Wednesday, 30 May 2012

UK Energy Mix – An Idiots Guide to Electricity Generation

By Guest Blogger, Craig Morrison

This week Craig produces an idiot's guide to the UK energy mix. Armed with a novel pathways calculator, some cartoon fiction and Greenpeace attempting to state the obvious, he shines a light on the energy options available going forward into the future.


The author would like people to know that this is in no way peer reviewed, information is from the media and wider public domain and, as such, should not be judged as scientific fact. This article is a reflection of personal opinions, not necessarily the author's, and does not reflect the views or opinions of any the author's commercial or academic associates.

Energy. Power. Electricity. These words are more important now than they have ever been. A rapidly increasing global population size with a growing reliance on smart phones, computers, and other electricity powered gadgets means the suppliers of energy will come under huge pressure to deliver. Throw in a tough economic climate, strict targets for the reduction of carbon emission and volatile oil and gas markets, and you find yourself faced with a bit of a problem. Tough times to be deciding on the UK’s future energy plans.

Where will the UK get its electricity from in 10, 20, 50 years time? It’s a complex but interesting topic often littered with bamboozling statistics. Planning for the optimum energy mix in 50 years time requires huge investment into decades of research to decide if certain technologies are worth an educated gamble. If it’s worth a flutter then you need even more money to develop an infrastructure, skilled work force and supply chain. It’s not cheap and producing an energy mix which makes financial, social and environmental sense definitely is not easy.

The Department of Energy and Climate Change recently released a 2050 pathways calculator, 
an interactive tool available online (, where users can create their 
own energy mix to satisfy custom criteria of the UKs energy needs. It’s a well constructed, user 
friendly tool, giving a comprehensive view of the implications of your choice of electricity 
production as well as illustrating the effect our homes, travel choices and industry will 
have on how much electricity we will need. Give it a go and you realise just how complicated 
creating a nations energy mix is and how many options there are. 
The graph above shows just one of the many plots you can produce.

So what’s your energy mix of choice? Everyone has an opinion, and most base theirs on gut feeling or personal circumstance rather than statistics. Advocates of specific energy sources stubbornly dismiss rival sources on aesthetic arguments rather than scientific fact or financial calculations.

The truth, whatever your opinion, is that the UK needs most if not all of these electricity producing technologies to provide a secure way of turning on our lights and charging our phones, immune from natural disasters, industrial accidents and inconsistent weather. Fossil fuels are on the way out and something needs to fill that void.

Are fossil fuels on the way out?....
Pretty definitive answer from Greenpeace
Renewable energy is the people’s champion with rarely a bad word in the press about it. Clean energy with little fuel requirements - a perfect solution with masses of tree hugging promise. But potential comes with inherent problems in equal proportions. Who wants a coast line full of giant snake-like wave power generators? Could comedy British weather support solar power? What if the wind’s not blowing when you most need to boil your kettle? It would be a foolish person who argues that renewables are not the long term future of electricity production but poor efficiencies, developing infrastructures and an inability to store electricity on mass, mean you have to tread carefully in ensuring base electricity needs are met in the near future.

What about the marmite of electricity generation, nuclear power? An established low carbon industry in need of a revamp to distance itself from a Homer Simpson induced image problem. Although taken to ridiculous extremes, this persona is not entirely based on cartoon fiction. There’s the issue of recent events in Fukushima, how to prevent nuclear proliferation and the sometimes irrational public fear of radiation. Previous generations of reactors have well exceeded expected costs to decommission and as a result, the UKs nuclear industry has been left with a reputation as an endless pit of government and private money that leaves a trail of nasty nuclear waste in return.

That’s a long list of problems. But nuclear is a technology proven in electricity generation world-wide and seemingly capable of bridging a gap made between the decline of fossil fuels and the uprising of renewables. Germany and Switzerland among others, have decided that this gap is sufficiently small to ignore it, hoping that a massive investment into renewables rather than nuclear will pay off in the long term with a quicker transition to an all renewable energy mix. Only time will tell if this is the case.

This article has barely scratched the surface of the problems and possible solutions the UK has to consider. There’s the possibility of increased small scale electricity production and the issues of internationally buying/selling electricity to name just 2 more seeds of thought. An optimum energy and electricity mix is the desired outcome and this very term indicates there is room for everything but deciding how much we will need of each is a very tough task. By using contributions from different sources means you are protecting yourself from any issues that arise from any single source.  Pro-renewables does not have to mean anti-nuclear and vice-versa.

Regardless of your opinion on the future energy mix I hope this article has highlighted that how the UK produces its electricity in the future is no easy decision and one I’m glad I’m not making.

Useful links:



  1. Off topic but maybe we could get the inside scoop on this in the next podcast? :)

    1. Cheers for the link Anders. We'll definitely incorporate it into next month's podcast. We unfortunately recorded yesterday, so aren't able to put it in this months show.

    2. I know someone involved so I'll ask and see if we can write an article on it..

      Podcast may not be the best idea though Gunth.. Anything we would want to put online on the subject (being from Manchester) would more than likely have to go through the University and GEH.. So it could take weeks/months. (And there may be nothing of interest to say on the matter)

    3. Ah of course, completely agree! Article would actually be a much better idea

    4. Sounds great. Not looking for corporate secrets mind you, just thought the article on wnn was a bit unclear as to what the "support" would actually entail.

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