Could the Northern Powerhouse be powered by itself? And if so, what would be the best energy mix to sustain its economy?
These were the questions posed at a debate on the UK energy industry during Policy Week, where PhD students from The University presented four different proposals as to how the North West could be self-sufficient in energy use – ideas which were then debated by a panel of experts.
The event heard that the prospects for some kind of energy devolution as part of the Northern Powerhouse initiative were being considered as we speak. Specifically, it is one of 10 key asks that the Greater Manchester combined authority is putting to Chancellor George Osborne and which he is reviewing ahead of the Comprehensive Spending Review later this month. In particular, the authority is asking for control of some of the taxes on energy bills to be retained in Manchester.
The first proposal put forward at our event looked at solar energy and the promotion of a ‘hyper-local model’ where North West residents install solar power generation devices into their homes. The debate heard that incentivising landlords remained one of the key barriers to the success of such a scheme, as was the reluctance of homeowners who were thinking of loft extensions in their homes to install panels.
However Prof Peter Crossley, Director of the Centre for Doctoral Training in Power Networks at The University of Manchester, said it was logical to use solar power locally. “We need to use the sun in Manchester so need smart grids. The world is smart and we are moving to this new world. Why do we not modernise the electrical network?”
The second proposal argued that the Northern Powerhouse should go nuclear and aim for energy self-sufficiency through large investment in nuclear infrastructure, a secure, low carbon and good baseload energy source. The event heard that there were already plans for a new nuclear plant near Sellafield in Cumbria which would be able to power six million homes, while there was also scope for a smaller modular reactor at the existing Heysham plant in Morecambe Bay.
Ian Jackson from the National Nuclear Laboratory said there was great potential around smaller nuclear reactors. “A large nuclear power station costs a lot of money but a smaller £1bn reactor is more financeable, has greater flexibility and can be matched more easily to local energy demands.”
He added that the recent announcement of a joint UK-Chinese Nuclear Research Centre to be built in the UK was also significant. “This proposal for the North West is also about job creation, export creation and the wider economic development of the north.”
The third proposal looked at the viability of a so-called ‘social enterprise model’ approach to energy whereby local authorities take more control in terms of delivering energy supplies on a not-for-profit basis. Sarah Davies, Head of Strategy and Programmes for the Greater Manchester Environment Team, said there was much strength in the concept because a local energy retailer could reinvest in local schemes. “A local role in energy is definitely needed,” she said.
The final pitch studied how the North West could be powered by a completely renewable mix of energy supplies. It calculated that wind power could represent more than 60% of supplies needed in the region, while biomass and tidal power could make up the rest.
Dr Chris Peters from Sense About Science, admitted there was a lot to do to convince the public that such an idea was viable. “However, by storing such supplies there is an opportunity to do something that is 100% renewable.”
At the end of the event delegates were then able to vote for their preferred proposal. The most popular scheme was the fourth, the mix of renewables with 62 votes. Option one came in second with 55 votes in a very close race.