Solar debate lights up Edinburgh fest, reveals UK's lack of vision

A nuclear vs. solar power debate held on Sunday at the Edinburgh International Book Festival demonstrated British interest for quick fixes in its energy future.

The Edinburgh International Book Festival, which runs Aug. 10-26, is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year and is now a major showcase during the August festival season in Scotland’s capital city. Of the more than 700 events at the festival, the blueprint debate, held every evening at the Guardian-Spiegel tent, has become a major attraction.

Sunday’s sold-out blueprint event was dedicated to Britain’s energy future, with the debate focused on the virtues of nuclear and solar power.

The merits of nuclear power were fiercely advocated by Guardian newspaper columnist George Monbiot, who locked horns with solar power proponent Sue Roaf, professor of architectural engineering at Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University.

The event also highlighted the looming energy supply gap facing the U.K. as aging nuclear power plants and many polluting coal-fired stations are due to close this decade and will need to be replaced and the U.K. government’s rationale for the market (and the electricity bills) to fund the restoration of the country’s energy infrastructure.

The solar case

Roaf argued that a U.K. energy future based predominantly on solar and other renewable types of power is the way to upgrade the country’s aging energy infrastructure. She said the U.K. should make it a priority to build energy resilient societies "with the people, for the people and by the people; a solar dream where the cost of energy will be affordable, is possible." To achieve this, Roaf suggested that solar-cities of the kind developed in Japan and South Korea are necessary. These countries "are developing a solar research industry and by 2050 will be world leaders in the eco-city models."

Installing solar roofs on British homes could generate enough power to level the loss of nuclear power stations, which currently provide around 20% of the U.K.’ electricity needs, Roaf argued.

Solar cities can create "a safe society where the bottom is raised up and not knocked down," Roaf added. "Since 2009 energy utilities’ profits have been raised by 30% while the electricity costs of ordinary households have significantly been increased too." Solar roofs can provide resilience to poor households, Roaf suggested.

Roaf referred to the difference between the Scottish and U.K. governments in the way they view the energy issue. "In Scotland we already generate 40% of our electricity from renewable sources without this additional part of the solar cities plan," she said, adding that Scotland had chosen an energy independent future.

The nuclear case

Monbiot argued that nuclear power combined with renewable types of power was the only effective way to tackle energy and climate change issues. He said there were “moral implications to not run nuclear power stations" despite the risks posed by nuclear accidents and referred to climate change, which he defined as "one of the greatest threats to the natural world."

Phasing out nuclear energy in the U.K., Monbiot said, would be “absolute madness.” The U.K. government would not replace nuclear power stations with renewable energy plants but rather fill the gap with fossil fuels. And this, he added, was a lesson learned from various British governments.

Monbiot referred to Germany, saying that the German government’s serious efforts to tackle climate change by developing renewable power and phasing out nuclear power was "a waste of opportunity. What huge expenses and fantastic technological efforts [Germany deploys] to replace one low carbon source of energy with another low carbon source of energy."

He stressed that the risks of running nuclear plants and the implications of a nuclear disaster have been "disastrously” exaggerated with regards to the effects of radiation on humans.

Monbiot insisted that a fourth generation of nuclear plants would use nuclear waste as fuel and provide higher levels of operational security, although he failed to mention that such technology is not yet available, remains very costly and a vast amount of research and funding is needed.

A lively debate on various aspects of the energy issue followed Roaf and Monbiot’s presentations, with a large part of the discussion focused on the cost of nuclear power vs. the cost of solar power. Roaf argued that there was need for new harmonized energy cost studies that take into account more variables than previously considered.

Quick fixes still possible?

The debate underscored what many consider a British weakness: Britons, with all their zeal in favor of a market society that allows market forces to self-correct and provide for solutions have yet to grasp that the energy issue is a paradigm shift. Market forces alone will not be able to provide for a clean energy future and security of supplies.

What Germany has achieved by shifting its energy policy towards renewable types of power, for example, is not only increasing percentages of low carbon electricity production, but also establishing a globally dominant renewable power industry that has made the country a leader in renewable power research and innovation while also creating thousands of jobs.

The U.K., with its strictly market orientated energy policy, has achieved none of the above. And even if the government chooses to go along the nuclear path, the country needs to import knowledge from abroad, such as from the French nuclear industry.

A future defined by solar and other renewable energies without the leverage of nuclear power is possible, but to achieve it, the country needs a long-term vision. The market alone will not provide this. It can, and should be, skillfully shifted to assist it.