In praise of the European Union

Today is the day on which the EU received the Nobel Peace Prize for the part it, in its evolving forms, has played in creating the conditions for peace in Europe over the past 60 years.

I think it's well deserved. Mutual trade and prosperity are much better guarantees of long-term peace and security than military strength or being able to repel invasions.



But, as it happens, today also gave us another reason to be grateful that we are part of the EU, which is what I want to focus on in this post.

It appears that the EU Commission is so concerned about the way that the new Pembroke Power Station operates that it has taken the unprecedented step of issuing notices of infringement against the UK government for the damage it is causing to the local marine environment.



It's a sad tale. The problem is that any fuel-based power station is inefficient, producing large quantities of waste heat. Originally, the intention was for the surplus heat to be used for industrial or other processes nearby. But this was always fanciful. It is difficult enough to find a suitable user for surplus heat at the best of times, but with a power station of this size it is for all practical purposes impossible. The rule of thumb for CHP (combined heat and power) generation is to locate small power stations close to where the heat can be used (an industrial estate, for example) because electricity can be transmitted over great distances, but heat can only be piped a few kilometres.

That basic, fundamental rule was simply ignored when this plant was designed. In fact the whole process by which this plant was built would be a farce if it wasn't for the fact that it will cause very severe environmental damage. The planning authority, the UK Department of Energy in this case, and the operators of the plant, RWE nPower, should have known that this plant was far too big for its location. So the first part of the blame rests squarely with them.

However RWE nPower seem to be hiding behind the fact that they were given approval to operate the plant from the Environment Agency.

"We've worked with all of the relevant authorities and the competent authority being the Environment Agency.

"It's not us that determine whether we can do this, it's those guys that do that.

"They've looked at all of our processes, our method statements, worked with the contractors, worked with the actual process designers that build power plants and the complex systems that are within them and they have been completely satisfied, and if they weren't satisfied they would not have issued the permit."

BBC, 10 December 2012

That's true enough, but the EA have proved themselves to be very far from "competant" as an authority. As I noted a couple of years ago in this post, the EA relaxed (by a factor of six in one instance) the emission standards they had previously considered safe in relation to the wood-burning power station proposed for Port Talbot. I think it is obvious that even if there had been an objective, scientific basis for their first decision, they later revised it for the sole reason that it suited the commercial interests of the potential operators. Scientific objectivity came a very poor second to commercial expediency.

It is clear to me that exactly the same thing happened in this case. Instead of refusing RWE nPower an operating permit, the EA simply threw away any semblance of scientific objectivity in order to allow them to get away with whatever suited them ... and what suited them was the financially cheap but environmentally expensive solution of simply pumping the warmed water straight into the Cleddau, a largely enclosed body of water where the heat cannot be dissipated in the same way as it would be if the warm water was pumped out into the open sea. The consequences to marine life in the estuary are disasterous.


Everybody will point the finger at someone else. But the real fault is that the UK government allowed all this to happen. By letting an "arm's length" body make the decision, they clearly hoped to absolve themselves of any blame for the consequences.

In such circumstances the European Union is just about the only body that can hold the UK government to account and insist that either a less damaging cooling system be installed, or limit the production capacity or time that the plant can operate to reduce the overall amount of heat produced. It's one of many reasons why we in Wales should be glad we are part of it.

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Plaid Whitegate said...

Interesting contrast to the proposed 1MW gas power plant being proposed on Wrecsam Industrial Estate. This is a CHP which would provide heat to a number of v large local employers (the industrial estate employs 7,700). This is due to be built (if permission is granted) in 2015. It's said that this plant could provide enough electricity for all 1.2m homes in Wales and would provide instant back up for renewables.

Celticus said...

And who was the UK government minister who approved this well-trailed, deeply flawed cooling system? Step forward Ed Miliband (I believe)! If so, will he be prosecuted?

MH said...

Details of the Wrecsam plant are here, PW. It's actually 1,000 MW. That's half the size of the Pembroke plant, but it's still far too big to be CHP unless there is a very specific large scale user, such as at Immingham. 200MW is more like it, as with Shotton. Reading the Wrecsam document, the developers only say that they "will investigate the potential" of CHP. I can tell them now that the chances of finding users who can take the amount of surplus heat that will be produced are slim to zero. And, in Wrecsam, there is no body of water into which to pump the excess heat, so the only option left will be cooling towers.

The other thing is that if a plant is being used for CHP generation, the user that depends on the heat will need that heat on a continual basis ( ... or at least on a daily basis because there's a reasonable synergy between providing heat and power during the day, but not at night.) But if used in this way, it can't also be used for back up at the times when renewables aren't producing electricity.


But you're right to say that gas is well-suited to backup for renewables. It's not quite instant (hydro-electricity is best for that, as it has a response time of only seconds) but from a cold start, a gas turbine should be producing electricity for the grid within 20 or 30 minutes. But only on the first cycle. The second cycle of a CCGT power station will take longer to kick in.

For me, the only sensible way of using gas to generate electricity is as back up to smooth out the intermittency of renewables (i.e. in load-following mode, to use the jargon, rather than as base load). As things have turned out, the majority of renewable generation in Wales and the UK will be by wind (although we should make more use of the tides, of course). Wind turbines operate about 80% of the time and in the short term gas is a good way of making up any shortfall that isn't provided by hydro or burning renewably-sourced wood or biofuels. If a power station like Pembroke only operated, on average, at 20% of its capacity then it would cause only a fifth of the damage, which with other measures might just bring it down to an acceptable level. But having spent £1bn on it, RWE nPower aren't going to want to operate it in that way.

John Dixon said...

"Originally, the intention was for the surplus heat to be used for industrial or other processes nearby

Not sure where that came from; I don't ever recall any such intention. Certainly, there were plenty of us who argued that it should have been done that way, but the developers never gave it any serious consideration. They couldn't really anyway, for the reasons you suggest. A smaller plant, on the other side of the Haven, could have used the waste heat to regasify LNG, but that implies a degree of joined-up thinking which is simply beyond the capability of profit-seeking developers.

And that brings us to the nub of the issue - and underlines why those calling for devolution of planning control over electricity generation are missing the point. A sensible energy policy requires co-ordinated energy planning, not merely reacting to development proposals put forward by companies whose main interest is their own profits. That requires much more than development control. It requires specification of location and type of generation capacity to fit the needs of the agreed energy policy. By all means have competition for who can build a plant of Type A at Location B, and let the competitors make a reasonable profit from so doing. But capitalist competition is the wrong way to determine what A and B should be - yet that is what govenment energy policy amounts to. Worse still, those simply calling for devolution of planning control aren't really proposing an alternative, merely changing who can make the least relevant part of the decision.

Anonymous said...

So John, you effectively want a planned economy in energy? Not that i'm knocking that idea. I think it makes perfect sense in the era of climate change.

Gareth Clubb said...

From the outset, Friends of the Earth Cymru had wanted the waste heat to be used productively at the LNG plant that John correctly identifies.

Bear in mind that this exact arrangement was required by the Department of Energy and Climate Change in a very similar arrangement but at the Isle of Grain in Kent, a few years before the equivalent licence was given for the once-through cooling system at Pembroke.

Eon's website suggests that this arrangement reduces CO2 emissions by 300,000 tonnes per year and increases the plant's nominal efficiency from 58% to 73%.

Good enough for Kent but not for Pembroke.

John Dixon said...

"So John, you effectively want a planned economy in energy?" That's not quite what I said.

The current position is that governments, in Cardiff and London alike, produce energy 'plans' which are little more than statements of aspiration. The real policy, the one that gets implemented, is decide not by democratically elected governments but by capitalist companies deciding what types of power plants will make them the most money. All I'm saying is that I want to see policy decided by those we elect. So policy not profit should decide what energy sources we use, and where we put them.

MH said...

I might well be mistaken about the original intention to use waste heat for other purposes, John. I think I remember seeing it on a layout plan some years ago.

I do agree with you about energy policy needing to be more than just a matter of planning control, too.

The bizarre thing is that another power station (500MW) is planned for the other side of the estuary, at South Hook. Planning details here and website here. This would be CHP, using the waste heat to regasify LNG from the terminal next to it.

In itself, this would have been a far better scheme than Pembroke both in terms of overall scale and the ability to use waste heat. It would have been ideal. But having two large gas fired stations sitting on either side of the Cleddau is ridiculous. Wales has no need for both. But there is no way of stopping South Hook CHP because the UK is desperate for as much generating capacity as it can get (especially gas) and doesn't really care where in the UK it is. If South Hook CHP can make money out of it, it will go ahead.

We're faced with an awkward problem. It wouldn't be so very expensive to build a pipeline for waste heat across the estuary from Pembroke to South Hook and use it to regasify the LNG. It would help solve the current problem that Pembroke has. But why would South Hook CHP (a consortium between Qatar Petroleum, ExxonMobil and Total) want or allow this to happen? For it would make their proposed power station less viable and deprive them of a money-making opportunity.

MH said...

Thanks for the link, Gareth.

Anonymous said...

EU Nobel peace prize well deserved??? With all dues respect,are you having a laugh?? You have heard of Nato and realise that the EU has sanctioned at least three illegal wars in the past 10 years?

MH said...

Yes, I have heard of NATO. But what are the three illegal wars that you claim the EU has sanctioned?

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