Whether you believe in the threat of climate change or not, one thing that is certain is that the UK’s energy infrastructure needs to be revamped, and urgently. “We’ve got to renew most of the energy system irrespective of whether we think we’re doing it for climate change – or whether we’re doing it simply to keep the lights on,” he says.
A second “dash for gas” is part of this equation, and Clarke would like to see new gas power stations designed and built ready for the possible later addition of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, which he says could be accomplished at relatively low cost. “Just think ‘I’ll make the plant CCS-ready,’ and any kind of establishment of a carbon price would make that a sensible thing to do,” he says.
Similar logic would follow for other fossil fuel-fired plant. “We need to give ourselves the opportunity to implement some of these technologies when we need to. There is a range of activities and technologies that we might as well do now because the cost penalty that comes with them is very small.”
Nuclear power, bioenergy, to include both fuel for transport and power stations, and offshore wind should also be developed. “Of all of these, offshore wind is the most marginal technology – it is the expensive one,” he says. “But, if you have a problem deploying any of the others, we would almost certainly want to backfill the gap with offshore wind.”
A government task force, with the help of the ETI, has identified a target of reducing the cost of wind power to about £100/MWh beyond 2020. Clarke says that, while it is unlikely that wind would ever be able to compete with, say, coal-fired power stations, it would be desirable to get it down to the cost level of nuclear power or a fossil-fuel plant with CCS. He adds that £80/MWh is achievable.
The ETI is doing some work on the design of floating platforms for offshore wind turbines, suitable for deployment in west coast waters of 50-100m in depth. Clarke says: “We’re interested in water off the south west of the UK, so Cornwall, and also coastal waters off north-west Scotland. The advantage is that the wind speed is much higher, to the order of 25%, which translates into twice as much energy, so the economics start to look worthwhile.
“It means you need floating structures because the water’s deeper. And you need big turbines with big rotor blades to make the most of the wind speeds.”
The ETI is working on the manufacturing and testing of an 80m blade and a prototype floating structure with a 5MW turbine. “The cost of electricity from these machines in deeper water will be cheaper than what we’re seeing from the fixed foundation machines today,” says Clarke.
There is both the possibility of penalising British industry as we develop an energy mix for the 21st century and of opening up huge opportunities. The investment in a new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point bodes well, he says. “The fact that we are pursuing new nuclear in the UK is a huge step forward.
“In terms of export opportunities, I think the first of those is nuclear. It’s very clear that the engineering industry is now starting to gear up to supply the skills and supply chain and componentry that are going to go into those reactors. The challenge we’ve got is building that up and exporting it.”
Clarke says that pursuit of these various technologies is not too dissimilar to what is going on in other countries around the world, so the potential for an export-led energy boom is there. “It makes an awful lot of sense for the UK to pursue at least some of these for our industrial development.”