Energy regime choices: nuclear or not?
Technology Analysis and Strategic Management, 18(5),
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The energy system in industrialized countries is changing in what can be seen as an example of the technological regime change, reflecting a wider shift towards environmentally sustain-able technology which may impact on all sectors in the economy.
In recent years, the emphasis in the UK's power generation system has increasingly been on smaller scale power plants, combined cycle gas turbine plants and wind farms of the order of 20-100 megawatts instead of giant gigawatt coal and nuclear plants. The UK is thus moving from a system in which large centralized plants send power to users down long grid lines, to one in which smaller plants are embedded in more localized grid networks. The traditional approach had its merits, since there are economies of scale and performance with larger plants, but with power plants having reached 1.3 GW, the efficiency gains have more or less been fully exploited. What has become more important is that there are energy losses (of up to 8–9%) due to transmittingpower from large centralized plants to consumers over long distances. Even more important is the very large losses (up to 70%) associated with the conventional centralized approach to the generation of electricity: the energy conversion efficiency of conventional coal and nuclear plants is only around 33%, with most of the energy being dumped as waste heat. In response, the trend is to towards decentralization, including co-generation of heat as well as power for local use (in so-called combined heat and power plants) and self generation by consumers themselves using domestic scale micro-power systems using local renewable sources.
This technological regime change was central to the influential report 'Decarbonising the UK' produced by the Tyndall Centre in 2005, which, amongst other things, stressed the role that could be played by renewable energy sources.
A similar view had been taken in theGovernment's Energy Review produced in 2003, which supported a scenario in which renew-ables expand to supply around 20% of electricity by 2020. By contrast, nuclear power was not seen as a very strong contender, in part because of its inflexibility.
However, a new Government Energy Review, completed in July 2006, came to very different conclusions on nuclear power: 'We have concluded that new nuclear power stations would make a significant contribution to meeting our energy policy goals'.
This guest editorial asks whether there has been a fundamental rethink over energy strategy and the need for a radical technological regime change.
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