Unless we act now, within 15 years fossil fuels will become too expensive and the effects of climate change irreversible. Bill Dunster looks to a more renewable future

Take a recent copy of Building and wade through the eulogies on nuclear power. Those with large land banks complain the most – particularly in London. Ken Livingstone’s renewable energy programme is starting to bite – construction costs are rising and land values will take a hit. Huge amounts of cash will be lost if the government’s zeal

to reduce the carbon footprint of new construction is not halted. It is easy to see why nuclear power seems the answer.

It is clear we face a shortage in the most important commodities. The population explosion has only been made possible by our seemingly unlimited access to fossil energy, with the rate of depletion accelerating as the economies of India and China expand. It does not matter what commodity we chase – even nuclear raw material in ore concentrations that make extraction viable will run out within 12 to 15 years of a nuclear renaissance. The much-vaunted fuel recycling fast breeders have never bred. Meanwhile, rising sea levels will flood many of our existing nuclear sites and the public is not overly enthusiastic about raising the £50bn clean-up cost of the last nuclear programme.

It appears we have a 15-year window to power down all aspects of our society before fossil fuel becomes too expensive to invest in and runaway climate change is irreversible.

It might be worth finding out how much renewable energy would be available if every single workable concept was realised. A range of studies indicate about 20-30% of current demand is manageable. It does not matter how much green electricity people try to buy – there will not be enough to meet demand.

It is time to rethink someentrenched positions,rather than being seducedby vested interests of a nuclear scenario thatcould never deliver

If today’s energy consumption quotas were reduced by 5% annually for the next 15 years, UK construction could plan a massive programme aimed at upgrading both new and existing buildings that delivered these targets. This would provide almost unlimited work to all sectors, delivering a mix of renewable energy systems and energy-efficient building fabric. This is far better for most of the industry than investing billions in the few technocratic companies and selfish landowners lobbying for a nuclear revival.

Maybe it is time to rethink some entrenched positions and profit from a renewable future, rather than being seduced by vested interests of a nuclear scenario that could never deliver.

So what are we doing to provide alternatives to nuclear? The Greater London Authority needs to facilitate low-cost, high-quality renewable energy technologies so London can meet its 20% renewables policies. This supply chain could reduce the cost of using these technologies and would achieve significant economies of scale. If we concentrate on compact technologies such as solar thermal, photovoltaics and microwind, containerised shipping carbon costs can be similar or even less than road transport from central Europe.

With current government pro-nuclear sentiment and little national investment in renewables, this reversal of policy looks unlikely. ZEDfactory refuses to accept that cost is the principal barrier to adopting decentralised micro-generation concepts in the UK. It is better to give economies of scale to a developing country that needs them. If Chinese components mean we can reduce our national reliance on fossil fuel, we should help design, test and purchase them for integration in London projects. If the GLA or other large cities facilitate their own supply chains, this will reduce construction costs for their urban renewal projects. The beauty of this is that it does not stop the private sector coming up with alternatives – but it will reduce the component price of almost all renewable and energy efficiency technologies by 50%. And then who needs nuclear?