As suitable sites for on-shore wind turbines in the UK are limited, given the nuisance they can cause and the amount of land they occupy, more hopes are being placed on the potential for off-shore wind farms. But this is not without its own problems. These are considered in a critical assessment published by the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies (Achieving a cost- competitive offshore wind power industry – what is the most effective policy framework? Craig Brown, Rahmat Poudineh, Benjamin Foley) and in the abstract to their paper.
“The promise of carbon-free, utility-scale power generation from offshore wind farms is encouraging a number of governments to implement policy support frameworks and national targets for offshore wind power generation. However, the high capital requirements for the deployment of offshore wind have proven that it is an expensive approach to meeting national renewable energy and carbon reduction targets, relative to other power generation sources. The capital requirement for offshore wind farms will be pushed even higher as consented development zones move further from shore and into deeper waters.
In this paper, we analyse the major capital cost drivers of offshore wind plants and the implications of various policy frameworks on overall cost reductions for the industry. According to the results of our analysis, this issue – whether the promotion of scalability, or of competition for subsidies, will be more effective in driving down industry-wide costs – is highly market specific. Competitive policies are likely to be most effective when the market size is sufficiently large, whereas enhancing scale is more effective in nascent markets. However, we caution that in either case, the public costs of policies directly supporting offshore wind must be reconciled with the cost of supporting other low-carbon and zero-carbon technologies that may be equally as effective in helping governments achieve renewable energy and carbon reduction targets.”
This however is only one of reasons for reducing the reliance on wind and solar energies. Further problems arise from their intermittent and unpredictable nature. They are only available when the sun shines or the wind blows. They require the back up supply from fossil fired plant held on constant readiness to come into operation to fill the gap, or on the transfer of power from geographically distant plants.
Warnings of dangerous increases in global temperature are coming with an increasing frequency, which indicates they can no longer be ignored. It may not be possible to control natural variations, but all possible measures should be taken to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.
The latest warning from the Meteorological Office on November 9th is that they expect 2015 to be the first year when the global annual average temperature passes 1C above pre-industrial levels. By the end of September, global temperature is sitting at 1.02C above the 1850-1990 average, and is “expected to hold” for the rest of the year.
This warning came on the same day that the World Meteorological Organisation announced that the global average concentration of carbon dioxide surpassed 400 parts per million in spring 2015. This expected increase in global temperature would be half of the 2C, which is the internationally agreed limit above which the impacts of climate change are deemed to become intolerably high.
This leads to the warning by the WMO that
for a good chance of staying below 2C, the best estimate is that we need to emit less than 2,900 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The latest figures, which end last year, tell us that we’ve emitted 2,000 gigatonnes since pre-industrial, so we are two-thirds of the way to emitting the greenhouse gas emission budget to limit us to below 2C.
It would be reckless to ignore these warnings. We should as a matter of some urgency reduce the burning of fossil fuels. As noted wind and solar power can only provide a limited reduction since their back up from fossil fuels generation, at the times when the sun does not shine or the wind does not blow, will always be needed. The only solution, if we wish to continue to live in a high energy society is to increase nuclear power generation. This would also have the additional benefit of reducing the death and disease from the air pollution caused by burning fossil fuels. Latest reports claim that the death toll from air pollution, usually put at around 29,000 a year in the UK, could be substantially higher because the lethal effect of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), emitted during fossil fuel burning, has not been taken into account; despite this one estimate puts the UK government subsidies to fossil fuels at between 543–1174 million $/year (Oil Change International, November 2014.)
Speaking to Lloyds of London the CBI the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, made a powerful case for nuclear power without actually specifically referring to it. There is no alternative.
Among the points he made were:
There is a growing international consensus that climate change is unequivocal. Research tells us with a high degree of confidence that:
- In the Northern Hemisphere the last 30 years have been the warmest since Anglo-Saxon times; indeed, eight of the ten warmest years on record in the UK have occurred since 2002;
- Atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases are at levels not seen in 800,000 years; and
- The rate of sea level rise is quicker now than at any time over the last 2 millennia.
- Evidence is mounting of man’s role in climate change. Human drivers are judged extremely likely to have been the dominant cause of global warming since the mid-20th century. While natural fluctuations may mask it temporarily, the underlying human-induced warming trend of two-tenths of a degree per decade has continued unabated since the 1970s.
Since the 1980s the number of registered weather-related loss events has tripled; and inflation-adjusted insurance losses from these events have increased from an annual average of around $10bn in the 1980s to around $50bn over the past decade.
The desirability of restricting climate change to 2 degrees above pre- industrial levels leads to the notion of a carbon ‘budget’, an assessment of the amount of emissions the world can ‘afford’.
- There are a number of factors which could influence the speed of transition to a low carbon economy including public policy, technology, investor preferences and physical events.
- Any efficient market reaction to climate change risks as well as the technologies and policies to address them must be founded on transparency of information.
- A ‘market’ in the transition to a 2 degree world can be built. It has the potential to pull forward adjustment – but only if information is available and crucially if the policy responses of governments and the technological breakthroughs of the private sector are credible
- That is why, following our discussions at the FSB last week, we are considering recommending to the G20 summit that more be done to develop consistent, comparable, reliable and clear disclosure around the carbon intensity of different assets.
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that if we are to continue our present way of life, there must be a large reduction in the burning of fossil fuels. For electricity generation this leads to a growing use of wind and solar or nuclear power. But wind and solar inevitably require the back up of fossil fuels to balance the inevitable variability when the wind is not blowing or the sun is not shining. This leaves nuclear power as the only reliable source of electricity to power a modern society that is entirely free from carbon emissions.
All we have so far is Hinkley C with the hope that Chinese participation might rescue the otherwise floundering and costly project, and the possibility that further Chinese nuclear build will soon be authorized. And what is happening with the projected nuclear stations at Wylfa and Moorhead? Should we turn to small modular reactors? Or look to S Korea? The future expansion of nuclear power in this country should not depend solely on Hinkley C and EDF.
The needs of a national nuclear programme
It will not be easy to meet the requirements for skilled labour force and for finance that will be required to ensure our future energy growth. Some of the problems are considered in a 64 page Treasury report – The National Infrastructure Plan for Skills – which makes some interesting comments on energy and nuclear power. It is particularly noteworthy that Infrastructure projects and programmes already account for about 10% of the total UK construction workforce and more than 50% of the engineering construction workforce. Infrastructure output is forecast to grow to account for between 12 ~ 14% of annual construction output by the end of the decade. But the greater share of this will be taken by energy.
- Energy £244.9 billion
- Transport £127.4
- Water and Sewage £25.7 billion Communications £7 billion Flood defenses £3.5 billion Science and research £1.4
- Waste £ 1.1 billion
The report notes that Increasing the pool of skilled labour over the long term will only occur if we get more young people with the STEM skills (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) that form the basis of a career in infrastructure construction. And it estimates that by 2020 the UK will require 450,000 more science, engineering and technology technicians.
Energy, one of the largest sectors within the infrastructure pipeline, includes investment in new electricity generation plant, nuclear decommissioning and oil and gas capital investment.
Total projected expenditure in the energy sector from 2015/16 to 2020/21 is forecast at £104 billion.
Although a sharp fall in oil prices at the end of 2014 has reduced projected expenditure in the latter half of the decade, this reduction is offset by projected increases levels of investment in electricity generation projects, with significant expenditure on offshore wind and new nuclear projects expected towards the end of the decade.
Demand for labour is seen as peaking at around 106,000 people towards the end of the decade. Within subsectors there are significant skills challenges towards the end of the decade caused by the ramp up of new nuclear and offshore wind programmes, at the same time as the reduction in forecast investment in offshore oil and gas.
The electricity generation programme includes investment in conventional gas power stations, new nuclear power and renewable power schemes such as offshore wind, with an increasing spend towards the end of the decade rising to around £13 billion per annum. Total projected expenditure from 2015/16 to 2020/21 is forecast at £61 billion with the demand for skilled workers rising by around 50% to approximately 79,400 by the end of the decade.
As one of the key expected growth markets in UK infrastructure over the coming years, the electricity generation sector faces considerable challenges in terms of its skills requirements.
The planned increase in new nuclear capacity is forecast to increase the labour demand in this sub-sector from an almost standing start to around 19,000 by about 2023. The most notable pinch point will arise with the planned delivery of major new nuclear power stations at Hinkley Point in Somerset, Wylfa Newydd on the Isle of Anglesey and Moorside in Cumbria. Based on current expectations, the workforce for nuclear projects is expected to peak at in the early part of next decade, requiring a significant inflow of new workers to the sector. This will include 3,500 professional and 3,000 technical employees that will need to be placed. Each site will also require a total of around 4,000 civil engineering workers, representing up to 50% of the total civil engineering population of Wales, and 25% in the South West.
Specific pinch points identified by the Nuclear Energy Skills Alliance include high integrity welders, control and instrumentation skills, project and programme management, steel fixers, concreters, civil engineering operatives and scaffolders.
However, the long gap in nuclear construction in the UK, combined with the shrinkage of the workforce because of the age profile, means that the levels of net recruitment required to meet the growth of demand will be higher than the headline or gross figure. There will be a need to attract and train new employees at both the technical and graduate levels in very significant numbers.
As well as training new people, one of the major requirements of the programme will be to attract and retain experienced personnel who are several years into their careers; this will mean attracting individuals who have gained experience in other sectors and enabling them to make the transition into nuclear There are significant potential benefits therefore from cooperation across the nuclear programmes, considering the three current projects in development as a ‘national programme’ rather than discrete projects (Our emphasis).
Such an approach may also help address one of the key recruitment challenges in both the nuclear and the broader power and energy sector projects – the multiplicity of projects with different skills specifications makes it difficult for skilled workers to move from project to project and even from site to site. Where practicable, the industry would benefit from common standards and accreditation as long as this does not create an additional layer of qualification or barriers to movement.
As a result of effective cooperation between industry, skills organizations, and government, the programme requirements are well understood and measures are in place to address skills and productivity challenges. In view of the scale of the challenge and to address potential risks to project delivery, targeted action will be needed by industry in partnership with government to tackle skills pinch points.
It seems however that the final decisions on when, where, and what to build will remain with the foreign companies that will own and operate the plants.
Outside nuclear power, the other major growth area for energy generation in recent years has been renewables. Offshore wind shows a sharp increase in the workforce by 2020. This is forecast to rise from about 5,000 to over 16,000 in 2018 due to the profiling of investment at the latter part of the decade.
A renewable energy workforce of 18,500 in 2013 could rise to as many as 70,000 in 2023 according to sector trade body Renewables UK, depending on the blend of new generation projects. Such roles tend to be towards the higher end of the skills spectrum, meaning that the sector will faces competition for resources from other parts of the infrastructure sector when it comes to attracting skilled and experienced workers.
The nuclear option
Robert Stone, the producer of the film Pandora’s promise makes a powerful case for nuclear power as an essential source of clean energy in an article in the IAEA Bulletin June 2015, which criticises Germany as a major source of air pollution in the heart of Europe. The article endorses the development of small modular reactors with their potential for assembly line manufacture and construction.
Germany, which is abandoning nuclear energy, is widely believed among environmentalists to be an example of a nation well on its way towards being almost entirely powered by renewable energy. In fact, Germany gets 5% of its electricity from solar power and about 8% from wind (more than any other major industrial nation). This still leaves 87% of the country’s electricity needs coming from other sources — including hydro and biomass, but mostly fossil fuels. Germany is also one of the only European nations that continues to build new coal plants.
There is no assurance that we’ll be able to reverse the current trends that are hurtling us towards a potential climate catastrophe. But I believe we are irresponsibly diminishing, and very likely eliminating, our chances of success if we insist on trying to solve this problem without deploying nuclear energy in a big way. In a world that is adding the energy equivalent of another Brazil to the planet every year, and where coal remains not only the most widely used source of energy, but also the fastest growing, nuclear energy has the potential to make a significant contribution to the type of clean energy mix that will be required if we are to seriously scale back on our dependence on fossil fuels globally.
What is often ignored, however, is the fact that many cutting–edge advanced reactor designs, the science for which has been developed over many decades, are nearly ready to be commercialized (and would be now had anti-nuclear groups not rallied to cut off research and development funding years ago).
The virtually unlimited supply of nuclear fuel is emphasised. The next generation of nuclear plants have the ability to play a transformative role in providing clean energy on the massive scale that will be required to meet the new climate targets. Using today’s nuclear waste for fuel, plus the ability to extract uranium from seawater or switching to an abundant thorium fuel cycle, assures a virtually inexhaustible supply of fissionable material to meet the electricity needs of everyone on the planet essentially forever, while virtually eliminating the accumulation of long-lived radioactive waste.
The safety of small modular reactors which could be placed underground would ease siting restrictions – Passively safe advanced designs, like molten salt reactors and small modular reactors, offer the promise of dramatically improved economics for nuclear energy by minimizing the need for the kinds of costly and complex safety systems required for today’s nuclear power plants. Mass production of modular components on assembly lines, rather than on-site construction, can streamline the production process and allow for a rapid scaling of the technology at dramatically lower cost. The same manufacturing techniques used today to produce commercial jet aircraft — an even more complex, yet remarkably safe and reliable technology — could soon be turning out standardized, modular nuclear power plants at a rapid clip. It can be done.