In the 17th century, before the development of fossil fuels when Miguel de Cervantes wrote Don Quixote, attacking windmills, seen as a race of giants advancing across the plain, was clearly delusional; they were at that time a valued energy source.
Now the situation is reversed and this intermittent and expensive means of generating electricity is no longer essential. For the UK the DECC load factors, a measure of how much electricity a turbine generates expressed as a percentage of how much it could generate if it generated at full power all the time, is only around 25 to 35% for wind turbines, but there are disputed accounts as to how far and how quickly this falls off as the plants age, with an expected life of about 25 years.
There is however little dispute over the cost of wind farms and the subsidies they receive; in 2012 this amounted to £1.2 billion/yr and could rise to £6 billion/yr if the supply of energy from renewable sources reaches the Renewables Obligation target of 15% of energy. But the new Conservative government is now taking some limited action to curtail an expansion of these subsidies, which will not be available for new onshore wind projects – probably as a recognition of growing public opposition to land based wind farms. This suggests that no new onshore projects will be built, but subsidies will presumably still be given to existing plant and to offshore wind farms.
With these subsidies, the largely foreign owned companies building these windfarms are happy to do so. An example is the London Array – E.ON, (France) 30%, Caisse de depot et placement du Quebec 25%, Dong Energy (Denmark) 25%, and Masdar (Abu Dhabi) 20%.
Dong Energy for instance has other wind interests in the UK operating the offshore wind farms Walney (367MW), Gunfleet Sands (172MW), Burbo Bank (90MW) and Barrow (90MW).
The virtue of wind farms is that they supply electricity without the release of carbon dioxide and other pollutants; but they also require continuous back up from fossil fired plants for the unpredictable time that the wind does not blow. A stable electricity supply could be achieved more efficiently and cheaply by an expansion of nuclear output.
This however does not satisfy the present day Quixote’s who are busy promoting windmills, and attacking nuclear power plants.
The curse of Adam
Climate Action Network Europe is campaigning to reduce the subsidies now paid in the EU G20 countries to support the burning of fossil fuels. It claims that “Across the 4 EU G20 countries (Germany, France, Italy and the United Kingdom), the scale of fossil fuel subsidies, at €14 billion in 2011, is nearly 3 times higher than the annual approved climate finance of approximately €5 billion in 2013. Across the whole EU, the scale of fossil fuel subsidies at €60 billion in 2011, is six times the level of public climate finance, €9.5 billion, committed by the EU as a whole in 2013.”
It also claims that burning coal accounts for about 17% of the greenhouse gas emissions in Europe, with most coming from Germany, Poland and the UK. “Every year, millions of Europeans become sick, and around 23,000 people die prematurely due to exposure to the coal industry’s pollutants.”
But CAN Europe reveals its true nature as a campaigning group for renewables by calling for “a phase out of nuclear energy” on the grounds that “it makes Europe more energy dependent and does not offer any help in the fight against climate change.”
This rests on the belief that it is in someway more noble to try to reduce fuel consumption; as if we should somehow return to the economy of the Middle Ages seen as a more virtuous society; as if the Industrial Revolution with its expansion of manufacturing and growth of energy and fossil fuel consumption was somehow immoral. Forks and spades create more jobs and would be more virtuous than bulldozers. Mankind has been driven from Paradise for tasting of the Tree of Knowledge.
Now that the arguments for an expansion of fossil fuels are being questioned with fears of climate change the answer is not to retreat to the Middle Ages but expand to a nuclear future.
A delusion Surprisingly a letter to the Guardian (16th September), signed by some 25 of an eminent group of scientists, business leaders and politicians, starting with David Attenborough and ending with Martin Rees the Astronomer Royal, calls for governments at the Paris climate conference to commit to invest a total some 15 billion$ a year in research, development and demonstration of clean energy. … and support the Global Apollo Programme – the 10-year plan for cheaper, cleaner energy.
This might seem a sensible proposal but with the aim apparently restricted to the natural intermittent renewable energies – wind, solar, tides – it will inevitably require some means of energy storage which can only add to the cost; it will certainly not lead to cheaper energy .
A more sensible proposal would be to develop the advanced nuclear systems which will utilize as fuel the energy now being discarded in the much dreaded nuclear waste, as well building small nuclear reactor systems for local electricity networks.
The UK output of nuclear electricity could be expanded to meet electricity demand. In France for instance its 58 reactors provide more than three- quarters of its electricity supply, which gives the French consumer the cheapest electricity in Europe; but it now seems that the French government, for no obvious reason, apart from the desire to go ‘green’, plans to reduce this to around 50%.
South Korea is now emerging as a major nuclear power supplier. The United Arab Emirates must now know they made a wise decision in preferring the lower Korean bid for the Barakah nuclear plants to the French when the smooth progress of the four Barakah reactors is compared with the long delays and steeply rising costs of the Areva stations now being built in Finland, and France, and the hesitations over Sizewell C. The four Barakah reactors totalling
5.6 GWe, are now all under construction and expected to be completed by 2020. Construction of the first began in July 2012, it is now more than 75% complete and expected to be online by in 2017.
The S Korean success is built on a policy of replication. Unlike the UK where no two reactors are alike – the Magnox and AGR stations, were all built by different consortia to slightly different designs using different subcontractors S. Korea, after starting with Westinghouse technology, built 10 OPR-1000 units which came into operation between 1998 and now. These are being followed by 8 larger APR-1400, the first of which should come on line next year, with all 8 in operation by 2023. This standardisation has given reliability, with an overall capacity factor of 96.5% (partly due to power upratings).
Now, in a financial partnership with Saudi Arabia, S Korea is marketing the SMART reactor. This is a small-scale nuclear PWR with a capacity of 100 MWe. Its selling point is that the main system components including steam generators are all inside the reactor vessel and this eliminates the possibility of any piping accidents. It is claimed that it can be built in about 3 years at a cost of less than $100 million.
There are many other SMR’s deisgns on offer from different companies and groupings, but Smart has the advantage of financial backing from Suadi Arabia.
Although now outdated we should not forget the four 62 MWt (thermal) reactors at Bilibino in Siberia; these are unusual graphite-moderated BWR’s which produce steam for district heating and 11 MWe (net) electricity each. They have performed well since 1976.