The PM on the Post Oil Energy Economy

28 July 2008

On 13 th July Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister, made an important environmental speech which was little-reported in the UK press, except the part about building new nuclear power stations. Addressing an organisation called the Union for the Mediterranean, which consists of EU and Mediterranean states, Brown outlined a post-oil energy economy for the future. He said:

“We must now leave behind the old wasteful, oil dependent ways of yesterday and embrace the new cleaner and sustainable energy future of tomorrow. The increases in oil and food prices we have seen over recent months are causing hardship to families and businesses in Britain and throughout Europe. They threaten economic instability and their production is environmentally not sustainable.

The years of cheap energy and careless pollution are behind us. We need a new strategy. Past total dependence on oil must give way to a clean energy future.”

After outlining his endeavours to create a more transparent oil market, and increase investment in oil production and refining, he continued:

“But improving the functioning of the oil market can be only one half of our strategy. The other must be to set ourselves on a new energy path - a path from our economies that are today over-dependent on oil towards the post-oil energy economies of the future . And moving towards this sustainable energy economy helps us meet our economic, political and environmental goals.”

He noted that only 20% of our energy comes from low-carbon production – renewables and nuclear, and no energy as yet comes from plants equipped with carbon capture and storage. He said:

“Europe is on a path to increase the proportion of renewable energy in its energy mix by 2020 from under 10 per cent to 20 per cent. And if we are to meet our long-term climate change objectives - to reduce our emissions by at least 60 per cent by 2050 - Britain, alongside our European partners, will need to do even more.”

Photo: Stevens Croft - the UK's only biomass power station

Then he outlined the five main points of an oil replacement strategy.

  • A step-change in the energy efficiency of vehicles – a mandatory EU-wide 40% reduction in emissions by 2020. He called for mass-production of hybrid and electric vehicles manufactured in the UK.
  • All countries to make large improvements in energy efficiency in homes and businesses. Britain is taking the lead in phasing out incandescent lightbulbs by 2011, but much more must be done. It is proposed that VAT on energy efficient appliances be reduced, promoting their takeup.
  • A renaissance of nuclear power in Britain. The ageing fleet of nuclear power stations must be replaced.
  • A massive expansion of renewables. Britain is fully committed to the EU target that 20 per cent of all energy must come from renewable sources by 2020. Last month Britain set out its strategy to meet our own 15 per cent renewable target - a £50 billion investment programme over the next twelve years. Britain is to become a global centre for offshore wind, as well as wave, tidal and solar technologies. He included a reference to Concentrated Solar Power stations being planned in the desert areas of North Africa (as featured in Carbon News Jan 2008).
  • The EU to implement Carbon Capture and Storage, meeting its target of 12 demonstration plants by 2012.

This is a comprehensive, and achievable strategy. There are a number of dubious areas. It would be very beneficial to British industry to return to car manufacturing, but as most of the plants have been offshored to Asia, it seems unlikely that they will return.

The nuclear power station building is predicated on commercial investment; without government subsidy it seems unlikely to happen in the current constrained financial climate. The Finnish Olkiluoto3 demonstration reactor being built by a French-led consortium is years behind schedule and has had massive cost over-runs. This is a “3rd Generation” reactor which was intended to show how quickly new types could be brought on line without the problems that have plagued nuclear power stations in the past. So Britain faces an energy gap as nuclear and polluting coal-fired power stations are closed down. Although Gordon Brown has promised the first of eight new nuclear stations will be feeding power into the grid by 2017, this seems somewhat optimistic.

If the investment materialises, this could mean a large expansion of companies involved in renewables and energy efficiency, and a reduction of our dependence on harmful fossil fuels so it is a substantial step forward for ending Britain's dependence on this destructive energy source.

Full Speech:

The Post-oil Energy Economy

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