Will the lights go out?

Could Birmingham do an industrial-city version of what’s been achieved on the Isle of Eigg; i.e. become energy self-sufficient?

The islanders have achieved much through the demand side. Here in Birmingham, we’re about to do something radical on the supply side.

Aston’s EBRI looks set to be the beginning of a game-changer — and in the first instance for Birmingham.

Talk with Professor Andreas Hornung, as I did on Wednesday, and you begin to get a glimmer of the exciting possibilities in having a distributed system to provide heat and power in a city such as ours.

Post-industrial cities like Birmingham have swathes of derelict land, plus the detritus of its people, in our case, about a million of us. This land and our waste are both resources which, with imagination and investment, can provide us with much of the heat and electricity we need — and by a carbon negative process.

The EBRI power plant, under construction next to the Sack of Potatoes at Gosta Green, will go live this autumn.

It’s a small building, and this will include both the power plant and some labs. The power plant itself will be roughly 10x12m, and about three storeys high, the size of a modest house —  you can’t scale the process up much, so you need small-sized plant.

Plonk another 12-15 of them in a ‘thermal ring’ around the city which, technically, can easily be done by 2026. If this happens, the City Council’s consumption of £25M/year worth of power is sorted, plus waste disposal costs of £40M are saved as this ‘waste’ is now valuable fuel for the power plants.

The city’s total import of electricity is £1.6bn every year, a sufficiently large market to interest suppliers. The build-cost for an EBRI-style plant is currently around £24M, an amount that should drop to around £14M over the next decade or so — a modest investment for the likes of a power company.

There will also be the opportunity to build very small-scale power plants, coming in at around £1.5M (the price of a posh home in this city or a banker’s bonus in London). These power plants would be particularly cost-efficient for sites that have biomass ‘waste’ of some kind or other.

But (and it may be a big “but”), this presupposes people would be happy to have a small power plant close by, perhaps literally at the bottom of the garden.

There’s also an absolute limiting factor on Birmingham becoming heat and energy self-sufficient by a distributed system based on the EBRI carbon-negative process. It’s fuel; i.e. how much biomass the million of us create.

Not enough . . .  nonetheless, the million of us produce a great deal. The thermal ring itself could single-handedly achieve the city’s 2026 target to reduce the city’s carbon footprint by 60%. We could go far beyond it — and thereby keep our lights on.

Keeping the lights on? On a national level, there’s a very different story.

Last night Professor Martin Freer engaged a Lunar Society audience in a interesting if sobering assessment of energy security; i.e. what’s needed to keep UK citizens in the lifestyle to which we’ve become accustomed.

There are two main drivers: increasing energy use by consumers, and the Climate Change Act 2008 which commits the UK to an 80% reduction in greenhouse gases from a 1990 baseline.

The supply side in a nutshell: To achieve carbon emission targets and keep the lights on, we need a substantial investment in nuclear power; coal and gas will have to be phased out and renewables just won’t do it. But to date, no organisation will invest the £5bn a pop that’s needed just to replace our existing aged nuclear power plants, let alone think about building more.

This is “the energy gap”, a gap that’ll first hit our pockets when much higher energy prices kick in and then, some say, it’ll be lights-out from time to time.

Unacceptable?

Expect a change in the Climate Change Act 2008 sometime around 2015.  Most of us won’t notice the politico-manoeuvring of clause this and clause that. But it’d create a searingly difficult time for our children and grandchildren.

Even if Birmingham does become largely energy self-sufficient, the impact of the national energy gap would be felt hard here too, really hard.

I have no idea what the implications of all of the above would be on Birmingham’s food futures in 2050. And that’s exactly why I met with Andreas this week.  In early summer, the New Optimists Forum will explore What It Could All Mean.

I’ll be posting more info about the part Andreas and some of the other scientists will be playing as and when we do the detailed planning.

See also:
Martin Freer’s presentation (as a pdf)

Climate Change Committee Renewable Energy Review published in May 2011
Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air — the hugely informative book by David MacKay FRS. Or you can download a pdf version for free from here.

And you can hear from Andreas himself in this Aston University video:

2 responses to “Will the lights go out?”

  1. Kate Cooper says:

    The EBRI plant will be going live in the spring of 2013, not this autumn.

    The New Optimists Forum discussed the potential and impact of a distributed energy system within Birmingham on 12th July 2012. For info about that see here: http://aldsys.co.uk/newoptimists/tag/12th-july-2012/

  2. […] After hearing a sobering assessment of the UK’s energy security — and the looming energy gap — by Professor Martin Freer in January 2012, I wrote the gist of his argument as ‘expect a change in the Climate Change Act 2008 sometime around 2015’ in a blogpost entitled Will the lights go out? […]

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