Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Nuclear Contentions

In the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear accident, the nuclear industry became increasingly bullish about the prospects of nuclear power. The World Nuclear Association asserted that ‘people can draw confidence from the absence of any health harm even from this extreme, highly unusual event,’ while its then director general, John Ritch, claimed that  ‘countries like Germany will soon demonstrate the economic and environmental irresponsibility of allowing politicians to set important national policies in the middle of a panic attack.’

While it accepted that there were short term impacts, in a report marking the first anniversary of the Fukushima disaster in March, the World Energy Council (WEC) commented  ‘Very little has changed... in respect of the future utilisation of nuclear in the energy mix.’ After surveying its members in 94 countries, according to senior project manager Ayed Al-Qatani, WEC had found that ‘The Fukushima accident has not led to any significant retraction in nuclear energy programs in countries outside Germany, Switzerland, Italy and Japan’. Progress in some countries had been delayed, but there was ‘no indication that their pursuit of nuclear power has declined in response to Fukushima.’ A subsequent report from the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA), said that the Fukushima Daiichi incident had slowed nuclear growth by about 10% compared with projections before the accident.

This positive assertiveness, that all was, and will be, well, may overdone: the prospects for nuclear may not actually be as bright as portrayed. The NEA admitted that ‘as retirements increase in the 2030s and 2040s, a greater fraction of new-build will go to simply replace what already exists. Hence, it says ‘the growth of nuclear capacity could slow after 2030 unless there is a strong upturn in new construction at that stage’.

Moreover, there could be problems well before that.  In addition to the increasing economic problems facing the proposed nuclear programmes in the UK and USA, France is rethinking its policy on nuclear.  And Germany, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, Ireland, Denmark, Norway and several other EU countries, are anti or non nuclear. Bahrain, Kuwait, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan have also now adopted critical stances. Brazil has delayed work on a new nuclear plant and of course Japan in unlikely ever to build a new plant and may well keep most of the existing ones shut.

A 24-country public opinion study carried out by Ipsos in May 2011 found that 62% of those asked opposed nuclear power. 26% had changed their mind after Fukushima, with opposition in some countries being very high, ranging up to 69% in Brazil and 79% in Germany. Interestingly, it was at 62% in Russia and 58% in China- two of the key areas the industry looks to for future growth. A GlobeScan opinion poll, commissioned by the BBC, and completed in Sept 2011, put opposition in France at 83% and in Japan at 84%.

Certainly, given that context, internally, within the nuclear industry, the mood is more reflective. For example, Steve Kidd from the World Nuclear Association admitted, in the Industries trade journal Nuclear Engineering International, that since the Fukushima accident, ‘public and political acceptance of nuclear power has taken something of a knock in certain countries, resulting in the revival of phase-out policies.’ He went on:  ‘Even in countries where nuclear power is still being endorsed as a useful contributor to a clean energy future, statements in support of nuclear power have been something less than strong and positive endorsements. And if this is the case, political choices in favour of nuclear and decisions made by private companies to invest in new nuclear stations are likely to get deflected by the slightest problem, and other less worthy energy options may indeed be pursued’.

His view however was that much of this reaction was mistaken. Fukushima was ‘the worst nuclear disaster in 25 years, with radiation releases and contamination in some communities. And yet there have so far been no radiation-induced deaths, nor are there likely to be any in the future. How can this relatively benign incident create such a degree of fear that it is dominating discussion of nuclear power’s future?’

He says, by way of explanation, that it is due to mistaken beliefs about the impacts of radiation.  And more specifically he says: ‘There is undoubtedly a huge economic impact of moving people from their homes and jobs in order to protect them, but the reason for this is the essentially unwarranted fear of radiation. This in itself can cause many illnesses, providing much wider implications a long way from the scene of the accident.’

He thus seems to put much emphasis on psychological and stress impacts. He admits that, in reacting to concerns from the public, the nuclear industry might inadvertently have enhanced the level of fear that surrounds nuclear power, by stressing safety issues so much.  However he comes perilously close to claiming that the main culprit was what he labeled the ‘anti-nuclear brigade’.  For them  ‘the misunderstanding of radiation is an important key to discrediting nuclear power,’ thereby raising unwarranted fears. ‘Yet they are the very people who are inducing such effects by continuing to feed the public scares about radiation! So the psychological impacts become essentially self-fulfilling; they stoke up an (illusory) fear and then complain about the consequences of this.’

In a subsequent article, he even suggested that ‘the high and apparently rising capital investment costs of nuclear plants in the western world’ might in part be due to the success of the anti-nuclear movement, asking  ‘could it be that public acceptance issue is at least partly to blame for the high costs of nuclear; indeed, perhaps not only the capital investment costs but also the operating costs of plants?’

As I argue in my new book, given that the nuclear industry is clearly suffering economic problems, with Fukushima adding more, while  renewables are doing very well around the world, it is perhaps not surprising that some of its supporters have become a little shrill. But it seems a little odd to try to blame the opposition for their problems. It may be true that the anti-nuclear movement can at times be less than rigorous in its use of campaigning arguments, but the issues it seeks to raise are, arguably, real ones, reflecting real concerns and risks, and technological choices. The relative significance of some of the risks can be debated, as can the benefits or otherwise of the various technologies, but to suggest that the nuclear lobby has a unique grasp of the truth seems, to put it mildly, unconvincing and possibly inappropriate.

In addition to health impacts, and the unresolved issue of waste disposal, there are other contentious issues.  Although the cost are high, the nuclear industry has stressed the economic benefits.  A report commissioned by EDF Energy claimed that expanding Britain's nuclear reactor fleet could boost the UK economy and create 32,000 jobs. Well maybe. But so would a renewables/efficiency programme on the same investment scale. The London based Citigroup financial assessors have suggested that the ‘strike price' needed to support nuclear plant construction under the proposed new government EMR arrangements might be £166 per MWh.  That’s more than is needed by offshore wind projects and much more than is needed for on land wind.

My new book ‘Fukushima: impacts and implications’ is published by Palgrave Macmillan as part of their new Pivot e-book initiative.

Friday, November 2, 2012

No Fukushimas here!

The UK is to host a series of new nuclear plants of the same basic type as at Fukushima- Boiling Water Reactors, following Hitachi’s take over of the Horizon nuclear programme, which aims to build coastal plants at Oldbury in Gloucestershire and Anglesey in Wales  E.ON and RWE had previously pulled out. 

The new plants will be Advanced Boiling Water Reactors (ABWR), with improved safety features, some of which have already been built in Japan. But, following the  Fukushima accident,  the Japanese government has decided to phase out all nuclear capacity ‘in the 2030s’.   All its nuclear plants were shut down for testing after the accident, but two have now been restarted and work had recommenced on one part-built plant. Despite massive pubic opposition, further restarts may follow.  However, it seems unlikely that any new ones will be ordered, whereas in the UK there is strong government support for new nuclear.

The most common type of nuclear plant in the world is the Pressurised  Water Reactor (PWR)  in which pressurization raises the boiling point of water enabling  more efficient high temperature cooling. The disadvantage is that, to maintain the high pressure in the sealed reactor unit, heat transfer requires a secondary heat exchange circuit.  In Boiling Water Reactors (BWR) this is avoided- the water boils unpressuried inside the reactor fuel core, with the steam passing straight through to the turbines. That makes them more efficient in heat transfer terms and perhaps a bit more economic. The disadvantage is that the external turbines can become exposed to radioactive contamination, and since cooling is less efficient, BWRs need more water throughput, a key issue at Fukushima.

Hitachi are talking of building at least four reactors, and perhaps six, by around 2025, in which case that would be nearly 8GW total capacity. In addition EDF is planning to build two EPRs, Areva’s  upgraded version of the PWR, at  Hinkley  in Somerset –and  possibly two more at  Sizewell. In addition NuGeneration is still developing proposals for a plant near Sellafield and other bids may be forthcoming. In all there might be 19GW of new nuclear, much more than the 10GW of nuclear capacity than the UK currently has.

However there is a way to go! There have been major problems with the EPRs being built in France and Finland-  the Finnish project now looks like being six year late and as a result almost twice over budget and the French EPR is also very behind schedule.  EDF says it can learn form these problems with the UK versions, but it is far from clear whether they will be economically viable. The UK government is developing a new funding mechanism to try to help, but to avoid being seen to provide subsidy just to nuclear,  the new ‘Contracts for a Difference’ (CfD) system will also apply to renewable energy projects. The problem then is that it’s been estimated that nuclear plants would need a subsidy of at least £95-105/MWh, but more likely £120/MWh and possibly up to £165/MWh, whereas at present on land wind projects are getting £92/MWh, offshore windfarms £135/ MWh and  Solar PV £160/ MWh.  It would be somewhat provocative for nuclear to be getting more than wind or even PV!

The nuclear lobby says that it can get prices down, but so does the renewables lobby- it’s been claimed that offshore wind could get down to £100/MWh by 2020 and some studies have PV solar  reaching grid price parity by around then.  For its part the UK government now seems to be taking about  setting a CfD set strike price of around £100/MWh. That could mean that EDF and the others would have to get additional support through other means. It's all still in flux…
EDF does have the advantage that the EPR has gone through the UKs lengthy Generic Design Acceptance procedures, something that the Hitachi APWR will now have to start. The ABWR has also had a somewhat checkered history, with technical problems and low load factors:  So a 2025 completion date may be optimistic.

And that’s without taking account of any local objections. The new planning regime makes it hard for local people to object to anything except detail, but given the prospect of a large scale expansion of nuclear projects, with spent fuel to be stored at each site as well, opposition may grow and not turn out to be so easy to sidestep.   After all, the current programme is only the start.  The Energy Research Partnerships ‘Nuclear Fission Technology Roadmap’, produced by the UK National Nuclear Labs at Sellafield, talked of a 40GW nuclear follow up programme and the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, at University of Oxford, headed up by Prof. Sir David King, looked at a 90GW 2050 nuclear scenario: see Towards a Low Carbon Pathway: and

It is true that the UK is one of the few places in the world where nuclear power has a degree of public support. An Ipsos-MORI Poll in August 2011 for the Nuclear Industry Association asked respondents ‘do you support or oppose building new nuclear power stations to replace the existing fleet’, 36% supported- 28% opposed, but we are now moving well beyond just a replacement programme,  to one that could undermine the rapid development of renewables, which most polls have found are much more strongly supported than nuclear. 

Now that we are actually facing major new projects, the balance could tip. In the most recent Poll for DECC, published  in September, 29% of respondents said they thought the benefits of nuclear energy outweighed the risks, while 30% thought the contrary, and 32% said the benefits and risks were evenly balanced.  By contrast 83% supported solar power, 76% backed offshore wind, 75% supported wave and tidal and 66% were in favour of onshore wind farms.

Germany amongst others is pushing ahead towards a non-nuclear renewable future. Several studies have indicated that the UK, which has much better renewable resources than Germany, could reach its climate targets without nuclear, and with the Hitachi BWR  intervention, the slogan ‘No Fukushimas here’ may take on a new meaning.

My new book ‘Fukushima: impacts and implications’ is published by Palgrave Macmillan as part of their new Pivot e-book initiative.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Japan's alternative plan

Japan used to obtain around 26% of its electricity from its 54 nuclear plants. After Fukushima in March 2011, with opposition to nuclear widespread, all its nuclear power reactors were shutdown in sequence for safety checks, reviews and upgrades. Local prefectures, who in theory have the last say, resisted moves to restart them. So by May 2012 Japan had become nuclear free. But with the summer air-conditioning load looming, there were pressures to restart two of Kansai Electrical Power Co’s plants in the Western Fukui area, despite the very strong national opposition- thousands of people took to the streets in protest. Prime minister Yoshihiko Noda said ‘We should restart the Ohi No. 3 and No. 4 reactors in order to protect the people's livelihoods. Japanese society cannot survive if we stop all nuclear reactors or keep them halted.’

He insisted that new safety measures would ensure the two reactors would not leak radiation if an earthquake or tsunami as severe as at Fukushima should strike them. However, while some of the main measures to secure cooling functions and prevent meltdowns as in Fukushima had been installed, more than a third of the necessary upgrades on the list were still incomplete- the full upgrades may take up to three years.

Nevertheless local governor Issei Nishikawa  evidently indicated approval for a restart: the Fukui region has the largest nuclear plant concentration in the country (13 reactors) and is heavily dependent on them for energy and employment. According a report in WISE/ NIRN’s Nuclear Monitor 751, there had been intense lobbying of political leaders by Kansai Electric Power Co (Kepco) and threats by major corporate supporters to relocate outside the region were cited by the Union of Kansai Governments as reasons for caving in. Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto admitted defeat but said he had done all he could. Kepco evidently put a lot of pressure on companies in the region, telling them that without the Oi reactors, they would face rolling blackouts. Those firms, in turn, pressured local politicians, saying that if there were blackouts they would have to relocate outside the region.

Noda said the startup was not intended just for the summer, rejecting calls for limited operation by Osaka city and other nearby towns: ‘the livelihoods and daily lives of the Japanese people cannot be sustained if reactors are only restarted for the summer.’ He said he planned to start up more reactors whenever their safety was confirmed. At the same time, he confirmed that the government would be producing a national energy plan, although it was delayed from June to August.  Presumably he wanted the initial start up in place to prepare the political climate for a less anti nuclear plan. And, despite a lot of protest, he got his way- the go ahead for the two Ohi plants to start up came in late June and they reached full power in July.

So the nuclear-free honeymoon period is over. It would certainly have been hard for Japan to run without some extra input.  Even with its full nuclear compliment, it was highly dependent on energy imports; it imported around 80% of its energy mostly coal and oil  (and of course uranium). But it had made good progress in cutting demand through emergency energy saving efforts, and given time renewables could be ramped up to take over most electricity and heat supply.  Certainly it is trying to develop an alternative approach, based on energy efficiency and a major commitment to renewables, including a new quite generous Feed-In Tariff for PV solar, a 1GW off shore wind programme and more support for other marine renewables- offshore projects obviously make sense in a country where land is at a premium. 

In August a consultation report emerged, based on the three options that the government had put forward - zero nuclear, 15% nuclear or 20-25% nuclear, with renewables taking up most the slack, at 30-35%.  Early indications were that most of the public backed the zero nuclear option.  And in Sep, the government announced that it was aiming to get to zero nuclear ‘in the 2030s’. Given that Japan was originally planning  to expand nuclear from its pre Fukushima 26% to 45% of total electricity, that’s a  big shift- but at what a huge financial and social cost, not least to the thousands of evacuees still unable to return home.

Their plight was revealed in a survey by the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Committee for the Japanese Diet found.  Over 10,000 local resident responded, some very bitterly. The survey found that delays in passing on information meant that awareness of the accident was initially very low amongst residents. Some residents did not realise they were being evacuated from their homes because of a nuclear accident and might not be able to return for a long time. Many reported fleeing in just the clothes they had on, without taking time to gather valuables, medical records or even to lock their homes, with some thinking they were being evacuated because of the risk of a further tsunami. Evacuation orders were issued firstly for a zone close to the plant, the next day the evacuation zone was increased to 10 km, then 20 km, and finally the government requested voluntary evacuation for residents 20-30 km from the plant. Some ended up having to move several (4-6+) times, some into areas which turned out to be more contaminated. Many respondents referred to TV reports that there were no immediate health risks. So now evacuees didn’t trust the media or assurances that they could return.   Residents said they had often been assured of the safety of nuclear power, and thought that an accident could never occur. Now they know better.

But life goes on. Japanese company Softbank Mobile’s Sharp Pantone 5 107SH smart phone has a gamma radiation monitor app.   Lets hope it’s not need in future. The interim ‘zero nuclear in /by the 2030s’ position is a little  vague- that could  mean up to 2039! And it’s far enough away to allow for backsliding…

The full Fukushima story is covered in a book I’ve produced as part of  Palgrave Macmillan’s new Pivot e-book initiative.  Out at the end of October:  ‘Fukushima: impacts and implications’.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A brave new EU-MENA supergrid

The Desertec Industrial Initiative, based in Germany, is all about ambitious plans for linking renewable energy projects across the EU, Middle East and North Africa (EU-MENA) region via a supergrid, to their mutual advantage. It says it can be done by 2050 and in a new report lays out what it might mean.  What is very striking about their analysis are the assumptions about the huge growth in energy demand in the ME and NA regions, and the scale of the renewable resources that is available there, much more  than  in the EU. 

They say that Turkey and Egypt will have the largest population and highest power demand in the MENA region in 2050 but also that, due to high per capita consumption, Saudi Arabia will be of a similar size in terms of power demand. ‘These three countries, together with Jordan and Syria, make up about a third of total EUMENA demand – as much as the four largest EU economies Germany, France, the UK and Italy together’.

They go on  ‘Due to the high demand in the Middle East and Egypt, most of the desert power produced there will be consumed locally’ and ,  since ‘unlike most of the major economies in the center of Europe, the region enjoys good solar and wind conditions’ they will not need imports.  However  ‘given their relatively small populations and abundant renewables resources, the Maghreb and Libya export large quantities of power to Europe’. They will be what Desertec calls ‘super producers’ while most of the rest are importers –countries with large demand but relatively few renewable resources. e.g. Germany, Italy, France and Turkey.  But there are some in between, i.e. countries with reasonable renewable resources, who will  need balancing top-ups. Examples quoted are Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Spain, the UK and Denmark.

The Desertec 2050 report argues that the ‘balancer’ countries  ‘build just as much renewables capacity as is economic to cover most of their domestic load. Covering the remaining minor share of the load with domestic renewables becomes less economical, since curtailment of excess energy would occur. Consequently, these countries import power when needed and export it when their production exceeds domestic demand. They thereby avoid building the final segment of domestic renewables, which would make the sustainable power system more expensive due to high curtailment’.

Not everyone will agree with that analysis, or therefore the need for some EU countries to import perhaps 20% of their power from the south, while still using some gas, as  Desertec sees  importers as doing . ‘Since gas, and thereby carbon emissions, are allocated under a common cap to where they are needed most, the countries with limited renewables can use more gas than in an isolated system.’

This sounds dangerously like special pleading by Germany to be allowed to continue to use gas!   However,  the Desertec  report says that  it will all balance out equitably: ‘While super producers, balancers and importers profit from system integration in a different way, they all benefit from being part of a large sustainable power system. At the same time, their complementary roles lead to a situation of mutual reliance, in which no one country is dependent on another but instead each country is reliant on the system as a whole’.

Well maybe, but I can see plenty of potential for conflict, and certainly a need for a lot of detailed negotiations. It could make the current battles over the euro and national debts look easy! It certainly does open up a new geopolitical perspective, based on sharing renewable energy resources to mutual gain.

In reality though this wont be cooperative sharing, but  would be driven by market forces and the  interests of the  big investors in what after all will be a huge project.  Can it be set up to avoid market power becoming monopolised?   Should competition be restrained or increased? Could the supergrid be run as common service? 

There are plenty of political issues to get sorted before it’s too late; unless that is you think the whole idea should be opposed.  Certainly some environmentalists do not like large scale centralised systems- and would prefer the emphasis to be on the local scale. However, the big and the small are not really in conflict technologically- they could in fact be mutually reinforcing, enabling variable local supplies to feed into and be balanced by wider grid links. In essence it’s like the internet- a grid system serving a range of  decentral nodes.   But there could be conflicts over funding- big projects may attract big money to the detriment of small projects. That would be tragic since we need to develop renewables fully at both scales.

What happens next? Most likely the supergrid will emerge piecemeal, with a few links here and there, between the UK and the continent and within the EU (see my earlier Blog) and possibly across the Med, with no central plan or agreement.   A bit like how national electricity supply systems in the UK and elsewhere first emerged. That could be chaotic and wasteful. But where is the central authority to impose rational plan?  Not the EU/EC surely!

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Fukushima revisited

 It’s around year and a half since the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster started. But it’s still not over. The reactor core meltdowns may have been contained, although they are still active and temperatures have fluctuated, suggesting continued risks of further fuel melts and emissions.  Perhaps more worryingly, a tank containing spent fuel is still precariously balanced on top of the wreck of Reactor 4, and some fear that if another earthquake hit the site it could fall and spill its lethal contents- 1500 fuel rods. That could result in much more radioactive material being released than from any previous nuclear accident.  The open waste tank has been propped up and a cover put over it, but it will take some time before the rods can be removed.  It will also be some while before the melted fuel in the cores can be removed, and the mess from the explosions can be cleaned up- vast areas of NE Japan have to be decontaminated

So maybe it’s not a bad time to take a look at what happened at Fukushima and its implications. That’s what I tried to do in a new book, to be published soon as part of Palgrave Macmillan’s new Pivot e- book initiative.

Japan has been hit by nuclear disasters before. The US bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of WWII, forcing its surrender, seem to have been part of the reason why Japan as a society redefined itself as a non-military state, still devoted to winning, but this time through civil technology.  It did well in many areas of technology, although its choice of nuclear technology seems not to have turned out to be wise. Perhaps now it will reconfigure itself as a non-nuclear, renewable energy focused society – and win that way. In May, Naoto Kan, the former Prime Minister, told a parliamentary committee that the bulk of the blame for the disaster lay with the nuclear lobby, which he said had acted like the nation's out-of-control military during the Second World War, with "a grip on actual political power".

There certainly is a continuing incentive to make changes. The economic impact of Fukushima has been very serious. The disaster clean up cost – put at around $250 billion, forced the Japanese government to bail out and take over TEPCO, the plant operator, and, with public fears mounting, it has also carried out safety tests on all the other all the plants. That meant that by May all Japan nuclear plants had been shut down- although two have now been restarted, despite massive 170,000 strong protests. 

The full social and health impacts of the Fukushima  accident are as yet unknown. While no radiation related deaths have yet been reported, longer-term effects are possible. In May TEPCO almost quadrupled its initial estimates of total Iodine-131 releases from Fukushima- from 130 Peta Bq to 511PBq. Iodine-131's half-life is 8 days, so it is so not worrying as the releases of  Caesium 137, which has a 30 year half life. TEPCOs estimates for releases of Caesium 137 were raised from 6.1 to 13.6 PBq .

An  interim UN-World Health Organisation study says that in the most affected areas of Fukushima prefecture, thyroid doses from iodine-131 were estimated as between 10 and 100 mSv apart from one area which was lower, at 1 to 10 mSv, and one that was higher for infants at 100-200 mSv. In the rest of Fukushima, adults received 1 to 10 mSv to their thyroids while children and infants received 10 to 100 mSv, the study estimated. For comparison, it said young people in the vicinity of the Chernobyl accident received on average doses of 300 to 1400 mSv to their thyroids.

However comparisons with Chernobyl do not go down well in Japan, which is desperately trying to re-establish normalacy.  Not least since Japan was a candidate for hosting the 2020 Olympics. While by then the radiation issue may not be seen as so significant, the International Olympic Organising Committee have indicated concerns about the energy situation in Japan. They are not alone. Whereas Germany already had a established plan for nuclear phase out and expansion of renewables, which it accelerated after Fukushima, renewables had been marginalised in Japan. Now it is desperately trying to catch up. For example, it is backing some large offshore wind farms using floating wind turbine technology.

While it remains to be seen whether policies will change elsewhere, with the UK, USA, China, India and Russia still pressing ahead with nuclear to various extents, it is clear that, as I review in my new book, Fukushima, like Chernobyl before it, has led to major changes in attitudes around the world, and for Japan and several other key countries, including German, Italy, Switzerland and Belgium, a fundamental shift in policy. Bahrain, Kuwait, Malaysia, Taiwan and the Philippines have also backed off from nuclear. Following the elections in 2012, nuclear power is also now being challenged in France, increasingly on economic grounds, this leading to potential knock-on impacts for the UK programme, with investment in its proposed nuclear projects looking increasingly risky.
I suspect that it can only get worse.

Radiation issues:
Impacts: which talks of there possibly being 100s or maybe 1000s of radiation-related deaths  around the world  ultimately, due to Fukushima, most though in Japan.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Supergrid: the UK makes a start

National Grid and Scottish Power Transmission have awarded a £1bn contract for first ever sub sea electricity link between Scotland and England. The 2,200MW High Voltage Direct Current  link will be a vital reinforcement- bringing energy from renewable sources in Scotland to the south and helping to meet 2020 renewable targets. It will run 420km between Hunterston in Ayrshire to the Wirral- the longest link of this capacity in the world. It should be fully operational by 2016.

There are already about 3 GW of interconnector links to France and the Netherlands, but nine more are either in construction, planning or subject to feasibility studies. The next to open, in autumn 2012, will be a link between the Republic of Ireland and Wales. Then there is a 1 GW Kent-Belgium link, planned for 2018 and maybe a 1.4 GW link to Norway, 900km, by 2019. Another would link England to Alderney, where very strong tides could produce large amounts of electricity, and then on to France.

Energy Minister Charles Hendry has also been negotiating with Iceland over the possibility of connecting the UK to its abundant geothermal energy, via a 1000 km plus undersea High Voltage Direct Current supergrid.. That may be some way off, but, with the other projects, a ‘supergrid’  network may be gradually taking shape- and it can link up to, and help balance, offshore wind farms in the North Sea. By 2020 there could be 18GW of offshore wind capacity in place, with more to follow. They will all need grid links.

Supergrid interconnectors are costly. The Britain-Netherland 240km link, which opened in 2011, cost £500m. But we have the best wind, wave and tidal resource in Europe, so we should be able to produces large amount of excess electricity and sell it abroad. More than offsetting the cost of the interconnector  and more than offsetting the need to occasionally have to import balancing power when UK wind is low.

The supergrid would eventually be EU wide, linking to the large hydro capacity in Norway and elsewhere, with the reservoirs acting as  stores for excess wind derived power,  and it may even possibly extended it to the large yet to be developed solar resource in North Africa. This wide geographical spread should ensure that power would be available even when the whole of Northern Europe is temporarily becalmed.  

Similar ideas have emerged elsewhere. The Japan Renewable Energy Foundation   and the Desertec Foundation have teamed to promote an Asian Supergrid that would connect the national grids of Japan, Korea, China, Mongolia and Russia. This could open up opportunities for renewable energy development in which the power produced could be moved to where it is needed most. So Japan, with fewer areas in which to build renewable projects, could benefit from wind power produced in placed like Inner Mongolia, where potential capacity far exceeds demand. There a have also been proposals for a major Concentrated Solar Power project in  the Gobi desert, which straddles China and Mongolia. Excess electricity (around 1GW) from the Gobitec project would be exported to urban centers in China, Japan, and South Korea via a new network of nearly 4,000 km of high-voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission lines. . 

There can obviously be problems with mega projects like this, as I have explored in a recent paper: .

Some have argued that it’s foolish to try to go  remote sources, and concentrate, and then transmit over long distances, energy that is naturally distributed everywhere.   It’s also argued that it  could degenerate into a neo-colonial resource grab, with poor areas being exploited by rich energy hungry countries, who might then not develop their own renewables  sources.  That clearly has to be resisted: the host country should have priority   access and only excess power exported.  And we have to avoid imported supergrid power being seen as alternative to locally produced power. We need all the types of renewable energy development, at all scales, for a sustainable future. But as far as the planet is concerned, it doesn’t matter where the energy projects are built as long as they avoid emissions, and in energy and carbon terms, it makes sense to go to where the resources are best. So we need to face up to the political problems and start to think outside of national boxes.  

Saturday, June 2, 2012

EMR uncertainties

The Electricity Market Reforms (EMR) are a key to the governments energy plans, but have still to be consolidated in legislation. There was media speculation about delays due to the complex proposals for ‘Contracts for a Difference’ (CfD) that are meant to  provide support for nuclear, renewables and CCS. It seems that, in order to get the new contract auction market process operating,   DECC  would have  to set an  initial ‘strike price’.  That’s an interventionist approach and not something DECC is keen on. DECCs energy markets director general Simon Virley said "We want to move to market-based systems and tendering as soon as we can, which means we need to have more than one player in any one market. And we need to have technologies at a sufficient state of maturity to be able to bid into those auctions."

However, Dr David Toke from Birmingham University calculated that the strike price  would have to be set at  around £150/MWh to make new nuclear viable,  more than  offshore wind now gets. See his May 5th entry: Even that might not be enough to entice potential investors into nuclear: it may be a 50 year old technology, but the proposed  new plants (EPR and AP1000)  are as yet unproven and, as  the first EPR construction projects  in France and Finland have ilustrated, costs can escalate alarmingly. Credit rating agencies have already down-graded some companies considering investment  in new nuclear - it’s seen as increasingly risky. 

Centrica and Gulf Suez are looking decidedly wobbly on their proposed involvement as result. E.ON and RWE took the hint and pulled out of the Horizon project- which was focused on reactors at Oldbury and Anglesey. RWE said “The global economic crisis has meant that capital for major projects is at a premium and nuclear power projects are particularly large scale, with very long lead times and payback periods. Even more tellingly, E.ON said : ‘We have come to the conclusion that investments in renewable energies, decentralised generation and energy efficiency are more attractive – both for us and for our British customers.’

With DECC evidently still hoping that new backers will be found (perhaps from China)  to replace E.ON and RWE, but  EDF, the main surviving nuclear backer,  pressing for a speedy resolution, you can see why getting the EMR sorted  is very sensitive-  many see the  main aim of the  EMR as being to  provide support for nuclear.  Meanwhile Greenpeace's senior energy campaigner, Joss Garman, urged ministers to resist any calls for a delay to the legislation so that renewable energy projects could get proper backing. "With a desperate need to leverage investment into securing clean, affordable energy supplies, and with families and businesses feeling the squeeze because of gas-fuelled energy bill hikes, it's astonishing the government seems to be de-prioritising its energy market reforms. Ministers must stop dithering and take decisive action to reduce our risky and expensive over-dependence on gas, and to get both energy bills and pollution levels under control."

Gaynor Hartnell, REAs chief executive however felt that if there was a delay and revamp of the EMA, it would give the government the opportunity ‘to reconsider its plans for renewables and gives them the priority they deserve. They can deliver early CO2 savings in the transition to a low-carbon economy and their build out should create 400,000 jobs by 2020.’

In the event, the EMR bill was tabled for debate in the next parliamentary session. But who knows what will actually emerge as that unfolds? It does seem odd to tie the fate of renewables to that of nuclear (and indeed CCS). Some say that, rather than the CfD pretending to be a Feed In Tariff, a separate premium price Feed In-Tariff for renewables, with proper price degression, would be best as the replacement for the RO. As for nuclear, let it sink or swim, unaided, while for CCS, well the debate continues. Not everyone thinks it’s worth the effort- it’s expensive and technically a  long shot. And who would want to insure against the risk of accidental CO2 release over thousands of years?

Lots of unknowns. And to add to them , as it stands, the EMR issue and the fate of the competing technologies will remain uncertain for some while-  with 2014 as the earliest CfD start date.  DECC has issued draft proposals but they contained little new just the news that the CfD contracts would be made with National Grid not, as some investors had hoped, the government.  So there would be no government guarantees.

Following the elections in 2012, nuclear power is now being challenged in France, increasingly on economic grounds, this leading to potential knock-on impacts for the UKs already diminished  EDF-led nuclear programme. Will the UK really be able to go against the tide and be the only country in the EU with a major nuclear expansion programme?

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Greening the WFTU

There are plenty of global eco-manifestos from greens of various sorts. Here is a recent  one- for May Day-  from global reds: from the ‘General Principles of the World Federation of Trade Unions for the global environmental problems’:

‘It is common knowledge that over the last fifty years the environment, both in planetary and regional level, is receiving increasing pressure from the way the productive forces develop in the conditions of the imperialist new order. The consequences of these pressure are more and more intense for the working class, the farmers, the poor and middle strata of the city, in other words, the majority of the planet’s inhabitants, whether they belong in the developed or the developing countries. Their root cause is none other than the very nature of the exploitative system. On the one hand, the number of workers who participate in the production of wealth is increasing. On the other hand, the number of exploiters who accumulate in their hands the means of production and appropriate the wealth is decreasing, which as they procure to increase their wealth just for themselves.

The relentless hunt for super profits by transnational monopolies causes enormous disasters to the planet, condemns the one third of the planet to starve and live (if they survive) in miserable conditions. Lack of protection against natural disasters, global warming, reduction of the protective ozone shield, depletion of natural recourses, forest destruction, desertification, genetically modified organisms, nuclear and toxic waste, dangerous nutritional dependence on transnational monopolies, air pollution, destruction of ecosystems and pollution of the natural reserves, lack of access to clear water and also military invasions and civil conflicts incitement, are only a few of the results of the imperialist new order. And it could not be otherwise, since for capital and its political exponents, the environment, the planet (in general the “Mother Earth”, as the native people of Latin America called it), is nothing else than an abstraction, a source for looting of the finite natural resources of the planet [and] the natural space in which they carry on their uncontrollable (as it seems) activities and discard their waste’.

It adds ‘Amidst the sharpening of the capitalist crisis, the catastrophic activity of capital against the environment is increasing as well, and planetary problems sharpen because: the inter-imperialist contrasts become stronger, in search for new markers or redistribution of those already existing [and] the accumulated earnings of capital seek to find exits, new fields to invest in, leading towards further commercialization of a growing range of activities and of more public social goods and resources’. But ‘Imperialism, capital, monopolies and the governments that serve them do not play without an opponent. They have against them the working class, the poor and the middle farmers, the self-employed, the small business owners, the working intelligentsia in the developed and developing countries, the vital interests of which are identical with the need for a harmonious cohabitation between people and nature.’

The WFTU considers ‘the socialist way of production an important tool in our hands,’ enabling us to ‘understand a completely different man–nature relationship, as well as the tools to materialize it.’ They look to a planned economy based on the belief that the ‘long-term combined satisfaction of the people’s needs are the only stable basis for a harmonic man and environment symbiosis, for their common progress and development’.   Sharpen you dialectical skills on that!

Most on the left will no doubt agree with Kolya Abramsky who, in a recent paper, argued that common or collective ownership and control of relevant productive capacity, including land, raw materials, energy resources and infrastructure, as well as knowledge and technologies is a key issue. However, the issue goes well beyond UK concerns with Clause 4 and the like. He says  ‘taking collective control over means of production in core countries is necessary, but not sufficient. The problem is these means of production should not really exist, in the form that they currently do, or in the places that they currently do, in the first place. As generators of wealth within capitalist relations, they are, essentially, the accumulated stolen wealth and labour of generations of workers (waged and unwaged) in the core countries and, especially, workers and communities in the southern countries.

He adds ‘ In order to address this, and to break the uneven technological development, especially in relation to production of means of production, a highly targeted non-commercial technology transfer of renewable energy technologies based on reparations is necessary. However, collective control of production in north is necessary in order to give a serious material basis for the reparations and technology transfer, since this process would require huge transfers of material wealth and it makes no sense to even conceive of this being possible to implement within a market based on private accumulation.’

From 'Beyond Copenhagen: Common Ownership, Reparations, Degrowth and Renewable Energy Technology Transfer', Kolya Abramsky. See his book  ‘Sparking a World- wide Energy Revolution’ (AK Press)
And also

Sunday, April 1, 2012

AT@40: what was said

AT @40 Conference in London in March marked 40 years since the first big ‘Alternative Technology’ (AT) conference at UCL in 1972. That had led to a complaint by one participant that “I came here to talk about windmills not politics.” The AT@40 gathering at the AA was also mostly about politics, but with older and maybe wiser participants.

The oldies certainly laid out the stall again well, with Peter Harper (who invented the term ‘AT’) taking us through the way the idea had emerged in an amazing conceptual tour, effectively a prequel, and Godfrey Boyle (who did much to promote AT over the years) looking at how it then developed and where it was going: it was getting bigger but we ought to stick with the subsiduarity principle. I also got my oar in, but then readers will be familiar with my views! Perhaps more refreshing was the paper by (relative newbie!) Stephen Peake, putting it all in a macro context. Was AT all about hard core decentralism? Is that where we are really headed? If not, is it where we can and should go?

There were some interesting papers circulated at the meeting and talk of producing a book based on it. But as a taster, the paper from Catherine Forrester noted that when the AT idea was looked at by the Lucas Aerospace workers, who were developing a plan for alternative socially useful work, they were unwilling to think about producing what one described as ‘gimmicks for individual architect built houses’ or ‘playthings for the middle class’. And she also notes that were unimpressed by the rhetoric of parts of the AT movement: ‘They just repeat the clich├ęs of condemnation of an advanced technological society. In effect, they give us the choice of going off to the mountains [or] onto the dole queue’.

Maybe a bit aggressive- the AT movement did try to develop community-scaled projects. And as Forrester concludes, ‘both projects were expressions of the same phenomenon of groups presenting a radical socio-technical critique and attempting to create prefigurative spaces in which alternative social forms could exist through an alternative technology. They exhibited a deeply political understanding of current and potential technology, in marked contrast to the purely technical nature of the ‘alternative technology’ we recognize today. The term has shifted from describing a technology that will enable an alternative society, to a technology which provides an alternative means to enable current social structures to be maintained.’

Fast forwarding back to AT@40, David Dickson gave an interesting account of how he came to write the seminal book ‘Alternative Technology’ all those years ago. Its original title was ‘the Politics of technical change’, but ‘AT’ had become a buzz word so the publisher wanted it to be to main title! He had been, and still was, a bit ambivalent about the term ‘AT’. His analysis reflected the then current view on the left that the nature of existing science and technology was shaped by existing and historical power relations, and needed to be challenged. Faith in science had certainly been dented- it seemed to offer increasing threats- but there were still promises. The emerging ‘social constructionist’ view implicitly implied that there could and should be alternative scientific and technological practices, leading to new outcomes. But was AT an (or the) example? It was still too early to say, he thought- that would be up to historians to decide!

AT@40 wasn’t all about (old) ideas, or just an autopsy of AT. It still lives! It was good to have practical engineering inputs from Derek Taylor on how wind energy had emerged and was still was developing, and from Peter Fraenkel who reported on the various AT projects he had pioneered from the 1970s onwards, leading up (in scale) to the hyper successful 1.2MW SeaGen marine current turbine. While oldies like this were still clearly at it, Trystan Lea provided a good input on some new ICT directions now emerging that should ensure that ideas can spread and be used effectively- Open Source Sustainable Technology. See

There were many other fascinating inputs and some interesting discussions amongst the 50 or so people attending. How did we deal with the current success of alternative energy ('going straight’ Peter Raine ex-CAT); what was the role of local initiatives and community groups (Adrian Smith, by video, and John LeCorney, and local councils (Martin Fodor from Bristol); ending up where we started by asking, does it all add up to a challenge to how technology is developed (Matt Paskins from Imperial College - relaying ideas from Catherine Forrester, who sadly couldn’t be there). Micheal Sealey gave an interesting historical account of the multi-faceted activities of one 70's pioneer, Kit Pedler, sadly no longer with us.

However, the survivors and the new adherents to the cause, still look like they have more to offer, so AT@40 definately wasn’t a wake. Even for Renew the AT journal I edit! Although as Tam Dougan, its co-ordinator, noted, it was ending pdf distribution, in its soon to be revamped web guise, it will still try to relay what happens next!

The above is from Renew 197, forthcoming:
There will be a fuller review in Renew 198

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Nuclear Power: UK out on a limb

While Germany has closed eight nuclear plants, the UK is busily trying to get eight new ones built. But it can’t do it alone. Fortuitously perhaps, France is keen to help. Indeed it could be the only way for the French nuclear industry to survive. A Franco-British Summit in Paris in February aimed to strengthened cooperation on civil nuclear energy between the two countries, with deals being announced in relation to EDF Energy's plans to construct two Areva’s European Pressurised-water Reactors (EPRs) at Hinkley Point in Somerset.

Politically it was important for Cameron to show that there would be some UK jobs in an otherwise French led programme , and for Sarkozy it was vital, given the upcoming election, to show that new nuclear was still possible, even if only in the UK. The French Court of Auditors recently concluded that a new French reactor building progamme was unlikely to be fundable, so, if France wanted to keep its nuclear capacity at a similar level to that at present, the only option was to extend the life of some of the existing plants.

Meanwhile though, the French Socialist Party, which has been winning in the polls, wants to close 24 reactors, nearly half of France’s nuclear capacity, by 2025. Instead they will push ahead with renewables. If they win, then the UK- Franco alliance will seem rather odd and may not survive. But nonetheless, Areva and Rolls-Royce have it seems agreed on the UK input. Rolls-Royce is to manufacture reactor vessel internals, heat exchangers, accumulators, coolers and tanks, and provide engineering and technical services for the first of two EPR units to be built at Hinkley Point in Somerset. Rolls-Royce said, "Once contracted, the work could be worth a total of £400 million in revenue to Rolls-Royce for the four EPRs currently planned by EDF Energy in the UK." EDF also plan two more at Sizewell.

However the Rolls contract has to be put in perspective. The total EDF/EPR programme will cost maybe €24 billion, given that the present estimated cost for the two much delayed units being built in France and Finland is around €6 billion each. And it far from certain if their UK programme will go ahead- EDF and Areva’s finances are looking decidedly strained.

Given the delays and cost over-run in Finland and France, the EPR is also looking a bit ropey, with press reports that EPR Avera may look to other versions of this basically upgraded PWR design for any future plants, like the version being developed in China. Longer term they may move to completely new technology, like Astrid (Advanced Sodium Technological Reactor for Industrial Demonstration), a fourth generation liquid sodium cooled fast neutron reactor. Rolls Royce have been invited to participate in that too.

The Astrid programme foresees a prototype operational by 2020 and ultimately aims for France to have in place all the necessary elements for industrial deployment of fast reactors starting from 2040. But who know what will actually happen. Technically it’s tough. France gave up with its Superphoenix Breeder years ago, so did the UK with its FBR at Dounreay. Japans Monju suffered a sodium fire and was shut. Certainly no-one has yet build a fast breeder that was viable commercially. And politically, it seems very unlikely for France to successfully revive this idea, given the recession and the changing politics- and the huge potential of renewables.

There are also large uncertainties in Japan. At present there are only three nuclear plants running, and they are scheduled to shut down in April for their annual inspections. However it is unclear if they, or any of the others, will be allowed to restart. Local municipal authorities have the final say in Japan, and they, like the population as a whole, are becoming increasingly anti nuclear. That is not surprising since the government has been trying to pass some of the vast clean-up cost for contamination from Fukushima on to them. The end result could be that Japan will become nuclear free by default.

That won’t happen in Germany until 2022, when the last of its nuclear plants closes, by which time three of Belgium’s 5 plants will have shut (the rest close in 2025) and it’s conceivably that some of the French reactors will also have closed, while some of the new UK reactors might have started up. What an odd situation- the UK out on a limb.

A then new report from the Energy Research Partnership/National Nuclear Lab suggests we could move on to have over 40GW of nuclear in place by 2050, including fast breeders!


If that’s all too gloomy, then come to AT@40, a conference at the Architectural Association in London on March 17th to mark forty years since the first big ‘Alternative Technology’ gathering at UCL in 1972. At that one disgruntled participant famously said ‘I came here to talk about wind mills, not politics’. They would hopefully be just as disappointed by AT@40.

You have to book in advance at:

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Fukushima still a mess

At the end of last year the Japanese authorities announced that the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex's devastated reactors had been brought to ‘cold shutdown’, nine months or so after the disaster. But that just means that temperatures are now lower, not zero, thanks to continued cooling and reduced melted core activity levels. Much still needs to be done however to make the plants fully safe, and some reports say that, since no one really know exactly what happened inside the cores, it’s not clear how to move to the next set of issues, which include locating and stopping the flow of toxic water and removing the melted nuclear fuel and radioactive debris. Reuters noted that ‘Fukushima Daiichi is hemorrhaging enough radiated water each month to fill four Olympic-size swimming pools’ and quoted Hajimu Yamana, a professor of nuclear engineering at Kyoto University, who heads a government committee studying how to decommission Daiichi: ‘We don't know what we should do. After all, we don't even know what's happening inside the plant.’ But they are doing their best, although its been claimed that it will take thousands of people, and decades to clear it all up: TEPCO’s current plan is for final full decommissioning of the site by 2041-2051.

Possible US Impacts

Joseph J. Mangano and Janette D. Sherman, writing in the International Journal of Health Services, (Vol. 42, No. 1, pp 47–64, 2012) note ‘an unusual rise in infant deaths in the northwestern United States for the 10-week period following the arrival of the airborne radio-active plume from the meltdowns at the Fukushima plants in northern Japan’. They say that ‘U.S. health officials report weekly deaths by age in 122 cities, about 25 to 35% of the national total. Deaths rose 4.46% from 2010 to 2011 in the 14 weeks after the arrival of Japanese fallout, compared with a 2.34% increase in the prior 14 weeks. The number of infant deaths after Fukushima rose 1.80%, compared with a previous 8.37% decrease.’ They add ‘Projecting these figures for the entire United States yields 13,983 total deaths and 822 infant deaths in excess of the expected’. They say ‘these preliminary data need to be followed up, especially in the light of similar preliminary U.S. mortality findings for the four months after Chernobyl fallout arrived in 1986.’ They suggest that while impacts in Japan will inevitably be much higher, the impact of exposure to low levels can also be significant elsewhere, especially for infants. See

This report was rubbished by the US nuclear lobby as being unreliable and based on dubious use of statistics and it may indeed be a little premature. Similarly the views of Prof. Chris Busby have also attracted a lot of criticism. He is ardent in his belief that low-level internally absorbed radioactive particles are more dangerous than is officially thought, but he has his detractors. Make up your own mind. For an overview see : http://en.wikipedia .org/wiki/Christopher_Busby. And then his web site: Also see and Then, from a hostile but anonymous source:
The most balanced overview of the issue I’ve seen is this:

Clearly there are conflicting views. Prof. Gerry Thomas at Imperial College told New Scientist that ‘not an awful lot got out of the plant – it was not Chernobyl.’

This seems wide of the mark. According to recent estimates, 770,000 terabequerels of radiation seeped from the plant in the week after the tsunami, more than double the initial estimate of 370,000 and about 20% of the official estimate for Chernobyl, rather than the 10% initially claimed. The amount of plutonium released is said to be 120 billion Becquerels, plus 7.6 trillion Becquerels of Neptunium-239. As neptunium-239 decays, it becomes plutonium-239.

But even that may be an underestimate. Nature noted that the Norwegian Institute for Air Research found that, in fact, the accident released more total radioactive material than did Chernobyl, though some was in the form of xenon which is less harmful. Even so it claimed that caesium emissions were in total about half that from Chernobyl.

It is perhaps not surprising then that there have been huge demos around the country, with a 60,000 strong gathering in Tokyo last Sept kicking off a whole spate of ‘Occupy Tokyo’ actions. In parallel, rail workers went on strike to resist the re-opening of the track from Hisanohama Station to Hirono Station, which they say is still highly contaminated by radioactive fallout from Fukushima.

Their concern is that rolling stock is contaminated- its been passing through the area reguarly. The Trade Unions have become increasingly active, organising an International Workers rally:

They are not the only ones worried about radioactive contamination. Local residents in Tokyo, unconvinced by government reassurances that all was well, have been measuring radiation levels themselves. The Tokyo citizens’ group, the Radiation Defense Project, which grew out of a Facebook discussion page, in consultation with the Yokohama-based Isotope Research Institute, collected soil samples from near their own homes and submitted them for testing. Some of the results were shocking: one sample collected under shrubs near a baseball field measured nearly 138,000 becquerels per sq meter. Of the 132 areas tested, 22 were above 37,000 becquerels per square meter, the level at which zones were considered contaminated at Chernobyl. Hot spots are of course different from full scale contamination as at Chernobyl, but Kiyoshi Toda, a radiation expert at Nagasaki University’s faculty of environmental studies and a medical doctor, told the New York Times ‘Radioactive substances are entering people’s bodies from the air, from the food. It’s everywhere. But the government doesn’t even try to inform the public how much radiation they’re exposed to.’…

There’s also been strong opposition to radioactive debris being brought to Tokyo by train to be burned and dumped in Tokyo Bay:

Studies by a US scientist Marco Kaltofen of Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) of air filters from car air-conditioning units sent from Japan, evidently show high levels on contamination by hot particles in Tokyo. Studies have also been made of shoe laces gathered from kids in Japan- they pick up dust.

Some of this may be unduly alarmist, and some may be unreliable, but given that few now trust official pronouncement, it’s understandable that fears mount and pressures for a nuclear phases out increase.

As you may have guessed from the above, I’m writing a book on Fukushima. Stay tuned!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Markets rule

I was asked last year to write a commentary piece for the Shell-backed ‘visions’ web site, focusing on ‘how to support innovation’ in the sustainable energy field. I decided to take a wide-ranging approach. See what you think - from this slightly edited version:

"Given the urgency of responding to climate change, the move to low carbon energy seems unstoppable, even by the recession, but how do we best proceed to develop and deploy the appropriate technology?
When it comes to deciding on which technologies to support, and how best to support them, there is basically an ideological split in views.
While those from the left of centre see a key role for government direction and often tend to favour renewables over nuclear, right of centre free-market competition enthusiasts are basically after a system in which targets are removed and markets, perhaps suitably modified by carbon or energy taxes, decide on technologies – which to develop and which to deploy.
The trouble is that, as we have seen with the EU Emission Trading System, unless very tight carbon caps can be imposed (which is politically hard across the complete EU, especially in a recession), trading can be very lucrative (and even corrupted), but not many emissions are saved – it doesn’t drive many carbon saving projects and the ones it does drive are the easy, cheap, short term options. Market oriented support mechanisms, like the UK’s Renewables Obligation, similarly just focus on the ‘near market’ options- it doesn’t support the earlier innovative phase of technological development.
Those adhering to a more left of centre view, argue that you need targets and support mechanisms like Feed In Tariffs, to force the pace. And more support for less developed options for the next phase. That does mean you may incur extra costs, but they argue, that is an investment in the future- helping the technologies to mature and fall in price, so that overall costs then fall, at least in the longer term – especially given that then, less use need be made of increasingly expensive fossil and nuclear technology.
Oddly, given that it has been around for some decades, some free market enthusiast seem sanguine about providing support for developing nuclear technology, but sometimes argue that we should wait until renewables have developed more before supporting their wide diffusion. Failing that, free market enthusiasts may say that shale gas means that there is a new, rival, cheaper and plentiful option, which can be made lower carbon with Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS).
Many governments, under pressure to cut emission and maintain security of supply, but also to cut costs, would clearly like that, but they are also aware the CCS may not work effectively or economically on a large scale, and that CCS, and certainly Shale gas extraction may not be socially accepted or environmentally sound .
So they hedge their bets – backing nuclear, renewables and CCS more or less equally, while recognising that each of them may be problematic, nuclear, especially so, after Fukushima. But the same is true for renewable – progress is seen as slow at least in some countries – even if, arguably, that is mainly to do with the way some governments have approached providing support.
The three pronged approach (renewables, nuclear, CCS) may be portrayed as more diverse and robust than having just one or two, spreading risk. Or you could see it as diluting efforts- you may end up developing none of them successfully. And it could be argued that, for example, renewables are not just one option, but several, so that, if you want diversity, they represent a better deal, at various scales and levels of development.
There are of course also some cross cutting technologies, moving away from just electricity production, like CHP/co-gen linked to district heating and possibly heat stores. That can be, and mostly is, fired using fossil fuels, but once established, heating networks can be supplied using biomass as a fuel and possibly also large solar arrays- there are some large solar -fed DH projects already in existence in N Europe, some linked to interseasonal heat stores. It is sometimes argued, usually by those on the centre left, that this more collective approach to heating and power production is better technically and economically than the market driven ‘microgen’ domestic scale technologies.
That division of opinion shapes priorities for research and innovation. Should we be focussing on new cheap micro generation devices that can be sold on the conventional market, or on infrastructure issues like heat transmission and storage?
It’s the same in the wider area of overall energy supply and use, although here the ideological fault lines can get a little tangled. For example, advocates of large scale HVDC supergrid links often argue that they can open up wider markets to more competition, while some microgen enthusiasts trade on the idea that consumers can, to a degree, become independent of wider markets and corporate control (as long as they buy the kit!). However, they may both agree on the need for smart meters, although they may not share the same perspective on who will benefit most, economically, from them – producers or consumers.
I’m not saying that all the big energy innovation and deployment issues of the day can be framed in simple ideological terms. Some are based on more general technical concerns and issues. For example, should we be focussing on electricity, as an easy to transmit but hard to store energy vector, or gas/hydrogen/heat, as easier to store, with the potential for negative carbon if biomass use is combined with CCS. But even here there are some possible political divergencies, although also some overlaps.
The ‘heat and pipe’ lobby stresses ideas like biogas production, the use of solar for hydrogen production, and on the utilisation side, district heating, and conversions and storage of excess electricity from wind generation as heat. The electricity lobby is backed by nuclear enthusiasts and by some renewable energy supporters, who see electricity as supplying heat and battery electric transport power. Interestingly though, much of the new nuclear R&D in the USA is aimed at developing new reactors for process heating for industry and maybe for hydrogen synfuel production, for vehicle use. And perhaps even for CHP/district heating. So we may be seeing radically different technologies being developed for maybe similar end uses.
How does my perhaps rather laboured attempt at an ideological account stand up when you look at specific countries/regions and their programmes? The USA has adopted a market driven approach, avoiding carbon caps and targets, while the EU has adopted the EU Emission Trading System, which is bureaucratically defined, but market driven. In addition, many EU countries have introduced Feed-In Tariffs (FiTs).
The FiTs have clearly worked to boost renewable – putting countries like Germany ahead of all others, initially, in the deployment of wind – at lower cost per kW and per kWh than market let mechanisms, like the UK’s Renewable Obligation (RO) quota/certificate trading system. Basically FiTs provided a more secure investment climate, making it easier and cheaper to finance projects, including innovative projects. So much so, that the UK has now introduced its own small FiT system and is planning to replace the RO entirely – although, in a backward looking move, possibly by a form of competitive Feed In Tariff system, with tenders/auctions. Whether that would work remains to be seen, but it certainly needs a new approach since, so far, using a market led approach, it has only developed its huge renewable resource very limited extent.
Free market advocates nevertheless point to the US, where renewable energy deployment has now begun to accelerate rapidly under what amounts to a free market ‘technology push’ approach – with the US taking the lead in wind power from Germany as a result.
However China has now taken the lead from them, in wind power especially. How do you characterise their approach? They use Feed-In Tariffs but also auctions, and they have state targets and central directives, but also commercial enterprises.
Back in the EU, the recession and concerns about passing high cost on to consumers, has led governments to throttle back on the FiTs, with caps and tariff cuts for PV solar. It has been argued, usually by free market advocates, that PV was perhaps not well suited to FiT support since it started out with high costs. The counter argument is that, if the FiT system had been left to work, costs would have fallen- cutting back was a failure of nerve, or worse, a reflection of a preference for nuclear.
And so the debate continues. Maybe the IPCC was right to say in its recent report on renewables that ‘There is no one-size-fits-all policy for encouraging renewables’. But equally, there do seem to be some ideological fault lines."

This didn’t seem to attract any comments. Maybe most of their contributors/ readers are on the other side of the fault line?