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Discussion > British Energy Challenge

On Fri 20th September I attended the British Energy Challenge Roadshow held in Newcastle upon Tyne. The billing for these events is “The roadshows, which will be touring the country throughout the summer and autumn, set out the major energy challenges we face today – how the UK is going to power itself whilst moving to secure, low carbon energy and how these challenges affect our day-to-day lives.

There's a key sentence there that I'll come back to, but first what was the day like?

The event was in two parts, a trade show and a presentation featuring the DECC 2050 Generation calculator (more details here: )

The presentation itself was introduced by a Prof Phil Taylor, who is a newly appointed Director of Newcastle Institute for Research on Sustainability (NIReS), part of the University of Newcastle, and is heavily involved in the smart-grid project. His opening remarks included a line on grid replacement that caught my attention; He said that to renew the national grid would have cost £32bn and that wasn't going to happen. Instead the smart grid project would be implemented, and a “strategic grid upgrade only” would be done. [I've seen estimates that smartgrid will be a £27bn cost, and since there will still be “strategic upgrades” to be done, I don't quite see the economic sense of it].

The main presentation featured Mark Lynas and Prof. David Mackay, Chief Scientific Advisor at DECC. Mark was introduced as an “external facilitator”, and his role was to run the proceedings and take questions from the audience.

Star of the show was the 2050 Energy calculator which was run live on the projectors, and the audience were invited to vote on the various choices for demand and supply. [You can play with the calculator and make your own choices at ]

Prof. MacKay started with some comments on the 80% reduction of emissions target, noting that the legal requirement to reduce emissions would, if met, take us to the levels currently seen in Albania and Bangladesh. Denmark, widely regarded as 'green' in energy had larger emissons per capita that the UK, as does Germany for all it's wind and solar. European nations such as Sweden and France had lower per capita emissions achieved mainly by having hydro and nuclear available.

The audience were then asked to suggest various demand and generation strategies, and the resulting suggestions indicated that the audience were generally the good natured local enthusiasts rather than having any detailed knowledge of generation. “Share everything; houses/cars/beds” caused a frisson of giggles though, and drew a comment about 'bathing with a friend' from MacKay, who clearly remembered the 3 day week and the ensuing exhortations from government.

Then we started on the voting for the calculator. In most categories '1' was the status quo. In explaining this Prof MacKay quipped to Mark Lynas that this was the “Nigel Lawson in charge, so business as usual” option, followed by a smiling 'shouldn't say that though', presumably because less partisanship would be expected of a senior civil servant?

As we went through the demand options it was clear that the voting pattern was very much 'let's do as many and as much good green things as possible' irrespective of the logic (or cost). So, we had votes for restricting road transport, maximum insulation, etc. etc.

There were a few interesting asides. Mark Lynas at one point mentioned that he had a heat pump system in his house, but didn't understand how it worked, or how much energy it uses (he thought 'a lot'). He also had a solar thermal system.

I asked about how population increase was allowed for in the demand model. DM had to refer to the workings of the model at this point, and said that it assumes population growth according to NOS trends, but it wasn't clear how this affected usage, and this suggested to me that the per household drop in usage was going to be higher than the 'headline' rates.

Surprisingly there was general support for growing industry in the country at a decent rate, but also a lot of faith in CCS and high levels of electrification. All in all there was a high preference for radical reduction in energy use.

For the supply side of the model there was a reasonable acceptance of nuclear, with the preferred option of 90GW by 2050, a figure which seemed very large to me given that baseload in the UK is around 27GW. As expected there was high preference for onshore and offshore wind, with the vote going for 6 times todays level for onshore, and a '3' for offshore.

At this point in proceedings DM pointed out that they now had more generation than demand, but they kept adding; PV, tidal stream, tidal range, and most others getting an enthusiastic vote. DM did try to drop in a bit of reality at this point. “Many of these technologies are speculative” he said, but they had the bit between their teeth and were going to rebuild the world while they had the chance.

At the end of the supply part of the model, they had huge increase in generation and radically reduced demand but lo and behold still well above the emissions target.

DM then introduced the “get out of jail” card, of geo-sequestration (from the air), high storage capacity and demand regulation, combined with increased interconnectors with Europe. Amusingly, the tweak that actually took the model to the emissions target was to add fraccing with CCS. Prof MacKay also pointed out that one of the factors that made the emissions target hard to hit was the original choice to maintain industrial growth.

During the presentation there was no mention of costs. I queried this with DM after the presentation and he showed me pages within the model that do show the costs. At first glance I was surprised how little the scheme put together at the meeting was going to cost relative to 'do nothing'. But then saw the scale, and the pain! (Worth also checking the underlying model for costs applied to the base case, as it seems to be loaded with costs due to theoretical damage due to CO2 )

The thing that struck me was that the afternoon was a waste of time really. It was little more than a game. There was no real discussion of the issues involved - cost just to name one. Most people there would have gone away thinking that we'll do a bit of this and a bit of that, and then by 2050 we'll all be carbon free and happy. DM did try to inject some reality, but only in the gentlemanly academic way that he has. The fact that the audience had proposed a totally unworkable fuel mix, a radical demand reduction and depended on unproved technologies really went unnoticed, uncommented and time did not allow any discussion. (By the time the input was finished, it was already 15mins over time).

More importantly, the question asked in the publicity - “ how the UK is going to power itself whilst moving to secure, low carbon energy” just wasn't asked, never mind answered. As this roadshow trundles around the country reassuring people that 2050 will be Utopia, we have Ofgen saying this week that the generation margins are getting dangerously slim.

I rather liked Prof MacKay. He comes over as an affable character, and a good presenter. He also seems to regard the issue as an academic problem rather than one that directly impacts upon us all in the here and now. And that's the worrying bit. He's been advising DECC for a long while. Do they think it's all a game too?

[I can thoroughly recommend you all to have a play with the calculator. Some of you may like to look more closely into how it's constructed and set up your own model parameters.]

Oct 7, 2013 at 6:40 PM | Unregistered CommenterCumbrian Lad

This kind of informed public consultation is something I’m in favour of. It certainly beats stopping people in the street and asking: “Do you prefer windmills to nuclear power stations?” or “Would you rather insulate your loft or lose the right to fly where you like?” which is how the government currently consults us. Someone in Whitehall is taking the communications gap seriously, and trying to fill it.
Of course, the first results are going to be pure fantasy, and government’s intentions are suspect, but after complaining that no-one listens to us, it would be absurd to criticise an effort at consultation, however cack-handed.

Oct 7, 2013 at 8:09 PM | Registered Commentergeoffchambers

Thanks for the write-up CL and also agree Geoff with your point.

Sorting out our Energy policy is of paramount importance and it should also be a fascinating challenge but the process has been contaminated by the AGW lobby.

I've had outline cost/benefit debates before with numbers on the table a,b,c versus l,m,n but as soon as the argument is leaning away from their preferred option (usually Wind) then a giant X (the external damage of CO2) is introduced to tip the scales. So whatever the true C/B analysis shows the "renewable" options win. And that seems to be the attitude of Davey, Huhne and Barker as enshrined in the ruinous CO2 targets. I guess this is built into the calculator somehow.

I'm more agnostic on Wind than most here (e.g. it may have a place when next to Hydro and the grid) but I'd just like to see an honest assessment of all the factors with X=0. Everyone involved seems to have preconceptions by definition though (on both sides) so I don't see that happening.

The factors are pretty well known, just lay them all out on the table for all to see.

Right I'll go and have a go with the calculator.

Oct 7, 2013 at 8:59 PM | Registered CommenterSimonW

Cumbrian Lad

There is also a video clip from the Manchester event on the site.

Oct 7, 2013 at 9:44 PM | Registered CommenterGreen Sand

Green Sand, I did put that it in an early draft of which the next three paragraphs formed a part (Rob asked me if I'd like to do a bit for the video, but didn't take up his offer):

The trade show was interesting to walk around featuring carbon capture, smart meters, wave power, and some engineering companies as well as the usual NGO's. The Met Office had a studio set up and was filming anyone who wanted to ask a question to the scientists. This was being presented by Rob Hutt as part of the My Climate and Me scheme, and there is a clip from the Newcastle event on their website at

I had a chance to talk to Rob for a few minutes, and he was a great guy, very open and approachable and very enthusiastic about his communications work. I gather that he's keen to try and include all views in his work, but from what he was saying I think he has quite limited horizons as to what the debate is all about. (He mentioned the Gratham Institute as part of their outreach to alternative views!)

It was good to see the David Brown engineering group there. They are making gearboxes for large wind turbines nearby in Hartlepool, and showed some clever design work aimed at reducing maintenance time and costs, particularly for offshore turbines. We did touch on operating life of turbines in general, and I think it's fair to say that any estimates that government think are realistic are unlikely to turn out that way.

Oct 7, 2013 at 10:11 PM | Unregistered CommenterCumbrian Lad


I agree that informative and engaging consultation is very valuable. The trade show I found useful, and it was certainly interesting to hear Prof MacKay in person. The main problem with the presentation was that it was very short of time. Given that this was the third or fourth time it had been done I'd have expected the facilitator to have got the timing right, or to have allowed more time. As it was there was a lot of chatter and banter to start with, too long spent on the early part of the voting, and then a rush to finish, with people having to leave early (this was a Friday).

I'd played with the model beforehand so knew what to expect, and had a good idea of the way I'd go. Many there really had no way of making informed choices. For instance for the nuclear question the choice was basically how many GW do you want. The audience had been told roughly what the peak demand is and one of the audience members quite reasonably asked how big a typical nuke plant was. The answer was given in TWh, which whilst correct was not that helpful in enabling them to answer the question. (That may be one reason why so much nuclear was put in by the attendees).

I think that less time should have been spent on the voting, and then have a session covering the outcome -"You've chosen this, but that leads to these costs; you can't have that yet 'coz it's not developed, these are mutually exclusive, etc. etc. That would achieved consultation, but also informed the debate. As it is I think very few left with a real feel for the various trade offs involved.

I think it was worth going to, and if anyone is near the next one in Bristol (very soon I think) I'd encourage people to go along. It's just so frustrating that with a little more attention to detail it could have been really excellent.

Oct 7, 2013 at 10:31 PM | Unregistered CommenterCumbrian Lad

Cumbrian Lad

"We did touch on operating life of turbines in general, and I think it's fair to say that any estimates that government think are realistic are unlikely to turn out that way."

From past experience I can concur with that statement, I have the scars. Increasing size was pushing the manufacturers to the limits of their material and tolerance envelopes.

When I left the field, developments were continuing, especially material technology, leading to claims of design innovations making the necessary tolerance improvements attainable. However that is of no solace for what is already out there.

Good to hear you think Rob Hutt is OK. I need to have a chat with Rob, see if he has managed to get the MO team to answer my question about a potential 60 year cycle in the planet's rate of warming.

Oct 7, 2013 at 10:36 PM | Registered CommenterGreen Sand

I remember playing with the app a few years ago and it clearly suggested that renewables were a vanity project. Nuclear was the clear winner. i suspect that coal could have helped but coal in the UK leads to many deaths in the UK, whilst nuclear means fewer deaths elsewhere.

Oct 7, 2013 at 11:41 PM | Unregistered Commenterdiogenes

- Another portray FANTASY as REALITY brainwashing project.
Also in Newcastle in the Centre for Life as part of the Our Future "hands on" exhibition there is a TV studio set up and the children are invited to take the role of a weather forecaster where with the background of an extreme weather behind them they read a teleprompter script saying that yet another extreme weather event is taking place CAUSED by climate change. That is all presented as fact * and it's a permanent exhibition which seems to have been there some time.
(* It is an extrapolation of VALIDATED science cos even the IPCC doesn't publish anything saying there is a link between today's CO2 & extreme weather events nor saying there is a change in frequency or magnitude of extreme weather, although some scientists may express opinions )

"record your very own weather forecast, complete with script and interactive smart screen."
"There was one of these exhibits where you are filmed reading the news - Anna and I shared reading weather forecasts of the future if climate change is really allowed to take hold - drought, storms, ice, that kind of thing."

Photo of the climate change explanation panel
- I guess this why the Centre for life have a webpage about being what they call Green Certified

- What you guys seems very much in the same vein. It's all part of the portray FANTASY as REALITY brainwashing project.
- They talked about all those on the edge ideas and didn't mention by 2050 there is quite a chance we will have fusion power ? Google ITER
I have seen this "we are going to play a game format" used before .. it allows them to push fantasy ideas without you being able to ask difficult questions back
- It seems I missed the Big Eco show at Centre for Life in April

Oct 9, 2013 at 10:52 AM | Registered Commenterstewgreen