This evening I went to a meeting run by Greenpeace at the Nuffield. The meeting was about how UK should source its energy needs in the future.
This is a very topical issue at the moment, as many of the UK's power stations are coming to the end of their lives and the Government needs to decide whether it is going to invest in natural gas, coal, renewable energies, nuclear or a combination of all of these.
Tony Blair has pre-empted his own energy review and nailed his colours firmly to the nuclear mast, much to the disappointment of local Labour MP Alan Whitehead.
By contrast Greenpeace are calling for investment in renewalable energies and decentralised local power stations using Combined Heat and Power (CHP) technology.
I was very interested to hear the advantages of going down this route and it was an extremely interesting, well informed and moderate debate.
Southampton is one of the few places in the UK which has a CHP power station and there are plans to build another one in the City. Southampton has a gas powered CHP station which supplies the energy for most of Northern Above Bar, including West Quay, the Civic Centre and the new flats built on the site of the old Polygon Hotel. It used to be powered by a Geothermal Well, however this has largely reached the end of its life and it is powered by natural gas now.
Plans are underway to build a second CHP station in Millbrook to supply energy to thousands of homes on the Millbrook estate. The key benefit of CHP is that it is very efficient and there is significantly less energy loss and CO2 emissions. The downside is that it is very expensive to lay all the pipework.
The Millbrook CHP station is already running into difficulty. It was originally going to be fueled by Palm Oil, until it was discovered that this meant felling rainforests in the 3rd world and threatening the habitat of endangered Orang-utans. Now the Council is looking at using oil seed rape. Yesterday it was revealed in the Daily Echo that the private firm working with the Council to build the power plant, had pulled out over uncertainties surrounding the project.
I am all in favour of local solutions to local problems and so instinctively the idea of a Decentralised Energy (DE) appeals to me. The Conservatives and the Lib Dems nationally look like they are supportive of the idea. Labour remain opposed and look like adopting a centralised approach to the UK's energy needs, with a large emphasis on building a new generation of nuclear power stations.
At the meeting Greenpeace argued that the Decentralised Energy approach would mean less CO2 emissions over all and would be cheaper. Also lots of small power stations must be less of a target for terrorists than several huge ones powering large areas.
Decentralised Energy CHP would still be reliant on natural gas (a fossil fuel). However Greenpeace went on to argue that natural gas could slowly be phased out in favour of more Bio Mass and Biogas powered stations.
I heard lots of statistics and I am sure that those pushing the centralised nuclear approach could produce equally convincing numbers. That said Greenpeace put forward a strong case.
However I cannot see a local, decentralised approach to energy working unless we have reform of local government finances. If local government continues to be primarily reliant on grants from government, I can't see how it can really engage with these sorts of projects on a sizeable scale. If local government is to take on the challenge it must be given the resources and freedom to do so.