Can we stop burning coal?
Leaving aside the arguments over the possible threat that climate change may threaten in the future if emissions of carbon dioxide from coal-fired electricity plants continue to rise, there is no doubt at all about the serious health effects that these emissions have and are now causing. They are a sufficient reason in themselves to seek the abandonment of coal as a fuel at the earliest practical date.
Some estimates are horrific. The Health and Environmental Alliance claims that for Europe, emissions from coal plants contribute to more than 18,200 premature deaths each year, to which can be added 2.1 million days of medication, 4.1 million lost working days and 28,6 million cases of lower respiratory symptoms. For those who would place more weight on the financial cost the conclusions are equally alarming. The total costs of ill-health and mortality in the EU together are put at €15.5 to €42.8 billion annually (lower and upper bound due to two different expressions of mortality) with premature deaths, health care costs caused by additional cases of chronic bronchitis and restricted activity days accounting for the largest expenditures. These costs are paid from different budgets, ranging from national health care budgets, to those borne by the overall economy in lost productivity, and ultimately individual household budgets and savings.
Such figures for the health effects of burning coal are replicated in many countries round the world. In the U.S the American Lung Association estimates that 24,000 people a year die prematurely in the U.S because of pollution from coal-fired power plants. They specifically point to the release for the whole of the U.S of 48 tons of mercury, and estimate that coal plants are responsible for about 50% of particle pollution, which puts millions of Americans at increased risk for heart attacks and strokes, respiratory illness, and asthma. Coal-fired power plants also emit 59% of total U.S. sulfur dioxide pollution, 18% of total nitrogen oxides, and 40% of carbon dioxide every year.
British coal power plants are said to cause 1,600 premature deaths, 68,000 additional days of medication, 363,266 working days lost each year and more than a million incidents of lower respiratory symptoms. These health costs were estimated at £1.1 to 3.1 billion (€1.3 to 3.7 billion) per year, ranking the UK as number six among EU member states.
Greenpeace, too, is now mounting a campaign against burning coal. A number of Greenpeace sponsored reports have highlighted the huge cost in terms of death and disease that can be attributed to the air pollution from coal- fired power stations. One report by Stuttgart University’s Institute for energy economics claims that air pollution from Europe’s 300 largest coal power stations causes 22,300 premature deaths a year and costs companies and governments billions of pounds in disease treatment and lost working days, with the UK Britain as the fifth most coal-polluted country.
These 300 plants produce one-quarter of all the electricity generated in the EU but are responsible for more than 70% of the EU’s sulphur dioxide emissions and more than 40% of nitrogen oxide emissions from the power sector. The Greenpeace report notes that coal burning has increased in Europe each year from 2009 to 2012.
Forget about possible/probable climate change in the future. These effects are with us now. Acidic gases, soot, and dust emissions from coal burning are, along with diesel engines, the biggest contributors to microscopic particulate pollution that penetrates deep into the lungs and the bloodstream. The pollution causes heart attacks and lung cancer, as well as increasing asthma attacks and other respiratory problems that harm the health of both children and adults. “Tens of thousands of kilograms of toxic metals such as mercury, lead, arsenic and cadmium are spewed out of the stacks, contributing to cancer risk and harming children’s development.”
But this is not only a European concern, similar figures for death and disease are found in all other countries, including India where according to another Greenpeace sponsored report coal-fired power plants may be leading directly to the deaths of 80,000 to 115,000 people a year, and there are even more – an estimated 260,000 deaths/year – in China which is now seeking to reduce the notorious air pollution prevailing in all major cities.
As would be expected, the coal industry disputes these figures which Eurocoal says come from an environmental lobby group with no accountability and which ignores the benefits of coal including “jobs, added economic value, security of energy supply and affordable energy which for those who live in fuel poverty can mean the difference between life and death”. Eurocoal would focus on the more efficient stations which can achieve a 40% efficiency with calls to develop further advances as well as the hoped for introduction of carbon capture and storage – clean coal.
Despite these potential improvements Christine Figueres of the UN Framework Cooperation on Climate change, addressing the International Coal and Climate Study in Poland on Nov 18th called for the closure of all existing subcritical coal plants with the ultimate aim that most coal reserves should be left in the ground. The coal industry “must change rapidly and dramatically,” she said, noting that coal has “an unacceptably high cost to human and environmental health.”
Replacing coal for electricity generation however will not be easy and will take time. There are strong financial incentives to keep old coal-fired plants in operation (when the health costs are ignored). In December MPs rejected an amendment from the House of Lords that would have extended the so- called emissions performance standard (EPS) to cover old and inefficient coal plants, as well as new ones, unless they were fitted with costly carbon capture and storage technology thus sparing the energy market from an even tighter squeeze as ageing nuclear plants shut later this decade.
In 2012 UK coal met 41% of electricity generation burning 54.9 m tons of which 44.8 m tons were imported to fuel 28GW of coal fired capacity. The Government sees coal as a flexible and reliable source of generation that it expects will continue to play an important role over the coming years during the transition to a low-carbon economy. In this it puts its hopes in the development of cost- competitive carbon capture and storage (CCS) that should ensure coal can continue as part of a decarbonised electricity sector. These hopes however ignore the reduced capacity and higher costs of coal stations where CCS might be installed as well as the potential problems of storing vast quantities of carbon dioxide underground – for ever!
Coal however is a major energy source for most countries which cannot easily be replaced. The IEA’s latest five-year outlook predicts coal consumption will grow at an average 2.3 per cent per year. The world will burn almost nine billion tonnes of coal per year by 2018, the agency predicts.
The benefits of emission-free electricity could be achieved more securely by nuclear power without the health costs and loss of life among the coal miners as well as public, yet opposition to nuclear power based on the fear of radiation and of the potential threat of nuclear weapons and the possibility nuclear accidents is all-persuasive. Potential mass deaths that might possibly, but have not yet occurred, carry more weight than the actual deaths from air pollution that have, now, and will continue to take a toll, are ignored.
Although no deaths are expected from Fukushima and the financial costs of the damage at the nuclear plant is small compared to the devastation caused by the tsunami, this was sufficient for the German Government to decide on the ultimate closure of all its, entirely safe nuclear plants which provided some 30% of electricity. The share of nuclear power is now reduced to only 15% of electricity, with the last nuclear plant due to be shut down in 2022.
To maintain electricity supply there has been an increase in generation from coal fired plants – in particular those burning lignite, now meeting some 25% of supply with 20% more from coal. The main increase has been renewable energy – wind and solar power – up from 6% in 2000 to almost 25%, but this has brought with it the consequences of intermittency and higher electricity prices, as well as an increase in carbon emissions, which despite Germany’s shift to renewable solar and wind energies, and amid a recession rose by 1.8pc last year.
Apart from climate change, one consequence will be an increase in deaths from air pollution – not only in Germany but also in neighbouring countries where pollutants are carried on the winds. There is also a financial burden for consumers. German electricity prices are among the highest in Europe and almost double those in nuclear powered France. There are however proposals to cut the German subsidies to wind energy, onshore and offshore by up to 20%. Not surprisingly there are reports of energy intensive industries moving abroad while the European Commission, is to investigate Germany’s management of subsidies and the discounts given to heavy industry on renewable energy surcharges. But the German Economy Minister told reporters during visit to Brussels to meet EEC officials that Germany will risk losing its big industries unless they are sheltered from the cost burden of renewable energy. “We must ensure in Germany that energy-intensive industry remains unburdened by the EEG law (Germany’s renewable energy law), Anything else would result in us de-industrialising Germany. This is not an exaggeration. Europe cannot have an interest in damaging German industry.”
Germany’s problems are now heightened by the recent news that the German Supreme Administrative Court has ruled that the forced closure of RWE’s Biblis nuclear power plant after the Fukushima accident was unlawful. The utility is now said to be likely to sue for considerable damages.
In a sarcastic comment the American Magazine Forbes reported that “Germany is building about 25 clean coal-fired power plants to offset the loss of nuclear and address Germany’s admittedly “unaffordably expensive and unreliable” renewable portfolio (Der Spiegel). The German Green Party can now celebrate the opening of a 2,200 MW coal-fired power plant near Cologne. It started spewing out its annual, relatively clean, 13 million tons of CO2, and other nasties, so much lower than those older dirty coal plants that would have put out 15 million tons of CO2 for the same power output.
We usually give the Germans credit for being rational, but this coal plant will emit over one million times more carbon this year than all of their nuclear plants would have over the next 20 years, and cost over twice as much to run as any one of the them. Germany’s present strategy will absolutely not allow them to reduce their carbon emissions anywhere near their goal of 40% by2020. ”
The strike price
The payments for Hinkley Point under the strike price are for a period of 35 years. During this time EDF will have the financial support and incentive to pay off the capital costs of building the plant so that for the next 25 years of the designed 60 year operating life the costs of generation will be only for fuel, operation and maintenance which together account for some 40% of the generating cost (according to a 2004 study by the Royal Academy of a Engineering) to give an immediate reduction in the cost of generation of up to 60% which should enable EDF to make very substantial profits.
It is also possible that with some modest expenditure both the capacity of the plant and its operating lifetime could be further increased – perhaps indefinitely? To quote from a World Nuclear Association report on Nuclear Power in Finland (15 Nov 2003) Finnish reactors are remarkable in the extent to which they have been uprated since they were built. TVO’s Olkiluoto 1 & 2 started up in 1978-80 at 658 MWe net (690 MWe gross); 30 years later, they were rated at 860 MWe net each (30% more) and their lifetime had been extended to 60 years, subject to safety evaluation every decade. TVO now proposes progressively to uprate them further to 1000 MWe each. A 25 MWe uprate of Olkiluoto 1 over May-June 2010 was part of this, and involved replacement of low-pressure turbines. A similar uprate of unit 2 to almost 910 MWe gross was undertaken over May-June 201 . With uprates, TVO aims “always to have 40 years of remaining technical lifetime”.
The need for the support of a strikeprice for other than the renewables of wind and solar is a uniquely British concept; no other nuclear stations, built or planned, including the EDF’s other EPR Group Family reactors now being built in France and China, have required this support. In effect the strikeprice sets the cost of support for different technologies. All offshore wind farms can now be sure of receiving £140/MWh for their electricity, while the price for onshore wind has been reduced to £95/MWh for the next two years and will then fall further to £90/MWH. But the actual cost of generation will vary widely as the load factors can vary between 10 to 40% for different sites. Wind turbines placed advantageously in windy sites will then generate a far greater income for their owners than others. For offshore wind the distance from shore and depth and geology will also influence costs. Some sites will clearly be more profitable than others with the gains being taken by the operator.
In the same way it seems probable that the strike price of £92.5/MWh for nuclear power agreed with EDF for Hinkley Point (or £89.5/MWh if Sizewell is added) will now be the starting point for negotiating the strike price for future nuclear stations. While Hitachi may wish to persuade other potential customers that their BWR design offers significant cost or other advances over other reactor systems they will probably find some unique factors associated with their Wylfa site which would justify higher costs and enable them to claim the same level of strikeprice support as has been granted to Hinkley Point. But if, as might be expected, either BWR or PWR, shows a significant advantage over the other – construction cost, operating cost, fuel cost etc – the gains (as with wind farms) will fall to the generator rather than to the public who will be charged with the same fixed strikeprice.
It also seems that there will be the same long delay before the new stations come into operation. For Hinkley Point it seems that even assuming acceptance by the EEC this may not be until the mid 2020’s. For Wylfa too, on the basis of site works beginning around 2015 leading to the start of major on-site work in 2018 and first nuclear construction around 2019, the start of commercial operation of the plant is not expected before the first half of the 2020s.
EPR Group Family
One advantage claimed for the EDF Group Family is cooperation through joint procurement for the three EPR reactors now being built, Taishan in China and Flammanville in France, to be joined by Hinkley Point. This will be coordinated through an office in Paris and through EDF engineers being sent to each of the three sites, as well as regular meetings to exchange information.
While of obvious advantage, this strengthens the probability that the participation of British companies in Hinkley construction will be more on local ground-work and conventional components rather than on specialised nuclear equipment. UK industry may then not acquire the know-how and experience to be able to take a greater share in future nuclear projects.
South- East Asia goes nuclear
In a reversal of the over-concern with safety, which has for instance led Germany to begin to close its nuclear power plants, South East Asian states now place greater concern over energy security and are pushing ahead with nuclear plans. These plans are supported by generous terms provided by the governments of South Korea, Japan, China, Russia and France, which would provide the technology.
A report in the East Asian Forum (20th December 2013) reports that Vietnam’s plans are the most advanced. Two Russian reactors to be completed by 2020 will be followed by two Japanese reactors, with proposals for another six reactors. In Thailand, two reactors are planned and four proposed. Malaysia plans to build two reactors. Indonesia is considering two small reactors and in a reversal of previous plans the Philippines is now debating re- commissioning a nuclear plant built in Bataan by the then US corporation Westinghouse in the 1980s but never made operational because of safety concerns.
The East Asian Forum however believes there could still be doubts as this move to nuclear energy is occurring at a time when the world energy scarcity envisaged a decade ago is being overturned by the development of clean coal technologies, shale oil and gas discoveries, the exploitation of geo-thermal and bio-fuel resources and advances in solar and wind-power technology. But this could be controversial; wind and solar power are not only expensive but intermittent. Shale oil and gas may be a limited resource and there are doubts over the supposed clean coal technologies.
The article however concludes that the energy security offered by nuclear power will be the determining factor.
Meeting carbon emission targets
In its latest pronouncement on the climate change challenge the European Commission has accepted that the target of a 40% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 can be met without specifying specific targets for particular technologies.
This is an important step forward. It means that while the target is binding on the EU as a whole each of the EU countries can now choose to decarbonise their energy supply in the most appropriate way. The UK is no longer required to meet fixed targets for the so-called ‘green energies’ wind and solar power which, for electricity generation are not only expensive but intermittent, requiring back up from fossil- fired plant which will add to carbon emissions.
As Ed Davey, the Energy Minister said – Britain needs a diverse energy mix. Rigid technology specific targets set for each country would not be cost effective. EU members should be free to decarbonise in a way that is right for them, – home grown renewables, new nuclear, a switch from dirty coal to cleaner gas, and, when the technology is ready, carbon-capture and storage. “Diversity will keep the lights on and ensure we go green at the lowest possible cost. The UK is persuading others on the need for Member States to have the freedom and flexibility to develop their own energy mix to achieve these ambitious reductions.”
There are now signs that we can look forward to a substantial increase in nuclear generation as some the more costly of offshore wind farm proposals are being abandoned.
RWE is to end its agreement with the Crown Estates for the Bristol Channel
zone, and in particular the option for the Atlantic Array a £4 bn project
which would have generated up to 1,200 MW of intermittent electricity from 240
turbines 10 miles off the North Devon coast. RWE gives the main reason as
‘deep water’ conditions, but it also seems that ‘market conditions’ i.e.
‘insufficient subsidy’ may be more to blame.
Scottish Power has also announced that it is to abandon its £5.4 bn plan for the Agyll Array for up to 1,800 MW after 4 years of planning again because “it is not financially viable”.
New nuclear may now play an ever-more prominent part in securing our future electricity supply.
The excitement over fracking for shale gas, both for and against, seems overdone. Shale gas is just another source of methane which could be an addition to imports and the declining production from the North Sea. The key factor is the cost at which it will be produced. If significantly higher than the other sources it is unlikely that if will ever become a major source. Indications from the US are that the initial output falls off rapidly after only a few years production, requiring the drilling of new wells, which even if radiating horizontally from a main well will add both to the cost and continuing local disturbance.