Monday, November 30, 2009

More Atoms for peace

It’s good to have Obama and Brown pushing for the phase out of nuclear weapons. At least part of the driver for this is that the US and its allies can be seen to be honouring their part of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), in the hope that other countries will sign up to it - or, since it will soon run out, its yet to be negotiated replacement. But there is more. Then, so the argument goes, the way will be clear for the spread of civil nuclear power around the world. That, it’s argued, helps reduce use of fossil fuels and thus reduces global geopolitical tension over oil and gas, while also helping with global climate change. So it’s all related globally and geopolitically - and NPT will save the planet.

The official view seems to be that the NPT has worked well- otherwise we would have many more weapons states. That’s hard to swallow given that India, Pakistan and Israel, all with nuclear weapons, are outside the NPT. The battles with Iran and N Korea over their adherence to the NPT has hardly been a good demonstration of its effectiveness- unless you like brinkmanship. If we are really to enter a brave new nuclear world with lots more countries going for civil nuclear power, but avoiding weapons production, it’s going to get even more hair raising. Hardly sounds like ‘atoms for peace’. With the added increased threat of diversion of technology and materials to terrorist groups, it sounds more like receipt for more global tension and confrontation.

A commitment instead to renewables could avoid all these problems. Egypt, Jordan and Algeria are amongst the countries who have indicated interest in going nuclear recently- yet all these are much better placed to develop their huge solar potential, e.g. via Concentrated Solar Power plants in desert areas. Following the success of pioneering projects in Spain, over 5GW of new CSP projects are already underway or planned in, amongst other paces, Algeria, Jordon, Morocco, Egypt and the UAE. Longer term the ‘Med Solar’ plan envisages up to 20GW of CSP in North Africa.

Meanwhile, GNEP, the ambitious Global Nuclear Energy Partnership programme backed by George W Bush, now seems to be in disarray. The aim was to provide sealed nuclear plants to developing countries, with the spent fuel being returned to the USA for reprocessing, to extract the plutonium that had been produced. This would then be used to fuel a new fleet of US breeder reactors. The theory was that this approach would be less prone to illegal diversion of weapons material- although it would involve installing plants around the world and shipping radioactive material regularly across the globe. GNEP had attracted support from 25 countries,

However, earlier this year Obama halted work on reprocessing techniques that were a key USA contribution to this programme, and the future of GNEP is now unclear. Instead the USA has signed up to IRENA, the new International Renewable Energy Research Agency, which is to be based in Abu Dhabi in the UAE. The UAE of course also has civil nuclear ambitions. So the rivalry between these two very different energy options continues.

There had been some concern that IRENA might also back nuclear. But there is already a powerful International Atomic Energy Agency based in Austria, which promotes nuclear around the world. And in August Helene Pelosse, IRENA’s new director general, commented ‘IRENA will not support nuclear energy programmes because it’s a long complicated process, it produces waste and is relatively risky. Renewable energy is a better alternative and a faster, less expensive alternative, especially with countries blessed with so much sun for solar plants’. Let’s hope that having a major new international agency based in a developing country will shift the balance.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Workers and the World Unite

‘The world-wide crises starkly poses the need to construct new world-wide relations of production and exchange that are substantially more decentralized, participatory and egalitarian than the relations which currently exist, at the same time as being ecologically sensitive. The construction of a new energy system, based on a much higher proportion of renewable energy use than currently exists, is a fundamental part of this process’. So says Kolya Abramsky, editor of a new book entitled ‘Another Energy is Possible: Sparking a World-wide Energy Revolution’ (AK Press), who is also helping to organise a major international conference as a follow up.

He notes that ‘The expansion of the renewable energy is, seemingly, taking a paradoxical form. On the one hand the sector has until now developed incredibly slowly, non-linearly and in comparatively few places in the world. On the other hand, resource scarcity, climate change, surplus finance capital, and militarized conflict in oil rich regions are all material pressures pushing towards a rapid global expansion. The urgency of “peak oil”, and especially climate change, are ushering in a new scenario. The end of “the fossil fuels era” may be postponed, but it cannot be prevented. In all probability it cannot even be postponed for much longer. A transition beyond petrol is no longer an ideological choice. It is increasingly a necessity imposed by material constraints. Already demand for renewable energy infrastructure far outstrips supply. The renewable energy sector seems set to become a new global growth sector’.

And he concludes ‘It is no longer a question of whether a transition will occur, but rather what form it will take. Which technologies will it include and on whose terms and priorities? Who will pay the costs and who will reap the benefits? Who can harness the necessary global flows of capital, raw materials, knowledge and labor? Rather than being a technical inevitability, transition will be the result of an uncertain and lengthy process of collective struggle’.

I think he’s right- these are crucial questions. But he also right that, as he puts it, ‘the transition process is actually a process of great uncertainty’, with their being ‘diverging strategic choices and perspectives as to the best way of bringing about social and technological change, and the extent to which this can take place within existing power structures, or whether it requires a more confrontational approach towards these power structures and the construction of new social relations’.

This can lead to conflicts between, for example environmentalists, many of whom are opposed outright to coal and nuclear energy, and worker organizations in these sectors who are predominantly in favour of worker led efforts to clean up these sectors. There was, for example, the recent infamous episode during the battle over the Kingsnorth coal plant when, rather insensitively re working the ‘Coal not Dole’ slogan from the 1984 Miners Strike, Greenpeace used the slogan ‘Put Coal on the Dole,’ with one riposte from the left being ‘where are the French Secret service when your need them?’, harking back to when the French Secret service blew up Greenpeace's Rainbow Warrior boat.

We have to do better than this. The fight over jobs at Vestas on the Isle of White brought trade union and green groups together, and that’s the way ahead. But there are some major issues looming. Can fossil fuels be cleaned up, or will that simply delay the process of switching over to renewables. Can nuclear power be seen off, even though it’s supported by many unions? Can we get global agreement on cutting emissions without undermining the aspirations of those still living at or even below subsistence level? How can the costs and benefits of going green be fairly distributed? How do we create a movement to ensure that when renewables are adopted it is done right?

It can certainly be done poorly. For example, Germany is often cited as a wonderful example of how many jobs can be created in renewable energy (250,000 so far) but many of these are in the east, where low wages and poor conditions are common- in non union companies. Meanwhile the biofuels boom risks creating many terrible jobs in the developing world, and if left to global capitalism, undermining food production.

We don’t want renewables at any price. The old counter culture view of the 1960/70s was that we wanted an alternative technology AND an alternative society. That remains true. This wont happen automatically- it has to be fought for.

The UK’s Trade Union Congress has called for a ‘just transition to a greener economy’. The TUC report 'A Green and Fair Future', says that ‘support for environmental policies are conditional on a fair distribution of the costs and benefits of those policies across the economy, and on the creation of opportunities for active engagement by those affected in determining the future wellbeing of themselves and their families’.

That’s a good starting position. But it is defensive. We need to be more proactive and create a better future, locally and globally.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Nuclear expansion? Not in my name!

The public debate and the government consultations in 2006 and 2007 on nuclear power were framed in the context of a replacement programme for existing reactors scheduled to close. On this basis it has been suggested that there was if not a clear consensus then at least a majority in favour.

However, subsequently the government began to talk about going beyond replacement. For example, in May 2008 Prime Minister Gordon Brown commented ‘I think we are pretty clear that we will have to do more than simply replace existing nuclear capability in Britain’ while Secretary of State John Hutton said, that, although it was up to the private sector developers, he would be ‘very disappointed’ if the proportion of electricity generated by nuclear did not rise ‘significantly above the current level'. In Aug 2009, Malcolm Wicks MP, the PM’s Special Representative on International Energy, produced a report calling for a UK nuclear contribution of 35-40% ‘beyond 2030’. Currently the UK gets 13% of its electricity from nuclear sources.

The government has also indicated that it saw a major role for exporting UK nuclear technology and expertise. Gordon Brown has indicated that he believes the world needs 1,000 extra nuclear power stations and has argued that Africa could build nuclear power plants to meet growing demands for energy. In 2009 a new UK Nuclear Centre of Excellence was announced to ‘promote wider access to civil nuclear power across the world’, with an initial budget of £20m, along with ‘up to £15m’ for a Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre.

I cannot support any of the above policies or views. As a lifelong Labour movement activist and long standing Labour party member, I have struggled to live with various New Labour policies to which I have been opposed with increasing difficulty, not least in relation to the Iraq invasion. The new policies on nuclear will I believe lead to major long-term global security problems, in terms of the proliferation of nuclear weapons making capacity and the potential for nuclear terrorism. The policies on nuclear could also undermine energy security and environmental sustainability, since money, manpower and other resources will be diverted away from renewables and energy efficiency, which I see as the only long term options for a sustainable energy future, nationally and globally.

I have made these points regularly in various forums, including SERA, of which I was a founding member. But the commitment to an expanded nuclear programme seems set in stone and indeed is deepening. When Business/Energy Secretary, John Hutton said that he was ‘determined to press all the buttons to get nuclear built in this country at the earliest opportunity’ and that approach now seems to be even more prevalent with, in effect, the government trying to talk the prospects of nuclear up, so that companies like EDF might be able to raise finance more easily.

A new Policy Statement on Nuclear is due soon. I doubt if it will go much beyond what the government has already said- that it welcomes the 12GW or so of proposal that have come so far from the private sector. In fact the various contenders, EDF, E.ON etc, have ‘reserved’ a total of 23.6GW of grid links for new nuclear capacity with National Grid. That’s about the same as the wind power capacity we are aiming to have by 2020. But as EDF have pointed out, there are operational and economic reasons why a major expansion of nuclear would be incompatible with a major expansion of renewable electricity generation.

The Labour leadership, and I fear many party members, cannot see the lunacy of this approach, which could I undermine our attempts to deal with climate change.

I therefore, reluctantly, decided to resign from the Labour party, not least since I find it impossible to canvas on its behalf. A letter to the Guardian to this effect (9/9/09) attracted a lot of support form others who welcomed my principled stance. My conviction that I was right was further reinforced by Ed Miliband’s comment at the TUC later in Sept. that "'Nuclear power no thanks' today means 'climate change no doubt' tomorrow”. That’s almost on par with John Hutton’s comment to last years Labour Party Conference (22/9/08), where he was reported to have said : ‘No coal and no nuclear equals no lights, no power, no future’. And at this years Party Conference Gordon Brown also backed nuclear as a key innovation.

Given that SERA has become ever more closely identified with New Labour, to which it has become formally affiliated, and has seen fit to have pro-nuclear David Miliband as its president, despite SERA’s long held anti-nuclear policy, I have, with even more regret, also resigned from SERA.

I have long thought that what is now still called 'SERA' should by relabeled 'The Labour Environment Campaign' (its current sub title), so that a separate body called SERA could continue independently to promote the radical red and green policies it used to back. But that clearly is not going to happen, so sadly after many years of activism, I am moving on. I have to say I find the approach of groups like Workers Climate Action and the Climate Change Campaign Trade Union Group much more in keeping with SERA’s original grass roots approach.

These changes in affiliation will coincide with my retirement from the Open University after 38 years trying to relay rational and sustainable approaches to technology and energy policy to a wide audience. But I wont be going quietly into the night! For example, as well as working with trade union groups, and in addition to continuing with this and other blogs, I’ll be continuing to produce Renew, the bimonthly newsletter on renewable energy development and policies, on an independent basis: see

David Elliott,
(Emeritus) Professor of Technology Policy,
The Open University

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Fighting for wind against markets

The workers occupation of the Vesta wind turbine plant on the Isle of White, threatened with closure with the potential loss of over 600 jobs there and in and an ancillary unit in Southampton, attracted massive support from green groups and trade unions- and, buttressed by the governments new Renewable Energy Strategy, there were calls for the plant to be nationalised. It was seen as a key struggle for green future- uniting ‘reds’ and ‘greens’.

As Green MEP Caroline Lucas put it in the Guardian (24/7): ‘In microcosm, the situation in the Isle of Wight demonstrates the extent to which ministers have ignored calls to promote the renewables industry- squandering opportunity after opportunity to create or protect jobs in fledgling green industries, as well as to meet the UK's greenhouse gas reduction targets’. But not everyone was so keen. The Independent pointed out that the plant made blades for the US market ‘which are unsuitable for UK wind farms’, adding that ‘Vestas is considering setting up a research and development facility in the area to help develop and test products suitable for the UK offshore market. If this is the case, it is easy to see why rash moves by the Government now could ultimately prove counterproductive’.

And the European Wind Energy Association told ‘The solution is not nationalisation or bail-outs. The wind energy sector itself is much better at producing wind turbines than the government. It's a question of roles. The sector's role is to manufacture wind turbines and the government's role is to create a framework that attracts investment and regulation to ensure targets are met. I don't think we should mix up these roles.’

Vestas, the world's biggest wind energy firm, made pre-tax profits of €803 m last year, up from €579 m in 2007 and saw a quarterly sales rise of 59%, up to €1.1 billion, with its UK division also producing rising multi-million pound profits each year. But, it told that: ‘Due to the credit crunch, soft currency and lack of political action in the UK, we have had to cut down capacity.... Downing Street is doing a lot to support green jobs, but in the countryside there is a lot of opposition. We are being stalled locally. Hardly anything is happening onshore. The offshore market cannot justify us converting the facility to make products for the UK. The market is not big enough. We need onshore too.’

The British Wind Energy Association also backed the company, telling euobserver that ‘the market and the sector's becoming very, very competitive. A number of new entrants are coming from India and China, and it could be that the company needs to cut its costs, producing more cheaply and efficiently. This is to be expected - they have a clear obligation to shareholders to maximise profits.’ But talking later on to NewEnergy Focus, the BWEA put a slightly different spin on it: ‘There is now a direct correlation between nimbyism and the curtailment of the economic benefits of wind power. A positive factor of this unfortunate crisis is that the public are now aware of the fact that the opposition to wind farms is affecting the economic opportunities available to this country.’

That was certainly the line being adopted by the company and the government- it’s not our fault, it’s the NIMBY’s , although the company, like the BWEA, also suggested that its was the planning system that needed improvement: ‘The local planning process for the construction of new onshore wind power plants in the UK remains an obstacle to the development of a more favourable market for onshore wind power.’ ( A Guardian editorial went further and suggested that what was really the problem was that, for a range of reasons, Vestas did not believe that the UK governments plans for wind and would really materialise on the scale hoped for.

The announcement of a grant of £6m for Vestas for R&D work on offshore wind technology, part of a new £1bn fund for offshore wind to be organised over the next 3 years by European Investment Bank (EIB) and 3 UK Banks, did not seem to alter the situation much - it was on-land wind that was the issue for the existing plant. Sadly the sit-in workers were evicted –and then 425 workers were sacked, but with 40 being offered jobs in the new R&D centre. Vestas said ‘this commercial decision was absolutely necessary to secure Vestas' competitiveness and create a regional balance between production and the demand for wind turbines.’

What are the lessons from all this? Well, BWEA Chair, Adam Bruce, told, ‘the situation at Vestas is a tragedy for the employees, their families and the wider island community, but it does not represent a failure of wind energy, nor the market for wind energy in the UK. If anything, it shows that the
supply market for onshore turbines is very competitive’.

We might draw different conclusions about market failure and the wonders of market competition. And about how to respond. Bob Crow, General Secretary of the RMT union commented that the Vestas workers had ‘done more for the future of green energy and green jobs in the UK in 2 weeks than the government has done in 12 years’. Perhaps a bit overstated, but highlighting the need for reds and greens to work together.

For euobservers full analysis see

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Carbon Bubble bursting?

The EU Emission Trading System is in a mess. The first round was widely accepted to be a disaster- free allocation of carbon credits meant that many companies could stay under the emission caps easily and sell off surplus credits, which in turn meant the value of the credits sank to almost nothing. The second round, from 2008, had been a bit better- until the recession hit. With energy demand falling, once again caps were easy to meet and some companies decided to off-load credits before their value collapsed again, thus making sure that happened! Their value fell to €8.2/tonne carbon, from €31the previous year.

Negotiations for the next round, from 2012, have been stymied by economically hard pressed countries like Poland claiming that they couldn't afford to buy credits- so that there had to be some free allocations again.

The end result of all this is that not many emissions have been reduced by the ETS so far, but some companies- and market traders- have done well financially. It’s a familiar story from other sectors - that's how markets behave, unless very carefully regulated. Now this particular bubble looks like it may burst.

In a way this is odd. Presssure for reducing emission is bound to grow, so the market for carbon credits should also grow - if it’s properly set up. Certainly governments in the EU have looked to the EU ETS as a way to provide income for stimulating new energy technologies- including nuclear power and renewables. And the EU ETS was meant to be a prototype for a global carbon trading system as proposed at the Kyoto Conference in 1997.

While that was a hope for the longer term, the Kyoto conference introduced the Clean Development Mechanism to support projects in the developing world. Sadly that too has been less than wonderful. As several reports (e.g. from WWF) have suggested, despite the process of application being agonisingly slow, some projects have allegedly been supported that were not 'additional' to what would have happened any way. And some bore very little relation to the original aims of radical CO2 reductions- most were low-grade process efficiency or substitution projects, done often for purely economic reasons; few involved renewables, which really needed the extra support.

In the end, this is what you might expect when you try to enlist market forces to deliver environmental gains. Without a lot of regulation, markets simply reward to rich and undermine the poor. And the carbon market doesn’t provide a stable enough economic context for investors to rely on – so we don’t get much new green energy technology. In desperation, there have been calls for government to underwrite the floor price of the EU ETS carbon credits- essentially asking the taxpayers to subsidise the market! Whether this would make potential investors in green energy less risk adverse is unclear. The carbon price level needed for that would probably very high- certainly much more than has ever been achieved so far. We’re talking €100 /tonne or more. A guaranteed floor price might stabilise the variations to some extent and possibly help push the overall level up, but not that far. More likely it would be the carbon markets’ various financial advisor who would to benefit- and although they evidently have suffered from the recession, there are perhaps more deserving cases for state aid!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Connect and Compete

Competitive markets, liberalisation and privatisation were touted as being the way to cut prices, stimulate innovation and improve services. In the energy sector the reality has proved to be very different. The privatisation of the UK’s nationalised electricity sector meant the replacement of the Central Electricity Generating Board by National Power and Powergen and the creation of a dozen or so new regional electricity supply companies- from the old regional boards. That was meant lead to competition in a new liberalised market context. But reconcentration rapidly occurred, plus vertical and horizontal buy-outs. The UK power sector is now dominated by oversees companies- Germany’s E.ON and RWE, and the French EDF.

Despite continued resistance (e.g. France has dragged it feet on the privatisation of EDF) the European Commission is still adamant that competition is the way ahead, and it is desperate to create a fully competitive single EU energy market. That is one reason why it has backed the pan- EU ‘Supergrid’ idea, linking up markets and generators via a High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) grid network across the EU. However, the big EU utilities seem less keen. In addition to improving the overall efficiency of energy production and use across the EU, the Supergrid could make it possible to balance the variable inputs from smaller-scale/distributed renewables like wind farms around the EU. But it may also threaten the market power of some of the large utilities- most of who are much more keen on large scale centralised nuclear.

David Andrews, the co-ordinator of the Claverton Energy Group, a network of UK energy practitioners, says that ‘Many commentators believe that the Supergrid, whilst good for energy consumers, is not necessarily good for the big utilities, since it will make many of their existing power stations obsolete, mean fewer new power stations have to be constructed, and lead to less sales of power station fuels by again selecting the most efficient stations this time at a transnational level’. He concluded ‘It is for this reason that it is believed by many commentators that the Supergrid cannot be merely left to market forces’.

There seems little chance of EU taking on a major role in actually setting up a supergrid - as a shared public asset. It’s more likely just to offer grants to the private sector and then seek to regulate the new market. Some smaller specialist companies do seem interested- e.g. the pioneering Irish Airtricty, and the newly established Mainstream Renewables, along with Norwegian transmission company Imera Power. With 150 million euoro’s on offer from the EU for a North Sea Supergrid linking up offshore wind farms, that’s not surprising.

There has also been interest shown in another supergrid type project- the installation of focussed solar thermal ‘Concentrating Solar Power’ plants in North Africa, linked back to the EU by undersea HVDC power grids. It’s an ambitious idea- 400 billion euros for 100GW of CSP capacity. But with one possibility being the availability a new lucrative EU ‘Feed In Tariff’ for imported solar power, Deutsche Bank, insurer Munich Re, Siemens and utility giants RWE and E.ON. seem to be keen to explore it. So it could be that the big companies will get involved with some Supergrid type projects- if a new market emerges and profit is available. In which case, it will be vital for the EU to regulate how it’s done- to ensue that its done right. For example, what would be the terms of trade offered to the North African countries hosting the projects?

Of course, for the big utilities, the attraction of the supergrid may not just be for linking in to desert solar and North Sea wind: they may also see it an answer to the problem of finding a market for the excess power that would be produced at low demand periods by a large new EU nuclear programme. If it’s a private grid, what’s to stop them?

These issues are all pending- it will be a while before the supergrid gets going. But a small example of how things can go without a wider longer-term perspective is already emerging in relation to the current series of the UK’s off shore wind farms. Most of these project are now being sited several miles off the coast, linked to land via sea-bed marine cables. There are various ways in which these could be arranged. So far however it seems to be a case of each offshore project having their own parallel (and very expensive) links back to shore. In some cases that seems likely to involve duplication of effort, with links to rival projects running close to each other, in parallel. It would arguably be more rational and cheaper overall to have a network of offshore links, with possibly a single link back to shore for each region, offering a common service for each project to use. That is even more the case as we go further out to sea with more wind farms, and would be vital if we also build links across the North Sea to the continent- as part of the EU supergrid concept.

However, in a submission in March 2009 (FBEN 29) to the new Energy and Climate Change Select Committee, E.ON commented: ‘A super grid connecting offshore wind farms to adjacent countries is an exciting proposal, but it is unclear whether this is the most cost effective route for connecting new offshore wind. Timely delivery of the supergrid will be an issue. For example, round three offshore windfarms should not be delayed because the connection of a zone is dependent upon a wider interconnection project’.

Ofgem, the energy regulator, has also noted that the advantages with the parallel ‘point to point’ radial approach is that it ‘allows generators to proceed individually and avoid delays due to third parties’, but it has said that it’s also happy with the more integrated network approach. Ofgem nevertheless got a pretty rough ride on this issue at last years BWEA wind conference - it was argued that the proposed grid regime would not encourage joined up networks, and that change was needed to ensure collaborative development and a strategic approach. Do we really need a host of separate lines just to protect competition in the short term?

That was certainly an issue for Green MEP Claude Turmes, who was the European Parliament's lead negotiator for the Renewable Energy Directive. Speaking at the UK Renewable Energy Associations annual conference recently, he claimed that the competitive tender process favoured by Ofgem was delaying grid connections for offshore wind projects: ‘The UK approach, imposed by Ofgem, for competitive bids for chunks of 40 km cables for offshore, is not very productive, to put it mildly. You have to get rid of Ofgem's over-liberalised idea, by which you can have competition on grid installation.’

It’s the same old story- competition often undermines progress, and buttresses the power of the powerful, while weak regulation does little to alter the situation.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Nuclear going (for) broke?

The official line is that nuclear power, based on new technology like the European Pressurised-water Reactor (EPR), can be an economic energy option and does not need subsidies. However, this is beginning to look a little frayed given that the first two EPRs, being built in Finland and France, are both behind schedule and over budget.

Olkiluoto 3 in Finland, now over three years behind schedule, was originally budgeted at €3bn, but is now expected to cost at least €4.5bn. The follow-up French EPR at Flamanville is around nine months behind schedule, with the cost of power now being expected to be around 20% more than planned- around 55 euros a megawatt hour, instead of the 46 euros announced when the project was launched in May 2006.

Meanwhile, South African power company Eskom has decided not to press ahead with a planned nuclear build programme, with an EPR being one option, saying the costs were too high .

In the UK, most of the running is being made by the French company EDF ,who have talked of building possibly 4 new plants here. In July 10 2006 Vincent de Rivaz, chief executive of the UK subsidiary of EDF, told the Times “Nuclear does not require any form of subsidy. We are investors in waiting but we are not waiting for subsidy,” a view he confirmed in a talk to the Parliamentary Group on Energy on 4th March 2008. The government has said similar things- it would not provide subsidies. But on May 26 2009 Vincent de Rivaz told the Financial Times that a "level playing field" had to be created that would allow the nuclear industry to compete with other low-emissions electricity sources such as wind power. He said "We have a final investment decision to make in 2011 and, for that decision to give the go-ahead, the conditions need to be right," adding that "We will not deliver decarbonised electricity without the right signal from carbon prices."

He suggested that the government needed to put a floor under the price of carbon permits in the EU's emissions trading scheme. That could mean that, if the price of carbon drops, as is has done recently ( it fell to €8.2, from €31 last summer), the taxpayer would have to step in. Although that would only be an indirect subsidy (raising the cost of fossil rivals), the FT interpreted EDFs new line as meaning ‘New nuclear power stations will not be built in Britain unless the government provides financial support for the industry’.

Unsurprisingly anti- nuclear groups were horrified. Communities Against Nuclear Expansion (CANE), based in Suffolk, called on the government to resist requests for greater subsidies and to stick by their policy of only allowing new nuclear power stations to be built if the full cost of generation, including decommissioning and a fair share of the cost of waste disposal, is borne by the industry. It noted that ‘In spite of this policy, the government has already agreed to subsidise the industry by covering their liability in the case of a serious accident and by its policy of taking over responsibility for nuclear waste fifty years after it is transferred to the government, even though the waste will need to be managed for several thousand years. In addition the government has agreed to bribe communities by giving incentives to house long-term nuclear waste storage facilities said to be in the region of £3 to £6 billion. This violates a long-standing principle in the UK that the polluter should pay for the results of his activities. The British public have been asked to pay for the clearing up the mess made by the last generation of nuclear power, at a cost of untold billions of pounds. Now we are being asked to pay for the industry to create even more.”

However they may yet get stopped in their tracks- or at least slowed down. A group of leading UK academics, members of the Nuclear Consultation Group (NCG) have challenged the legitimacy of the nuclear ‘justification’ process- a currently underway preliminary review process that is required by the EU as a high-level assessment to ensure the benefits of new-build nuclear stations outweigh potential detriments. The academics have written to the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) calling for a public inquiry to open this process up- an option that is allowed in the arrangements. The Government guidance states that ‘where the Justifying Authority considers that any application is of sufficient importance and wide public interest, they may cause a public hearing or other inquiry to be held. It is expected that inquiries under the regulations would only be held in relation to major or contentious classes or types of practice.’

Well that seems to be exactly what the new nuclear programme, with new types of plant, adds up to. And as the NCG note ‘Justification is regarded as a conclusive process thereby precluding further debate on substantive issues at the planning stage’, so it’s the last chance to have any real say. But, in the end, it comes down to a decision by the Secretary of State, Ed Miliband, who as Justifying Authority, acts as both judge and jury. And it’s doubtful if he, or the government, will want to open it all up to public debate again, unless forced to.

Monday, May 4, 2009

More billions for fusion?

More billions for Fusion?

Climate change worries many of us, but in the back of many peoples mind is the belief that technology will come to the rescue. One of the big hopes is nuclear fusion- not messy uranium fission, with all its problems, but allegedly clean and hopefully prolific hydrogen based nuclear fusion. However, it’s a long time coming – and it’s costing a lot. $20 billion so far globally and more soon.

In response to a Parliamentary question in April, it was reported that the Government provided support for nuclear fusion research in the UK through the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council with an allocation of £26 million for 2007-8.
In addition it was noted that ‘The UK does not fund international fusion research directly, though it contributes to the Euratom European fusion research programme through its payments to the EU budget’. The main focus for that programme is the ITER project, now being planned at Cadarache in Southern France. The estimated cost of ITER has risen from £9 billion to, reportedly, around £18 billion. It’s a joint EU, Russia, US, China, Japan and S. Korea project toward which it seems the UK is contributing around £20m p.a.

For comparison, in response to a Parliamentary question on 25 March, it was reported that government expenditure on research and development for all the renewable energy sources in 2007-8 was £ 15.92 million via the Research Councils and £ 7.53m via the Technology Strategy Board. In addition it was noted that the Research Councils are providing funding of £13.88m over the period 2004-09 for the UK Energy Research Centre (which undertakes a range of research relating to renewable energy) and energy is included in the work of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research (which has some £15.8m funding from the Research Councils over 2000-08).

At most then, in total renewable are getting around £28m p.a. at present. That is pretty much the same as it was decades ago, even ignoring inflation since then. For example, according to DTI statistics, Departmental funding for renewables was £24.8m in 1991-92, £25.6m in 1992-93 and £25.2m in 1993-94, all in ‘money of the day’ terms, though it fell off thereafter, as the then Conservative government imposed public sector spending cuts.

Why fusion?

Fusion is clearly getting favourable treatment compared to renewables- which after all include a wide range of technologies, a dozen or more very different systems, not just one. Does this make sense? The claim is that it offers, as the EURATOM web site says, ‘an almost limitless supply of clean energy’.

The prospects for fusion are actually rather mixed. The physics may be sorted, up to a point. The UK’s JET experiment at Culham managed to generate 16MW briefly. But the engineering is going to be complicated. How do you generate electricity from a radioactive plasma at 200 million degrees C? The answer it seems is by absorbing the neutron flux in a surrounding blanket that then gets hot, and has pipes running through to extract the heat, which is then used it to boil water and raise steam –as with traditional power plants. Not very 21st century…

As yet, few people would hazard a guess as to the economics of such systems. The ITER web site ( says ‘it is not yet possible to say whether nuclear fusion based on magnetic confinement will produce a competitive energy source’.

But at least there won’t be any fission products to deal with. However, the neutron flux will activate materials in the fusion reactor which will interfere with its operation, and will have to be stripped out regularly- so there will still be a radioactive waste storage problem, albeit a lesser one. The materials will only have to be kept secure for a hundred years or so, rather than thousands of years as with some fission products.

The risk of leaks and catastrophic accidents is said to be lower than with fission. Fusion reactions are difficult to sustain, so in any disturbance to normal operation the reaction would be likely to shut itself down very rapidly. But it is conceivable that some of the radioactive materials might escape, if for example the superhot high energy 'plasma' beam accidentally came into contact with and punctured the reactor containment.

The main concern is the radioactive tritium that would be in the core of the reactor: Tritium, which is also used in nuclear weapons, is an isotope of hydrogen, and, if accidentally released, could be easily dispersed in the environment as tritiated water, with potentially disastrous effects. To put it simply, it could reach parts of the body which other isotopes couldn’t.

Finally what about the fuel source? The basic fuels in the most likely configuration to be adopted would be deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen, which is found in water, and tritium, another isotope of hydrogen, which can be manufactured from Lithium. Water is plentiful but lithium reserves are not that extensive, at least on this planet. Even so, it is claimed that they might provide sufficient tritium for perhaps 1000 years, depending on the rate of use. It also presumably depends on the competing use in Li Ion batteries in consumer electronics and possibly soon, on a much larger scale, in electric vehicles.

That could be a problem for the future, but there is a long way to go before we need worry about fuel scarcity. The ITER project is small (500 Megawatt rated) and won’t start operating until 2018, and, even assuming all goes well, it’s only a step toward a commercial pilot plant. And that at best is decades away.

Too little, too late

The UK Atomic Energy Authority say that fusion ‘has the potential to supply 20% of the world’s electricity by the year 2100.’ That’s not a misprint – 20%, if all goes well, in 90 years time. Renewables already supply that now globally, including hydro, and the new renewables like wind, solar, tidal and wave power, are moving ahead rapidly. Wind power capacity is at 120,000 Megawatts globally now and expanding at around 30% per annum. Given planning permission, wind farms can be quick to install, in a matter of months, compared to years or even decades for fission projects. Solar thermal is at 120,000 Megawatts (th) and also expanding rapidly, with Concentrated Solar being the next big thing, along with PV solar, which is even quicker to deploy- we’re talking weeks if not days. Then come wave and tidal- a huge as yet mainly untapped resource. By 2020 the European Commission wants to have 20% of the EU total energy, not just electricity, coming from renewable, and there are scenarios with renewables supplying 50% of global energy by 2050, and perhaps earlier.

By contrast, fusion seems likely to be a long-shot high-tech gamble with a surprisingly small payoff: we need to start responding to the climate problem now, not in 90 years time. Renewables, along with energy efficiency, already offer us at least part of the solution. So why then are we spending so much taxpayers money on fusion? It might eventually be useful for powering space craft. But on Earth? Wouldn’t it make more sense to speed the development and deployment of full range of renewable technologies, and make use of the free energy we get from the fusion reactor we already have- the sun.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Market power undermines the future

The Crisis - What’s gone wrong?

Global economics are in disarray, and even market enthusiasts like Lord Browne are now saying something must be done. The energy market, like other markets, has become increasing competitive as regulatory mechanisms have been relaxed over the years. In response, the big energy companies have either tried to develop monopolies (e.g. EDF, E.ON), or more recently, to back away from what they see as risky investment in things like renewables (e.g Shell, BP). So the UK renewables programme has been hit.

In response the government has tried to reduce the risk by imposing a draconian new planning system - so that opposition to new projects (renewables, but also of course nuclear) can be squashed. The energy minister has added moral persuasion as an extra pressure- being opposed to wind is ‘antisocial’. This stream roller approach is likely to create a lot of resentment and will possibly make the situation worse.

The government has also continued with the Renewables Obligation, which provides over the odds support for the most competitive projects e.g all on-land wind projects, regardless of their efficiency, still get 1ROC/MWh, which wates a lot of money that could be spent on other projects.

What they could have done is adopt a Feed In Tariff (FIT) across the board - that, with a system of price degression as used in Germany, would have matched funding to projects and reduced risks for all projects, including for new areas of renewable development, like wave and tidal power. Instead all we’ve got is a promise of a FIT just for small projects (under 5MW), and not until next Spring.

It’s not clear if this makes too much sense. Grant aid has been suggested as a better approach for small community projects, although not along the centralised lines adopted in the disastrous now abandoned Low Carbon Building Programme. A more decentralised approach could be more effective- perhaps via local part-private, part-public Energy Service companies (ESCO’s), who can develop projects based on local knowledge within a loosely competitive market framework.

At the national and international level the governments focus is on reducing risk in terms of ‘security of supply’. This seems to be interpreted very narrowly- as mainly concerning gas and oil supplies. A more creative approach would be to look to the opportunities that could be opened up by a pan-EU supergrid, linking in new renewables resources from around and outside the EU- as opposed to trying to rely on diminishing and polluting oil and gas reserves in politically unstable or dubious middle eastern areas.

There is some EU enthusiasm for the supergrid idea, but in terms of new energy options, the UK and French governments, and the big German and French power companies, seem more interested in nuclear power, possibly since they think this will allow them to maintain (respectively) their political and market control. Evidently they see the idea of opening up markets to North African solar (CSP in Morocco Algeria, Tunisia etc), or wind power from the near east (Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan etc have huge potential wind resources), as more problematic. Odd that, since they seem quite happy to rely increasingly on these areas for oil and gas. But maybe they think these resources can be more easily controlled. And certainly these conventional fossil sources fit more comfortable with current technological and market arrangements- short term and climate threatening though they may be.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Nuclear vs. wind

How to make nuclear power even more risky- and kill off wind power

Nuclear plants can’t easily vary their output and are usually run flat out 24/7, which, given that they are very capital intensive, also helps their economics. However this means they can’t be used to back-up variable renewables like wind. Moreover, if we have a lot of nuclear capacity, as is now planned, there would be less room for electricity generated from wind farms , at least during low energy demand periods. For example the UK’s baseload, the low level of energy generation capacity required at night and at other low demand periods, is 20GW, and there is talk of nuclear being expanded to provide much if not all of this. At present it’s only at about10GW. And yet there are also proposals for 25GW of wind power. In the absence of significant storage capacity or export potential, much of this would therefore be in excess of requirements. We only have about 2GW of pumped storage capacity and a 2 GW in cross channel grid links.

In its 2008 consultation document on its renewable energy strategy, the UK government admitted that the UK nuclear fleet was ‘designed to run continuously and is not well suited to short-term response to shifts in the supply-demand balance, for safety as well as economic reasons’. So it says ‘when wind speeds are high and demand is low, for example during the summer or overnight... the system may not be able to absorb all of the output of both wind and nuclear generating plants’

However, they say that ‘nuclear plants can be designed to run flexibly and this has been shown to operate effectively in practice by the experience of the Flamanville 3 plant in France. We therefore believe that the expectation of a greater penetration of intermittent generation is not in itself a barrier to the deployment of new nuclear capacity’.

Unfortunately, they seem to have it wrong. Flamanville 3 hasn’t actually been built yet. Indeed construction work on it was recently stopped when the nuclear inspectorate found faults in the concrete mix being used. Leaving this hiccup
aside, it is true that some of France’s existing plants can and do load follow- the Pressurised Water reactors they use are more capable of that than the UK’s gas cooled reactors. We could presumably build similarly variable plants in the UK.

Sinclair Knight Merz (SKM) consultants, in a report to BERR, agreed. Although they admit that ‘increased amounts of nuclear plant in a system with high penetration of wind would invariably result in higher curtailment,’ they suggest that wind curtailment can be limited by using variable nuclear plants. They report claims that the Flamanville plant should be able to run down to 25% of output. However they add that, while the potential for flexible operation ‘are considerable, it does not necessarily mean that it will be regularly operated in such mode, as other considerations such as life reduction and safety may discourage full use of this capability’

Basically reactors don’t like being cycled through large temperature ranges regularly and running up and down to full power also creates short-lived radioactive by-products which can disrupt efficient operation. These operational problems may well be worsened by the fact that the new reactor designs now being developed seek to increase the fuel burn up ratios- in order to improve the economics of the plants.

However, in addition to the fact that the spent fuel will be much more radioactive since more fission products will be produced, this approach may also involve safety problems related to plant operation - existing fuel cladding materials may not maintain their integrity over the longer period, especially in emergency shut down situations.

New reactor technology is clearly being developed which may make it possible to run nuclear plants in ways which make them more compatible with variable renewables like wind. But this introduces new risks. The issue that arises then is whether we should be relying on potentially risky adjustments nuclear technology to avoid wasting wind energy? As wind expands and other variable renewables are added to the mix, including wave and tidal power, the need to curtail nuclear, so as to make way, will grow. Unless that is, we decide to keep nuclear running at full power and dump increasing amounts of renewable power at low demand times. Or invest in energy storage which is an expensive option.

This crazy competition between sensible sustainable energy options and the dead end option of nuclear power is what we’ve come to expect from the capitalist system, which is obsessed with shoring up the large companies that it has created. Most of the running in the UK will be made by the French company EDF, which now owns British Energy and will presumably build French EPR reactors here. But not take the waste they produce! Just the profits. While seeing off wind power…. and introducing extra risks. Business as usual it seems.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

My Green Techie blogs

What I thought I would do when invited to submit regular items was to try to inject a bit of factual info on the issues I know about- energy and climate policy - drawing out the wider political points. It's usually though the same political point- we have a government wedded to market competition as the arbiter of value and that is stalling efforts to steer us towards dealing with climate change. And we don't have the power to resist or change this situation- at the moment. Information is power of sorts though, so I will persist. Surviving climate change isn't 'single issue' politics (it's a prerequisite for any sort of politics or society) but the issues that are involved link to the wider left agenda- who controls the way we develop industrially, economically and socially.

Don't get fooled again

Tidal Choices

Don’t get fooled again

We need tidal power- but not this way

There are two basic approaches to harvesting tidal energy. Barrages across a tidal estuary can be used to trap high tides, with the head of water then being let out through hydro turbines. This is how the 240MW barrage on the Rance estuary in France works and it is the basis of the proposed 8.6GW Severn Tidal Barrage. By contrast, with tidal current turbines, the energy in the horizontal tidal flows is harvested - in effect they are underwater wind mills. Proponents of the latter argue that, as small free-standing structures with relatively slowly rotating blades, they should have much less environmental impact than tidal range barrages, which block off entire estuaries, and they can be installed on a piecemeal, modular basis. The same is true for wave energy systems.

Unsurprisingly the Severn Barrage is strongly opposed by most environmental group, who see it as a major ecological threat. Moreover a study produced for WWF/ RSPB et al , claimed that its electricity would cost around two times more than that from most other renewable projects.

There are also some key technical issue. A large single barrage on the Severn would only deliver power for a couple of hours twice in every (roughly) twenty four hour tidal cycle, and given that the lunar cycle shifts continually, this power output would not often be matched well to peak power demands. As a result, at least in the absence of major energy storage facilities, although it could generate 4.6 % of the UK’s electricity on average over a year, not all of it could be used. A study by the generally pro-barrage Sustainable Development Commission, concluded that, by the time it was built, the Severn Barrage would only displace about 0.92 % of UK emission from gas fired plants- not much for the estimated £15billion capital cost.

By contrast it has been argued that a distributed network of several smaller tidal barrages or lagoons and /or large numbers of tidal current projects, located at different points around the coast, would be much more efficient and flexible, since the arrival time of the tides is delayed by several hours at each point.

However there is much industry support for the large 8.6GW Severn Barrage, since it uses known (hydro) technology. Moreover, it also has strong political support. It would clearly be a very visible commitment for a government keen to be seen to be supporting renewables.

The government has launched a new study of tidal energy options for the Severn Estuary, looking at large tidal barrages across the estuary and large tidal lagoons- bounded reservoirs. One of the issues is how such schemes might be funded, with some form of public support being a possibility.

However, apart from a 1.3 GW ‘tidal fence’ concept, with tidal current turbines mounted in a non-invasive permeable causeway, tidal current turbine projects are not included in the study- and even tidal fence has been dropped from an interim shortlist. Tidal current projects are evidently seen as being best developed by private finance within the context of the Renewables Obligation, with some initial extra support via Marine Renewables Deployment Fund. But as noted in an earlier Blog, that’s not happening yet- none of the dozens of projects being developed in the UK have proved to be eligible for the funding. Meanwhile the Severn Tidal Review won’t even report finally, after further rounds of consultation, until 2010. It’s all so painfully slow…

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Marine Renewables: missing out again?

The UK has a large marine energy resource - wave energy and free-standing tidal current turbine projects might supply 20% of UK electricity, and possibly much more.

In 2001 the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology, commented bitterly that ‘given the UK's abundant natural wave and tidal resource, it is extremely regrettable and surprising that the development of wave and tidal energy technologies has received so little support from the Government’.

Since then some funding has been made available- for example some small grants from research councils and the Carbon Trust and the governments £42m Marine Renewables Deployment Fund. However, although there are many dozens of wave and tidal current turbine projects underway around the country, none so far has been eligible for support from the MRDF- which requires them to have three months operation at commercial scale in the sea.

So what’s gone wrong? Basically it’s the familiar story- a government fixation on ‘leaving it up to the market’. As the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology put it ‘Government policy is to avoid

‘picking winners’, instead letting the market converge on the best approaches’. So the research teams are meant to push ahead, with a few small grants, and then private sector investors and companies should deciding which projects are worthy for follow up - using the MRDF to reduce their risks, backed up by the Renewables Obligation, which will offer revenue support for commercial projects.

But we’re stalled at the start. In a review in 2007, the governments Renewable Advisory Board commented that ‘the MRDF is fundamentally a sound scheme. It, in itself, is not a failure, but the R&D process has failed to supply the technologies that the MRDF was established to support’.

It’s not for lack of enthusiasm. Indeed it is getting hard to find a UK University that does not have a wave or tidal hardware or assessment project underway. There are also many new start-up companies, some of them spun out of University groups.

The pioneers were Wavegen, with their 500kW Limpet device built into a rocky outcrop of the shore of the Isle of Islay in Scotland. And subsequently there have been some other successes- notably the SeaGen tidal current turbine, a 1.2MW version of which has been installed in Strangford Narrows in Northern Ireland, and the Pelamis ‘wave snake’ device, with a 2.3 MW project being installed in Portugal. Some ambitious projects have also been proposed. For example there are plans for an 8MW tidal farm off the west coast of the UK, using Lunar energy’s sea-bed mounted ‘ducted rotor’ system. But most of the rest are still at the prototype and testing stage.

Interestingly though, the Scottish Executive is proving to be more effective with its Marine support programme, having allocated £13m in direct granted aid to nine wave and tidal current projects. This reflects its enthusiasm for renewables generally- Scotland already gets 20% of its electricity form renewables and has the very ambitious target of getting 50% by 2020.

The UK is still in the lead technologically in both areas, but new marine technologies are emerging in other EU countries and in the US, Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere, with S Korea having a major commitment in this area. As a result, there are concerns that the UK’s lead in wave and tidal power may be lost- already several overseas developers have proposed projects in the UK using their own technology. It would be tragic if the UK, with its long history of marine and offshore engineering excellence, and its very large marine energy potential, does not the take the challenge seriously.