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How can we replace fossil fuels? Experts debate the future at Durham event

(11 May 2016)

The Chronicle's Peter McCusker reports on the DEI debate on the future of UK energy supply at the headquarters of the Durham Miners Association.

The distinguished headquarters of the Durham Miners Association hosted a lively debate on the role of fossil fuels in the energy mix earlier this week. Peter McCusker reports.

For over 100 years tub-thumping miners have lashed out at the Tories from the platform in the grand auditorium of their Durham City headquarters.

Current Durham miners boss Alan Cummings kept up that tradition when he laid into today’s Tory Government under whose watch the last UK deep-mine closed late last year.

However, the biggest cheer of the night - one which would have left generations of miners aghast - was for the Green Party’s Jonathan Elmer when he declared ‘all fossil fuels should be left in the ground’.

Mr Elmer was one of five panel members under the chairmanship of Barbara Vest, the director of generation at Energy UK, who had assembled at an event organised by the Durham Energy Institute (at Durham University) and the Durham Miners Association.

Mr Elmer argued that for climate change to be restricted to the 1.5 degrees outlined at the recent Paris talks we should wean ourselves off fossil fuels immediately.

He railed at the rampant ‘global consumption’ and the ‘growth-based economic model’, highlighting projections which could see the planet’s population more than double to over 16bn by the end of the century.

He described these as ‘scary numbers’ saying it means it will not be ‘feasible to live within the boundaries of a single planet’.

“We will crash into natural barriers; land shortages and water shortages and it will be horrific.

“Climate change is not an issue to be tackled on its own, these issues are all interlinked and we are on the edge of the precipice.

“We need to live within our means and we need 100% renewable, green energy to help achieve that.

“The technology is there, it is tried and tested and it works. We can manage our way to a low-carbon future with renewable energy providing 100% of our energy needs.”

At this point he was applauded by many in the sparsely populated auditorium.

Sitting to his left was South Tyneside-born energy expert Paul Younger, once of Newcastle University and now Professor of Energy Engineering at Glasgow University.

Prof Younger helped set up Five-Quarter Energy which recently abandoned plans develop a new subsea coal industry based here in the North East.

He also took a swipe at the Government: “I spent eight to nine years trying to make some progress, and became just about sick of it. The UK is not a fit place to invest in new industry, the things which drive the economy seem to be sex and shopping.

“We now buy our coal from overseas and we will soon be buying our gas from overseas, and we may soon be surprised when that comes at a political price.”

He went on to say that there was nothing on the horizon, at the scale required, to replace fossil fuels in the energy system and we needed new Government-backed initiatives to drive forward innovation.

But in the Q&A session he picked apart some of the rhetoric of his neighbouring panel member.

“You cannot make a turbine tower out of celery and you cannot make its blades out of wool.

“They have to be made from steel and for that your need to have iron and coal. The blades are made of carbon fibre. If we think we can have a 100% renewable energy system then we are kidding ourselves, it’s not that simple.

“Anyone who claims otherwise is simply being misleading. The amount of energy storage required to support intermittent renewable energy is simply huge and unaffordable.

“Some argue for pump storage but that would require the equivalent of flooding 200 upland glens.”

He continued: “The technology is not a done deal. We still have a massive amount of urgent research and engineering to develop alternatives if we are to have a fighting chance of averting climate change. We need to shift our focus to innovation in low-carbon technology engineering.”

Fellow panel member Professor Alan Lowdon highlighted the progress being made in the offshore wind sector and how it can boost the North East economy.

Durham Energy Institute’s professor of unconventional petroleum Andy Aplin believes gas can be deployed as the ‘transition fuel to a low carbon future’. He also believes that ‘much engineering still needs to be done to secure reliable renewable resources’.

With the UK now a net importer of gas he believes that there is a case for developing our indigenous shale reserves.

One audience member asked the panel if there was a suitable replacement for fossil fuels as a feedstock for industry; in the manufacture of vital pharmaceuticals and life-saving devices such a heart valves.

Prof Younger said those considering bioenergy as an alternative had come to the conclusion that an area one and half times the size of India would need to be cultivated with bio-crops to replace to fossil fuels.

He said: “It’s difficult to see where that could come from. The scale is frightening.”

In his last interview before his death last month the Government’s chief scientific adviser Sir David MacKay, described the notion that renewable energy can power the UK as an “appalling delusion”. Prof Younger concurred.

“I agree with him because he was numerically literate and understood the science; unlike the people who make the most noise about it.”

Prof Younger says he remained sceptical about biomass energy but went on to say that biomass with Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) was the only way to actually reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.

Panel members condemned the Government’s cancellation of its £1bn CCS competition last year.

Prof Younger said it was ‘tragedy’ and said his research into relative energy costs concluded that we will all have to pay twice what we are paying now for energy, and that CCS could be supported at such a price.

However Mr Elmer said a CCS solution would still be prolonging the life of fossil fuels and that has to change.

“How do we reduce resource consumption and live a one planet lifestyle?” he said.

Mr Cummings, president of the Durham Miners Association, believes we should build a new generation of clean-burn coal power stations running on British coal, and described as ‘folly’ the Government decision too close all coal-fired power plants by 2025.

His ire was further fuelled by the CCS u-turn; a decision he slammed as ‘ludicrous’.

“I believe there is a future for coal. It could prove central to our energy needs once more,” he said.

Follow Peter McCusker on Twitter @mccusker60