There are alternatives to the vision concerning energy set out by Barbara Hammond (Oxford Today, Trinity 2015, p. 39). Her assertion that energy will cost more, made affordable by using less of it, carries with it the implication of falling productivity and economic decline. An alternative vision is of cheap and almost limitless power as represented by the work going on just down the road at Culham.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change points out in its Working Group III report that it will take all our technologies to decarbonise our energy supply, and that restricting solutions to the renewables taxonomy will lead to less of a solution, or a failed solution. It also points out that we need to use the cheapest solutions or else we will damage the fabric of society through careless use of a finite resource — money.
Neighbouring France has already decarbonised its electricity, using 76 per cent uranium fuelled nuclear and 11 per cent hydro-electric power. In the process it has delivered electricity bills at the lower end for Europe. It makes an Oxford vision of getting there expensively by 2065 look a bit weak.
By comparison, the main renewable contenders are all intermittent, and as the IPCC points out require extra measures (store and recover technologies) to meet demand, or else they are lame ducks. Unavoidably those processes will consume some of the initial energy and incur process plant costs. For solar photovoltaics in particular, the engineering challenge of storing enough energy during the summer to see us through the winter is daunting. With the extra measures included, the cost of onshore wind power is about twice that of nuclear, and offshore wind, solar and tidal are between three and four times as much. In context, the excess spend equates to between 20 per cent and 50 per cent of the NHS budget.
While we may use less energy per head overall, a considerable expansion of electrical generation is required to replace fossil fuels in transport and heating, as well as address population growth. A high cost and environmentally intrusive platform of renewables is not an auspicious starting point.
Should not the Oxford vision be one of uranium power today, thorium power tomorrow and fusion power on the day after? Is Oxford leaving it to others to prick the renewables bubble with the pin of rigour?