The Vital Spark
Athough it was published in July 2013 the Third Harwell Paper with the subtitle “Innovating clean and affordable energy for all” is relevant today. It is based on the work international group of energy ‘experts ‘ (from Japan (4), Brazil (2), England, (3), Sweden (2), Canada (3), USA (3), Germany.)
Perhaps, most importantly, given present misguided attempts to reduce energy consumption they recognise the need for energy. We view the lack of universal access to a quantity and quality of energy sufficient for human dignity and empowerment as a policy failure, an unacceptable moral outcome and an impediment to political progress.
They are also critical of an increased reliance on fossil fuels. We can take as at least indicative the computer modelling endorsed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that a doubling or more from pre-industrial levels of carbon dioxide (280 ppm) of atmospheric carbon dioxide might produce a global average temperature increase on the order of 2 degrees Celsius, and possibly a temperature increase of 4 degrees or beyond. It is an hypothesis not to be taken lightly. Alternatives to fossil fuels should be sought.
This leads to a positive view on nuclear power which is The only zero carbon source that can technically be scaled up in short order – much faster than renewables on a similar time-frame; and while not the case in China and to a degree India, the trend in the West after the Fukushima incident is the opposite. One must remember that, at Fukushima, the nuclear fail-safe systems were largely effective: it was the inadequate protection of diesel fuel tanks for stand- by cooling generators that compounded the seriousness of the accident: a lay- out planning and low-technology fault. So what we must learn from the Fukushima incident is not only that we must make every effort to improve nuclear safety and the general all-system safety of nuclear plant sites – for there will be ever more nuclear power stations installed around the world –but that an accident can happen even in a country like Japan, with mature nuclear technology. After the accident, investigative committees identified the causes. Some were context-specific (mismanagement in the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) and other organisations, for example); but others had wider significance. Nuclear accidents could take place in China or India: we cannot deny that possibility. So the reasons why nuclear power is not likely ever to be the sole solution for a low carbon energy transition are that not only is there the risk of accident inherent in the technology ensemble (Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Fukushima) but also because an outage like that which Japan has just experienced can have a great impact on the pattern of global energy supply, and the global economy, once accidents like Fukushima take place. In Japan’s case the ensuing shut-down not only resulted in power shortages; it also “maxed out” the country’s LNG import terminals and hugely increased its coal imports. All these extra costs also decimated Japan’s historic balance of trade surpluses.
But renewable energies are not the answer and the report refers to a matter which now is too often overlooked or ignored. In the electricity sector today, the direct costs of generating electricity from renewable technologies are typically greater than simply burning fossil fuels such as gas or coal by 50-300 per cent. Wind and solar power are still, in spite of some progress, comparatively capital intensive per unit of capacity (MW), and when this is combined with low load factors (around 10 per cent for solar, and around 25 per cent for wind in Europe), the costs per megawatt hour (MWh) generated are necessarily also high. Furthermore, the integration costs of uncontrollable generators are high. Large fleets of conventional generation must, currently, be retained to ensure security of supply when renewables are not available, on a cloudy, windless afternoon for example. Additional grid lines must be constructed to prevent congestion, and special rapid response plants must be constructed to correct errors in the wind and solar forecasts. Some studies conclude that these “integration” costs for even minority fractions of renewables are likely to be high – perhaps very high – and therefore to increase substantially the direct cost of energy derived from these sources.
Current carbon capture technologies, though very interesting, are nowhere near viable today, and may add as much as 50 per cent to the cost of coal or gas power. Finally, energy efficiency, while often touted as the most cost- effective way to avoid carbon emissions, is unlikely to be a climate change panacea due to increased consumption in the developing world, not least for the reasons cited by Jevons’ and noted above. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that rates of energy efficiency are falling around the world due to more energy-intensive lifestyles and industrial production. Even the most aggressive energy efficiency-promoting jurisdictions such as California have managed to reduce electric demand by only about 15 per cent from the baseline: a welcome improvement, but not a transformational one.
The report is also critical of the German Energiewende policy which has promoted significant wind and solar deployment with the perverse effect in the short run of displacing nuclear and gas-fired generation in favour of more carbon-intensive coal-fired generation. As nuclear and gas-fired power generation have declined, coal and lignite generation have increased. The end result is that there has been no net change in fossil fuel-fired production between 2011 and 2012. Of course, it may be that Germans accept this philosophically as just a strange twist in the winding pathway of the particular model of energy transition that they are currently exploring. But that is not entirely clear. What is plain that the Energiewende hasn’t yet created a viable renewable sector, while loading consumers with charges; and the emissions savings gained by this route have been dwarfed by the impact of cheaper gas elsewhere.
While critical of fossil fuels the introduction of shale gas is welcomed with the proviso that this should not be regarded as “a final stop”; “At most, it can provide a “gas bridge” generating the wealth and the public consent that will make it possible to reach still lower-carbon electricity.
It warns that it must at least be acknowledged that the trajectory of global emissions will almost certainly overshoot an atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration of 450ppm in the next few decades. It is irresponsible to ignore the possibility that this could happen. On 9th May 2013, the Mauna Loa Observatory confirmed that the Keeling curve, which has measured global atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations since 1958 when the level was 318 ppm, had passed a daily average of 400 ppm. A positive consequence of candour is that it will concentrate minds and funding more on the search for low- carbon technology to slow this trend and negative carbon technologies capable of reversing it for the latter half of the 21st century.
In its concluding remarks the report emphasises that Policies must therefore ensure that while inventors and innovators have maximum freedom to experiment, there is never any doubt that the aim of their work is to deliver improved cost efficiency. Only general prosperity can produce widespread consent for emissions reductions, and only affordable energy for all can deliver prosperity.
The cost of renewable electricity
The need for “affordable energy” is apparent in a report from the renewable energy company Good Energy which is critical reaction of the Government intention to cut subsidies for renewables – wind and solar – in order to keep bills as low as possible. Good Energy claims that the deployment of onshore wind (the more costly off-shore wind is not mentioned) and solar reduced the wholesale cost of electricity by £1.55 billion in 2014, meaning that the net cost of their subsidy cost amounted to just £1.12 billion. But this shows that the full cost of the subsidy was a “non-affordable” £2.67 billion.
This could be avoided to the extent that the renewables are replaced by nuclear electricity. The nuclear stations also have the additional advantage of being able to operate at higher load factors without the need for back up support from fossil fired plant. Increasing the generation of wind and solar inevitably requires an increase in fossil fuel supply to meet demand when the wind is not blowing or the sun shining. We do not yet have a practical means of electricity storage.
Small is beautiful
The assertion that in contrast with bigger is better, small is beautiful, was
made by “Fritz” Schumacher who died in 1977. His 1973 book ‘ Small is
Beautiful’ was based on the concept of ‘enoughnes’. But this could also be
applied to ‘utility’; has the increasing size of nuclear stations now reached
a limit with Hinckley C at 1600 MW?
Although the 4 units at the Barakah nuclear plant, now being built by S. Korea in the United Arab Republic are only slightly smaller at 1400 MW each, its construction is proceeding smoothly. All four units, of the $20 billion bid to build four commercial nuclear reactors, a total 5.6 GWe, are now under construction; the first is more than 75% complete and is expected on line in 2017, the fourth by 2020.
There is also a growing interest in small nuclear reactors ranging in size from a few 100 MWs up to 1000 MW, although none have yet been built. But in the smaller unit sizes these could be factory built and delivered to site, in some designs to be installed underground, which would ease siting restrictions.