk of the population. The Americans put the first man on the moon in 1969. The last man left the moon in 1972. No one has been back since because it is so expensive. It is the same story with all the alternative energy sources. They all work in laboratory conditions, and when used in conjunction with a conventional energy source. They are also the product of complex industrial processes which means that they consume large amounts of energy in their manufacture and have very high capital costs associated with them. They only work 'commercially' if the establishment and maintenance costs are ignored and they make no commercial sense in a declining post industrial nation.
Alternative energy sources are a Holy Grail which distracts people from the reality of the situation. If there were cheap and easy ways to obtain energy from nature is it likely that they would not have been perfected before now? Society cannot support the capital costs of installing large scale alternative energy harvesting systems today let alone in ten or twenty year's time. The reality is that the world is running out of cheap energy. Explaining the consequences of this to the population of a democratic country will not be easy for any politician. One bad winter or a breakdown in relations with Russia and we will find out what arguments are to be used. Blaming global warming will be one excuse that will inevitably be used to deflect criticism away from the Government.
The Western Nations are dependent upon countries like Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait for their gas and oil. It would only take one of these major suppliers to take a more pragmatic approach and to worry about the future comfort of their own people for these supplies to be cut back. A ruler who decided to create a place for himself in his country's history might well decide that his country should extract just enough oil to buy only the consumer goods that his peoples need today and no more. To have the last major oil reserves on the planet would leave any country in a very strong position.
Instead of focusing the population on the imminent problems of living without energy and wealth the Government is still focusing time and effort on the global environment, civil rights and social issues. Instead of designing accommodation that can house people when energy becomes overly expensive the State is increasing the density in cities and creating a society that is ever more dependent upon cheap energy. Life in a city like London without electricity and gas will be impossible. Life in low lying areas that have existed for centuries will be impossible without electricity to keep the pumps running.
The fact that Britain is technically bankrupt has not registered with the bulk of the population. It will only register with them when energy gets too expensive for them to heat their homes or to drive a car, and when they can no longer afford to buy the consumables that they have got accustomed to. One bad winter will show them how vulnerable they are.
Published: August 2008