Sunday, December 1, 2013

In Praise of PV Solar

While still backing nuclear (although not the current type!), the Guardian’s George Monbiot had a go at PV: ‘If every square metre of roof and suitable wall in the UK were covered with solar panels, they would produce 9% of the energy currently provided by fossil fuels’.

No one suggests that PV could meet all our energy needs. But UK PV trade lobbyist Solar Portal has suggested that PV on only 1% of total UK land area could meet all the UK’s electricity needs: 

That may be oversimplified, and it does mean building a lot of solar farms, but the general point is clear- PV could supply a lot of electricity. But so could wind, on and offshore. And wave and tidal. Which means that, since we could at times have a lot of surplus green electricity,  some of the PV output could perhaps  also be used supply some heat, thus saving gas.  You could for example run the spare PV electricity into storage heater system or an immersion heater. See for example There are also some interesting PV-thermal hybrid systems emerging which absorb heat as well as light. The technical point is that PV cell efficiency falls of with rising temperatures so it is helpful to cool them. Adding a solar heat absorber does just that, increasing the units overall energy efficiency dramatically. Naked Energy’s ‘Virtu’ hybrid PV/solar thermal panel is claimed  to be able  to supply ~ 3 times as  much energy (as heat and electricity ) as a normal PV panel of the same power rating.

Surplus PV electricity can also be used to charge battery Electric Vehicles. So it would be offsetting petrol use too. It is also possible to used PV electricity make  hydrogen by electrolysis and from there you can produce synfuels for vehicles. So there are technologies that would allow PV to meet heat, power and transport needs. Not all of them, but some.

How much can we expect? Last summer the UK’s then 2.3 GW of PV briefly supplied  about 2% of UK electricity. By 2020 DECC say PV might expand to 10GW or even  20GW in the UK, in which case, on these figures, at times it might supply up to around 23% of UK electricity, although by then demand may have risen slightly, so say just 20%.  For comparison, Germany has 32GW of PV at present, which sometimes supplies nearly 50% of its electricity needs.

Globally there is over 100GW of PV in use, and its adoption in accelerating, as costs fall.  The World Energy Council notes that in one its new scenarios ‘by 2050, globally, almost as much electricity is produced from solar PV as from coal,’ and Shells recent Oceans scenario envisaged solar as being the largest single energy source globally by 2060. Large and small, PV looks good.

That said there are some drawbacks. PV cells don't work at night and light intensity varies a lot during the day and over the year. That means that there will be a need for costly backup and grid balancing if there is a large PV contribution, much more than is needed for wind, which is often strong at night and certainly during the winter when energy demand is high. But PV does match well to some energy loads- daytime offices and their summer air-conditioning especially. And as cost continue to fall, and grid balancing and energy storage systems spread, PV can make a significant contribution.

Interestingly, the Solar Trade Association (STA) claims that the cost of PV will fall below the £92.5/MWh CfD strike price set for the proposed new Hinkley nuclear plant by 2018- 5 years before its expected to start up (in 2023) if it get EC permission.

DECC seem to have backed a looser there. And that is assuming all goes well with getting the finance for Hinkley agreed with the EU and then getting the plant built without delays. It could be a lot later and the price could escalate, as has happened with the EPRs being built in France and Finland.  For the UK, the tragedy is that under the CfD 35 year contracts, consumers will be locked into paying (EDF) for it until 2058, assuming a 2023 startup! The STA may be optimistic in its forecast for PV cost reductions, but by 2023, PV and on-land wind do look like beating the Hinkley CfD price and offshore wind shouldn’t be far behind, followed a bit later by wave and tidal. And by 2058, if it goes ahead, Hinkley is going to look decidedly out of place- with supposedly 25 years more then still to run! Maybe it will go bust and be shut early, and the large site will be converted in to solar farm or wind farm…We could of course do that now and avoid paying £1bn a year to EDF for it!  Amusingly, that's just what UK PV company Lightsource has suggested. It wrote to David Cameron claiming that PV could match the output of Hinkley within two years at comparable cost.

That may be overstating the case, but it does look like PV is going to be big, even in the  cloudy UK. And maybe bigger than nuclear, with, as in Germany, much of the running being made by individuals and groups buying into it. Half a million UK consumers who had enough disposable income have already invested in PV systems- bringing the total to around 2.7 GW so far. It’s cold just now in wintery Britain, but sunny. Good PV weather. And PV can only get better.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Time for Plan B

The UK now gets over 11% of its electricity from renewables (indeed in the last quarter it went up to 15%), including from around 10GW of wind capacity and 2.4 GW of solar PV. And it could continue to expand rapidly. National Grid’s 2013 edition of their ‘future energy scenarios’ has renewables supplying 34% of total energy by 2035 in their ‘Gone green’ scenario, with 60GW of wind, gas
heating almost totally replaced by electric heat pumps and around 17GW of domestic PV installed.   

Wind  is certainly seen as likely to get big. DECC’s new ‘high wind’ scenario has 39GW of offshore wind by 2030, though DECC stresses that it’s scenarios are not targets- markets will decide on the mix!  And DECC now say PV solar might reach 10GW or even 20GW by 2020…

Certainly, a cross-party think tank Policy Connect says that renewables like wind and PV might have to take on even more of a role. It says the government must develop in effect a renewables-focused ‘Plan B’ in case nuclear and Carbon Capture and Storage do not deliver as much as hoped. The report says The Government expects that nuclear power is likely to provide the majority of additional low carbon electricity between 2020 and 2030. However, should costs or deliverability prevent this from happening, more low carbon electricity from renewables or fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage will be needed to meet carbon objectives.’ It claims that should nuclear, fossil fuels with CCS fail to deliver, ‘renewables could provide between 45 and 55% of total [electricity] generation by 2030’. That includes 10% from biomass.

The report calls on ministers to begin work with industry and academia to identify suitable "no and low regrets" investments and develop policies to encourage these options more . As it stands at present, the report warns that a lack of certainty over the policy environment post 2020 will make it harder to mobilise the necessary investment in renewables and that investment opportunities ‘could be missed, delayed or more expensive if there is insufficient confidence about long term demand for key technologies, such as offshore wind.’ It says ‘work by Government to help incentivise these investments would increase the likelihood that technology cost reductions are achieved and help mitigate against high costs if new nuclear or carbon capture and storage development fail or are delayed’.

The report says that the initial extra cost could be more than offset by energy efficiency savings, and, longer term, investing more in renewables would help avoid bill increases driven by fossil fuels.

Well it may now be time to put this plan into action. The long drawn out negotiations with EDF over the proposed new EPR nuclear replant at Hinkley have delivered a very high cost package, including an offer of an extra £10bn in  investment risk reducing loan guarantees and a high level of long term (35 year) revenue support via the Contracts for a Difference system. And some funding from China. For future UK reactors, efforts are being made to get even more backing from foreign sources, including (once again) China (despite even more misgivings about handing over control over the development and management of  key infrastructure to  oversea powers), Japan (for upgraded versions of the Fukushima type of Boiling Water Reactor), and even Russia (for their VVER design, which is said to be vastly safer that than the Chernobyl design).

Inward investment may have its merits, but the UK’s attempt to get private funding for new nuclear from overseas, by offering juicy subsidies to be paid for by UK taxpayers and consumers, is sounding increasingly desperate, with any pretence that this is about competitive markets having been abandoned. Asked in parliament in September whether, prior to entering into negotiations with a single company for a new nuclear plant at Hinkley, DECC had invited tenders or expressions of interest from other companies, as required under Article 8 of EC Directive 2009/72, Energy Minister Michael Fallon said: ‘We do not consider that the potential investment contract for Hinkley Point C falls within the scope of Article 8. The investment contract, if agreed, is designed to be a market-based intervention to provide price stability for nuclear generation during the transition to a low carbon economy’.  The interventionist approach, what some have called ‘administrative pricing’,  though dressed up as all being about free markets, has gone so far that there has even been calls to go it alone completely- and state fund new nuclear projects.

The Engineer, wryly, said that in fact, with mostly state owned EDF, and now China, running the show, that had already happened: ‘we’ve now arrived at a situation where our nuclear sector is nationalised, just not by us.  Perhaps the ultimate irony is that with the emergence of China as a UK nuclear player, we now appear to be destined to entrust large chunks of our future energy infrastructure to an autocratic communist regime’. 
And all this for new very expensive and as yet mostly untried technology. It is true that some ABWRs have been built in Japan and elsewhere, although some have performed very poorly, but there are as yet no Westinghouse AP 1000’s running anywhere and the delays and cost over-runs faced by the French and Finnish EPRs have become increasingly surreal.  In the USA, where, for good or ill, market discipline may have more power, old plants are being closed early, plans for new plants abandoned and  EDF have finally concluded that there is  ‘no room for nuclear to expand in the U.S. at this time’ and it would instead focus there on renewables. Maybe the UK should do the same. And redeploy some of massive effort it has put into trying to push nuclear ahead to an accelerated renewables programme.  After all the UK does have the EU best offshore wind, wave and tidal resources and the (marine) engineering expertise to develop them. Surely that’s far better than importing French, US, Japanese or even Russian nuclear technology?  Or are we now the only country in the western EU where they can be dumped, with UK consumers and taxpayers picking up the ever expanding bill ? Renewables won’t be cheap, at least initially, but I know what I’d rather pay for!

For more, see my new book on Renewables.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The UK energy mess

-->It is no secret that UK energy policy is in a bit of a mess, or to put it more politely, in a state of flux, with regular U-turns, backtracks and delays. The media has focused on the big supply side issues- and the contests between nuclear, wind and shale gas, with the government seeming to back all, but actually favoring some more than others. For example, £10 billion has been offered to EDF to underwrite the risks of building nuclear plants, shale gas will get major tax concessions, while David Cameron was quoted in a the Telegraph (19/8/13) as saying ‘There’s a limited potential for onshore wind. We’ve just changed the rules, we’ve cut the subsidies and we’ve said that any schemes that go ahead have to give more benefit to local communities. So I wouldn’t expect to see a lot more wind power onshore in the UK.’ DECC also seemed to be unmoved by the Climate Change Committee’s warning that the proposed 13% reduction in CfD support for offshore wind over the next five years might be excessive, and that ‘without a commitment to ongoing investment in the 2020s, incentives for supply chain investment and project development are weak, and commercialisation of offshore wind is at risk’.

With several backers having abandoned the nuclear option, shale gas in some disarray and investment in wind uncertain, we still don’t know which way it will go. Similarly there has also been plenty of uncertainty in relation to the policies and programmes on domestic energy use. Take for example the high profile Green Deal domestic energy upgrade commercial loan scheme (so far a damp squib, with few takers), the already watered down Zero Carbon Homes programme for new build (now further diluted, with the Code for Sustainable Housing likely to be abandoned) and the massive £12bn smart meter roll out programme (delayed for a year due to ‘logistic problems’ and to allow for more tests).

That's not to say that improved versions of some of these ideas might not work. For example, DECC seems to have had a bit more success with the Green Deal when it involved local councils; allowing imports into homes from wind farms might help deal with the latter’s surplus generation (e.g. at night); and more advanced interactive smart meters could enable dynamic demand side management, leading to real savings (see this admittedly crude diy game:

However what we seem to have seen is, arguably, ill-thought through big new policies coming unstuck, with usually academics and/or the industry/trade pointing out the problems. For example, few thought it would be possible for all new build homes to be fully zero carbon by 2016 using just in/on-house technology and few saw the rather dumb smart meters that were to be rolled out as benefiting consumers or saving much energy. Even relatively sensible ideas like the Renewable Heat Incentive have had problems- the start up of the full domestic scheme has been continually delayed and now is not expected until next year.

You might see all this as just the inevitable glitches that will occur with any new policies and programmes, but equally the reversals, revisions and delays do seem to indicate deeper problems. Basically, and putting it very simply, DECC is trying to launch green energy schemes with (the RHI aside) minimum direct state funding, passing on costs where it can to developers and/or consumers, whereas in the case of nuclear and shale gas it seems to be willing to offer public funds.  But, horror of horrors, even that may not work!  There is though some good news. Offshore wind is doing well (3.6GW so far) and so is PV solar (over 2.3 GW now installed). But the former is mainly due to the efforts of overseas companies, and the later is despite DECCs attempts to throttle back growth with cuts in the FiT for PV.

It gets worse. In the Draft Deregulation Bill, ostensibly an attempt to cut ‘red tape’, there is a proposal to omit from the Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Act 2006, a duty on the Secretary of State with respect to the promotion of community energy projects and a duty with respect to promoting the use of heat produced from renewable sources. See  Surely community energy projects, for heat and power, are one of the key hopes for the future? And even DECC is now pushing green heat up the agenda- hence the RHI.

If you are dismayed by the situation, and the conflicting messages and policies, you might like to look at my new book on Renewables, now out, which reviews an alternative set of options.  Access at   It may not go down well in some circles.  

The Observers Business leader column (Aug 25th, 2013) said ‘If there is a body of opinion that states that wind farms and energy efficiency can fill the looming energy gap, then it is small and deeply unrepresentative’ while Energy Secretary Ed Davey is reported to have said that it would be ‘unimaginably’ hard to create a zero-carbon Britain without getting electricity from nuclear.   Well, as you will see if you read the new book, I don't agree.  There really are viable, affordable and sustainable alternatives. After all, if Germany can aim to get 80% of its electricity from renewables by 2050, then the UK, which has a far better renewable energy resource base, should be able to do at least as well, and like Germany, phase out nuclear.  Like them, we need to switch over to ‘Plan B’, based on renewables and efficiency.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Green power the politics of hope

Around 60 countries around the world already get over 60% of their power from renewables, mostly hydro, some near 100%: And there are dozens of studies suggesting that it is credible to get 100% of electricity and perhaps all energy by 2050, across the EU and also possibly globally:

Yet another paper has emerged to add to the pile, although this new one, by US academics Mark Delucchi and Mark Jacobson in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 69(4) pp30-40, mainly re-presents results from their earlier studies in summary form, with some extensions. But what it says, bluntly, is that ‘energy systems worldwide can be run entirely on wind, water, and solar power’ – without any nuclear.

These ‘100% renewables by 2050’ assessments certainly give a very positive view of the potential and costs of renewables. Some may be too optimistic. That was what Australian academic Ted Trainer argued last year in a critique of Delucchi and Jacobson’s earlier  ‘100% renewables’ paper in Energy Policy, claiming that they had not dealt with intermittency and costs sufficiently, although these authors came back with a fairly convincing rebuttal. Trainer had argued that renewable energy could supply the world only if the world ‘embraces frugal lifestyles, small and highly self-sufficient local economies, and participatory and co-operative ways in an overall economy that is not driven by growth or market forces’. Delucchi and Jacobson say ‘This vision may or may not be desirable, but it was found in our study not to be necessary in order to power the world economically with wind, water, and solar energy’.

Given that developers, promoters and enthusiasts can overstate their case, Trainer may be right to warn us not oversell what renewables can do. However he may also risk undermining them. Indeed, it is almost as if he does not want renewables to work, so we have to get on with the more important social changes. Certainly some see radical social and lifestyle changes as vital and as part of an urgent political and economic process of change. But most would include renewables as a central part of that transition.

Clearly there is plenty of room for debate, and to an extent, the various contrarians, from their various political viewpoints, make a contribution, even if it is not always a welcome one. There have been strong rebuttals of some contrarian views, but there is a healthy, if at times rather bilious, debate going on, much of it on the internet. Some of it is technical, some of it political.

Perhaps inevitably, there will always be some uncertainty, disagreement, prejudices and odd distortions, even when it comes to what might seem like purely technical issues. For example, those who are confident about the prospects for developing high temperature liquid sodium cooled fast breeders, or molten flouride salt thorium reactors, may sometimes a little oddly baulk at the technical difficulties they see as being associated with what are surely relatively much less complex wind, wave and tidal technology. More generally, it is possible to run energy scenarios with very different outcomes, based on differing assumptions about what is technically and economically credible. There is an element of judgement involved.

Objectivity, while very desirable, is sometimes quite hard to sustain, and indeed may not always be possible, especially when thinking about future systems and developments.
We may still need faith and hope, even in matters of technology.  That links to a current contention in policy circles that care has to be taken to avoid ‘optimism bias’. On balance, I think I would prefer to avoid ‘pessimism bias’.  For example, as REN21 has pointed out, in 2000 the International Energy Agency projected 34 GW of wind power globally by 2010, while the actual level reached was 200 GW. The World Bank in 1996 projected 9 GW of wind power and 0.5 GW of solar PV in China by 2020, while the actual levels reached in 2011, nine years early, were 62 GW of wind power and 3 GW of solar PV. Looking to the future, in 2012 REN21 interviewed 170 energy experts, and found that most industry experts believed that the world could reach at least 30–50% shares of renewables, while some experts advocated 100% or near-100% futures.

As I say in my new book on renewables, which is out next week, I support the latter view and I end it by quoting Bertrand Russell’s dictum that ‘Science may set limits to knowledge, but should not set limits to imagination’.


Trainer, T (2010) ‘Can renewables etc. solve the greenhouse problem? The negative case’, Energy Policy, Volume 38, Issue 8, August , pp4107–4114

Trainer, T (2012) ‘A critique of Jacobson and Delucchi's proposals for a world renewable energy supply’, Energy Policy, Volume 44, May, pp 476–481,

Delucchi, M  and Jacobson, M (2012) Response to ‘A critique of Jacobson and Delucchi’s proposals for a world renewable energy supply’, Energy Policy 44,  pp 482-484,
 For Trainers reaction see

My new book, ‘Renewables; a review of sustainable energy supply options’ is published by the Institute of Physics.
The above draws on its last chapter.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Nuclear madness- and its alternative

 A poll by ICM for the Institution of Mechanical Engineers back in May found that 43% of the public would support a Government subsidy for the construction of new nuclear power plants in the UK –compared with 28% who said they would not. Supporters saw it as a secure supply of electricity (70%); as low carbon (55%); reliable (50%); providing jobs (50%); and as cheaper than other forms of electricity generation (43%). Opponents saw it as dangerous (73%) and as having waste issues (70%). Under 25%  of them cited costs. IMechE felt  this meant even a generous EDF deal would therefore not be a major issue

It is still in negotiation, but, if it does go through, EDF may well get at least as much as on-land wind, and over a much longer contract period. That of course ought to open up the issue of why there is allegedly so much opposition to investing in renewables, all of which are (and will remain) much lower carbon, most of which will cost less long term and none of which produce dangerous long lived wastes.

Nuclear power is expensive and getting more so. Whereas most energy technologies get cheaper as they develop (typically learning curve slopes of 20%) nuclear has demonstrated a negative learning curve- construction cost have gone up not down, doubling in many cases. Moreover, at current use rates, with current plant design, we have maybe 80 years of high-grade ore left, globally, so its price will rise. If we expand the use of nuclear, the fuel reserves will be depleted faster. Nuclear is not carbon free- it needs energy to mine and process the uranium fuel, and as the ore grades decline you need more energy, most of which will continue to come from fossil sources. Although nuclear or renewable sources could provide this energy, the EROEI 'energy return on energy invested’ ratio will continue to fall- it's around 16:1 at present but would fall to 5:1 or lower with low grade ore. To the point when it's not worth doing. New nuclear technology may reduce or delay some of these problems, but at unknown cost and with as yet unknown side effects - and EROEIs. And nuclear waste?  Still with us for millennia, with, for the UK, a £80-90bn clean up bill for the mess for far.  Plus the risk always of a major accident- Fukushima will cost around £250bn. Renewable energy does not have these problems. It’s available now. Some options are already cheaper than nuclear and all are getting cheaper. Winds EROEI is put at 40-80, depending on location, solar PV up to 25. Energy saving can have EROIEs of 50-100. Why bother with nuclear?

That is clearly not what DECC thinks. There is even talk of a 75GW by 2050 nuclear programme, at a time when most of the rest of the EU is exiting from nuclear as fast as it can   That could increase the amount of high level waste we had to deal with by more than ten times, and we still have no idea where any of it can go long term.

Meanwhile, the UK has taken over plutonium from overseas sources, currently stored at Sellafield. It’s nearly 3 tonnes of material that evidently no one (except maybe N Korea and Iran) now wants, but the UK can perhaps use it to make MOX, although no one wants MOX much now (after Fukushima), and so the UK will store it, along with the118 tonnes of UK Pu, at £2bn p.a. cost, in case we can find a use for it, maybe in a breeder reactor. You couldn’t make it up! The new ownership deal will avoid swops/risky movements, but actually some MOX has just been sent to Japan under an earlier contract. It’s not clear if they will need it. commons-vote-office/April_2013/23-4-13/4-DECC-OverseasPlutonium.pdf 

Though of course it may help temporarily avoid another problem- the looming shortage of uranium. Dr. Michael Dittmar, from the CERN nuclear labs in Geneva, has suggested that ‘It will be difficult to avoid supply shortages even under a slow 1%/ year worldwide nuclear energy phase-out scenario up to 2025’ and has therefore called for  a rapid worldwide nuclear energy phase-out.’

It’s hard to make sense of much of this, especially given that the UK has the EU’s best renewables resources, so far hardly tapped.  The UK is near the bottom of the EU league in terms of capacity so far developed, only beating Malta and Luxembourg. Perhaps then getting out of the EU is the only answer! Then, as UKIP and some Tories want, we can pursue nuclear power in splendid isolation and forget about renewables.

There is an alternative, as I outline in a new book, out soon. It notes that renewable sources of energy are increasingly being used around the world, with many countries already getting more than 60% of their power from renewables and some aiming for 80% or more by 2050, with no nuclear. It explains how and why this expansion can and should continue and indeed accelerate. It looks at the basic technological options and at what is happening around the world, so as to convey the sense of excitement that abounds in this new area of technological development.  But it also looks at the problems, including local environmental impacts and the need to deal with the variability of some renewable energy sources. It concludes that, despite the problems, so far, with often very minimal support, renewables have demonstrated that they can develop rapidly and that there is potential for even more rapid expansion around the world. And it argues that renewables, along with energy efficiency, should now be given a chance, and the necessary funding, to show what they can do. We don't need nuclear.  We do have a choice.

Even so, there is no avoiding it: for the moment a sizeable part of the UK public has been won over to supporting nuclear, with opposition down to 20%, according to a recent Ipsos-mori poll. But it found that support for building new nuclear stations has fallen by 8% in the last year to 42%. Although there was no corresponding groundswell of opposition, the undecided or neutral proportion of the population has grown to 38%, up 8% since 2011, the highest measured in a decade of polls. It seems conflicting views/messages have produce uncertainty!  Maybe there is hope yet.

My new e-book ‘Renewables: a review of sustainable energy options’, is being published by the Institute of Physics. Out soon.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Nuclear deaths- not many, honest!

Just after the Fukushima disaster, the BBC’s  ‘Bang Goes the Theory’ popular science programme had a look at nuclear safety and health impacts. Based on presentations from Prof Gerry Thomas from Imperial College, it was suggested that only 122 people were known to have died as a result of the Chernobyl disaster and that none would die due to Fukushima. Amongst others, the Nuclear Consult group of over 50 academics submitted a complaint, alleging that this was a biased, partial account.  The BBC subsequently admitted, on its complaints website, that ‘the figure 122 was presented as definitive whereas certainty is in fact lacking’, But it added, ‘the programme was misleading in that respect, though not to a degree which might have amounted to bias in relation to the arguments about nuclear power’

That is a matter of opinion. A UN backed report in 2006 estimated that among the 600 000 persons receiving significant exposures (liquidators, evacuees, and residents of the most ‘contaminated’ areas), about 4,000 extra fatal cancers might occur and that among the 5 million persons residing in less contaminated areas with lower doses, an additional 5,000 cancer deaths might occur. These estimates were speculative, and later UN studies talked of stress playing a role in observed illnesses. However , it has been accepted that that there had been over 4,000 cases of thyroid cancer in children and adolescents who were exposed at the time of the accident, although in nearly all cases that was treatable.  The debate continued. Independent studies claimed that the total death toll could be in the range of 30,0000-60,000 . See  and

Nuclear Consult persevered with their complaint via the BBC Trust and recently received a further response. This reiterated the view that with regard to Chernobyl, the failure to mention known non-fatal health effects and the decision not to put the “observable” deaths into a wider context meant the audience would not be able to reach a reliable conclusion. This was not consistent with the stated aim of the programme to get to “the truth about the effects of radiation”, and would not have met audience expectations.

But it added ‘whilst the finding of inaccuracy in relation to the programme’s representation of the scale of health impacts from the Chernobyl fallout acknowledged the health impact was greater than the programme reflected, the programme’s broader
contention that in relative terms the impact was not as great as some people have
come to believe appears to have been well-founded.’

 It also found that ‘with regard to the prediction of zero deaths as a result of the Fukushima accident, Prof. Thomas was offering an informed judgement and not stating an established fact, and that she was qualified to do so as an acknowledged expert in the field of radiation and human health. The Committee noted that her conclusion was broadly in line with other informed opinion’. See ‘Sept’ 2012 on the BBC Trusts web site:
Does that includes the very cautious Stanford University study which concluded there would be between 15 and 1100 radiation related cancer deaths due to Fukushima, with their best estimate being 130 deaths, plus 24 to 1800 non-lethal cancers, with 180 being their best estimate? It noted that 600 people had died as a result of the evacuation. Given uncertainties about the location/exposure of evacuees and also the unreliability of the radiation impact model used for low doses, it said upper bound mortalities and morbidities could be increased to 1300 and 2500, respectively. 
Some more recent estimates put the possible death toll higher: see Nuclear Monitor 758
However,  it will take time before any impacts show- it can take decades for cancers to present. This hasn’t stopped the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) from issuing preliminary findings last December, in which it  said that that so far no radiation health effects had been observed in Japan among the public, workers or children in the area of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant: it claimed that the doses of radiation received were low and no discernible health effect could be expected. It admitted that there were impact 
uncertainties at low doses, but did not recommend multiplying low doses by large numbers of individuals to estimate numbers of radiation-induced health effects. Six workers received total doses of over 250 mSv during their time tackling the emergency, while 170 received doses over 100 mSv, but none of these have shown ill effects so far. Amongst the general public, it says the largest dose thought to have been received by a Japanese child is 35 mSv.  Background level is around 2mSv, but the critics of the ‘low does is no problem’ view say that’s for external exposure: internally absorbed radioactive material is likely to have a much larger, longer term, impact. Time will tell.
In a subsequent report, the World Health Organisation repeated the ‘low risk’ claim. It calculated that in the worst hit areas there could be an increase in solid cancer risk of 4% for females exposed as infants. In Japan, 29.04% of females develop solid cancer by the age of 89, so an increase in that risk of 4% would raise it to 30.20% among females in the most exposed population, with breast cancer risk rising 6% in females, raising the risk for the exposed group from 5.53% to 5.86% by the age of 89., while the risk of leukemia in males might rise  by around 7% in males exposed as infants, raising the risk for the exposed group from 0.6% to 0.64% by age 89. The risk of developing (treatable) thyroid  cancer was estimated to have risen by 70% in females exposed as infants but with "little risk apparent after the age of 20." The overall thyroid risk estimate was raised from 0.75% to 1.27% by age 89. Given these figures, it concluded that  no observable increases in cancer rates above baseline rates are anticipated’.

We will have to wait a few decades to find out if they are right.. UNSCEAR is to do further studies, including, in 2014, a review of the epidemiology of low-dose radiation risks and WHO did recommend long term monitoring. Like UNSCEAR, WHO's used  the linear ‘no-low threshold’ method of gauging health effects, which on one hand, the industry sees as overestimating impacts from low doses and on the other some scientist feel underestimates the impact, for example of ingestion of  radioactive material, even at radiation levels below (external) background. So there are unresolved scientific disputes, and despite the continued assurances from UNSCEAR and WHO  that all is well, we still don’t know for certain yet, but sadly ‘zero’ deaths seems optimistic.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Austerity and energy

If you want a pretty terrifying read see "Perfect Storm: Energy, Finance and the End of Growth"  from Tim Morgan of  Tullet Prebon Research, a London  finance outfit. It sees the debt crisis being made even worse by an upcoming energy crisis, due to the declining ‘energy return on energy invested’ (EROEI) of conventional fossil and nuclear fuels, and the implications of this for economic growth. The global EROEI is he says now down  from about 40 in 1990 to 17 in 2010, may decline to just 11 by 2020.. He talks of the need for ‘social, political and cultural adaptation to “life after growth”.’And this from, in effect, a Banker...
However, he doesn't pay much attention to renewables, other than saying CSP is worth looking at. His data shows that biofuels and shale gas are all hopeless in EROEI terms, as is PV solar, well below his EROEI cut off point for profitability of 15, and wind is not much better- he puts it a just under 15.
There are higher estimates. For example, Gagnon’s study 'Civilisation and energy payback' in Energy Policy 36 (2008) 3317-3322 and Danny Harveys excellent work on EROEIs.  Gagnon quotes EROEIs  for wind power, with 35% load  factors, of ~18 for Offshore and 34 for Onshore. Harvey’s 2010 book ‘Carbon Free Energy Supply’ ( Earthscan) , using more recent data, puts the EROEI for wind at 40-80, and it’s likely they will improve on that with new technology.
It’s worth noting however that hydro does much better, with EROEIs of 200 or more, due to the long life of the plant. Nothing else can compare. Harvey puts CSP at 8-40. But PV is now getting better (Harvey puts it at 10-25) with new less energy intensive cell technology, and wave and tidal stream power may follow the path of wind to lower EROEIs, while nuclear will get even worse, as lower grade fuel has to be processed. Gagnon puts current PWRs at 14-16, while Harvey quotes 17-19 for the current world average uranium ore grade of 0.2 - 0.3%, but for an ore grade of 0.01%, it drops to 5.6 for underground mining and to 3.2% for open pit mining, and could be as low as 2 for in situ leaching techniques. So nuclear could become even worse than coal which Harvey quotes as 5-6.7 and even gas plants, at 2.2. Renewables can do much better than that, not least since they don’t need fuel. They offer power sources for a new and sustainable economic and energy system. If we are to return to some sort of growth, that may be where it will be. So maybe our banker friend, and the rest of us, can breath easier.
Tim Morgan is not the first  to warn of industrial and economic collapse due to falling EROEIs. See  for example 'Energy and the Wealth of Nations’, Charles A. S. Hall and Kent A. Klitgaard, Springer, 2011. And of course Barry Commoner said it all in the 1970s, though he put it in terms of capitalism running out of capital faced with the increasing cost of energy technology.  Proponents of simpler conserver lifestyles, like Ted Trainer, who don’t see renewables being able to support anything like current ‘Western’ living standard, also say similar things. And it certainly wouldn’t hurt (much) to adopt a more sustainable approach to consumption, as Tim Jackson has argued in his seminal  ‘Prosperity without Growth’.
Some say this will be forced on us. For example in his 2007 World Energy and Population (WEAP) blog report, Paul Chefurcha said that oil would peak round about now, while gas, and then coal, would peak around 2025. Shale gas and oil may extend that a little, but, more interestingly, he also claims that nuclear won’t get off and running and although renewables will, their growth will stall and collapse around 2090 or so, since there wont be enough fossil/ nuclear energy or the high level of technology and manufacturing capacity needed to sustain expansion. The result is further societal and population collapse.
This particular doom scenario seems unlikely, or, rather, unnecessary.  If we invest our remaining fossil (and fissile) fuel in building up renewables capacity, we will create a base for further renewables growth, up to maybe a sustainable steady state, which will then only need small energy inputs for upgrades and replacement. However it could also provide a surplus, to allow for more growth, if that’s what we want/need, up to the final planetary limit of renewable energy availability, which is some way off, even given land use constraints. There is an awful lot of desert for CSP/CPV and sea for offshore wind, wave and tidal.  The only (!) uncertainty is- will we invest fossil energy in this, or just burn it off, for no long-term benefit.  Chefulka is not confident.  He thinks we are doomed by our willful short termism and greed for more. Certainly, as the WEAP study makes clear, and  as the Optimum Population Trust also always says, what would help, is less economic growth  expectations, or at least less people!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Maggie's energy failures

The media have been running various versions of the history of Margaret Thatcher’s rule, but few have focused on her impact on energy policy, apart that is from the obvious issue of the Miners strike- which was predicated by her decision to, in effect, close down the UK coal industry.  A brutal, divisive episode. The government won by using brute state power, aided by Thatcher’s commitment to nuclear  power, which, as the leaked Cabinet  minutes at the time revealed, was seen as having ‘the advantage of removing a substantial portion of electricity production from the dangers of disruption by industrial action by coal miners or transport workers’. 

Some mention has been made of the impact of the initial privatisation and subsequent liberalisation programmes on the electricity industry, and occasionally it’s noted that many of our current woes can be traced back to that- the attempt to create competition has lead to a new set of powerful players, mostly non-UK owned, operating in a deregulated market.  Presumably French domination was not what she had in mind.

Thatcher’s privatisation programme in fact presented her with problems back then. It collided head on with her nuclear commitment - she wanted to expand nuclear power dramatically (with 10 new plants proposed), but the city bankers made it clear that she couldn’t sell off the various chunks of the old nationalised CEGB if they contained nuclear plants. Much less get backing for new ones.  And she certainly didn’t want the state to pay for a big expansion. So the old plants were initially withdrawn from sale, and the expansion programme cut back to just one plant, Sizewell B. That was eventually sold off  (very cheaply) along with some of the old plants (even cheaper) to form part of a new private company British Energy. (It later went bust and had to be bailed out). So labeling her as ‘the plutonium blond’ (as she was sometimes called at the time) was not only rude/sexist, but also perhaps in the end less than accurate- she failed to secure much of a future for nuclear.  Put simply privatisation and market forces killed off nuclear- at least for a while. Not what she initially had in mind.  With British Energy later being taken over by EDF!
Some of her other policies also suffered from being hijacked by her enemies   In a speech to the Royal Society in Sept 1998, she referred to  ‘the increase in the greenhouse gases—carbon dioxide, methane, and chlorofluorocarbons—which has led some to fear that we are creating a global heat trap which could lead to climatic instability.’ She went on  ‘We are told that a warming effect of 1°C per decade would greatly exceed the capacity of our natural habitat to cope. Such warming could cause accelerated melting of glacial ice and a consequent increase in the sea level of several feet over the next century.’
Looking at programmes that had dealt with earlier environmental problems, like the London Smogs, she concluded in almost eco-modernist terms, ‘even though this kind of action may cost a lot, I believe it to be money well and necessarily spent because the health of the economy and the health of our environment are totally dependent upon each other.’
However she subsequently seemed to shift her views, as the climate issue was taken up by progressive groups. In her 2002 book Statecraft, we read  ‘The doomsters’ favourite subject today is climate change. This has a number of attractions for them. First, the science is extremely obscure so they cannot easily be proved wrong. Second, we all have ideas about the weather: traditionally, the English on first acquaintance talk of little else. Third, since clearly no plan to alter climate could be considered on anything but a global scale, it provides a marvellous excuse for worldwide, supra-national socialism. All this suggests a degree of calculation. Yet perhaps that is to miss half the point. Rather, as it was said of Hamlet that there was method in his madness, so one feels that in the case of some of the gloomier alarmists there is a large amount of madness in their method’. 
So looking back, although she did beat the miners, you could say many of her other energy policies led to outcomes she didn’t really want. And even on coal, we are now importing it from Russia and Columbia!
To that extent, David Cameron seems to following in her footsteps, trying for a massive nuclear expansion, but faced with increasing problems, with (mostly) state owned EDF seeking subsidies and market support guarantees before it will build (and profit from) nuclear plants in the UK, and a chaotic energy market dominated  by a range of overseas players. Gas is being imported at £10 bn a year from Qatar and escalating energy prices are being imposed on beleaguered consumers, many of them paying for power from French and German owned plants.
Cameron’s attempt to go green has also mostly come unstuck. Following Maggie, he has backed short-termists competitive market approaches.  So we are moving from one hopeless competitive market support scheme, the ROC trading system, to another, a new competitive contracts system for new low carbon projects, which could halt all but the most commercially viable renewables projects, and also, perversely, make life hard for new nuclear, since its CfD subsidy can’t be too much more than renewables.  So to raise the £50-100bn needed, EDF and the others (Japanese and maybe Chinese companies)  may have to be offered other subsidies and market guarantees. Cameron is also trying to kick life into the EU moribund Emission Trading System by setting up a unilateral carbon market floor price, backed ultimately by UK taxpayer and bill payers. At the point when the EU ETS carbon price has just fallen to an all time low of below  €2.6/tonne Carbon, this guarantees that carbon credits will be worth £16/tonne C!
Tragically, Cameron and the UK are not alone.  Japan does not seem to have learnt the lesson from Thatcher’s liberalisation attempts. Its new Liberal government is trying to do the same thing, in the hope that the market power of the big energy utilities can be tamed. As in the UK, the result could be that Japan too will go from bad to worse. Big profits for some, increasing prices for the rest and a failure to tackle the increasingly urgent issues of energy security and climate change.  
Thatcher didn’t invent free market economics, but part of her legacy is that it is now almost impossible to think about going beyond reformist attempts to deal with what are politely called ‘market failures’. Anything more structural is seen as Stalinism! So at best we get more regulation, at worst just endless technocratic adjustments to market systems, to the point where the Washington Post was moved to say that we should stop micro-market meddling and instead should be ‘putting a price on carbon emissions that is simple, predictable, aggressive and comprehensive, and then getting out of the way’.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Shale gas battles - and local power

Shale gas is the way forward, the boom it will create can fund the shift to renewables and it will provide the power for CCGTs to back up variable wind. That’s one view (maybe DECCs), although there are more extreme variants (maybe the Treasury’s)- it will avoid the need to bother with renewables, if linked to CCS.  A rival to both these views (from fundamentalists greens) is that as a fossil fuel, with environmental and safety issues surrounding fracking, it had no place in a green energy mix. We should be cutting all fossil fuel use-via renewables and energy efficiency. A new dash for gas will just delay that. A pragmatic green variant on that is the vjew that, if we need gas to backup wind, then what’s wrong with AD biogas?

However, really it’s more complex than any of these views suggest  (the academic view!)   It is not clear how much shale gas there is, or how much it will cost, or whether we will need a lot of backup for wind beyond what exist, given a bit of replacement of old plants. After all there is storage, smart grid DSM, imports via interconnectors. If we ignore or limit all these, then yes we may need more CCGT and more gas  at some point, but not for a while- after 2030 maybe. We would also need more CCGT if we opted for wind –to-gas, i,e. hydrogen production from excess wind, but again not maybe until after 2030.
Then again all this sits in a wider frame of the debate over electricity v gas.   DECC seems to want is to phase out most of the use of gas for heating, replacing it with (excess) electricity from wind and nuclear, powering heat pumps.  You can see why the gas lobby may want to  fight back and call for more electricity from gas.  Some greens would also  like to see ‘green gas’ being the main distribution vector, not electricity - since it can be stored, and the gas main already transmits four times more  energy than the power grid, with lower loses.   They would also like to see heat being piped around from biomass fired CHP plants
Ah, but then we come to the reality check (the pessimists view). There may not be enough green gas around to do much of this, given land use and cost constraints, and renewables may not expand enough to matter much. Nuclear neither.  So, as old coal and gas and nuclear plants close, we will need some new gas plants and shale gas to run them. 
More positively (the optimists view) all these problems could be resolved if we just accelerated renewables, CHP/DH and energy efficiency. Wind, wave and tidal can provide most of the power. Biomass, geothermal and solar fired CHP/DH, with backup heat stores, can help balance variable wind and replace gas for heating. Efficiency and smart grids can tame (and retime) demand. And to top up we have wind to gas and supergrid imports. The only issue then is can we move fast enough. But that still leave open the question of  how many CCGT we would need!. Maybe not a lot. Unless you want them for insurance-, and to leave shale gas where it is, as a strategic reserve!
You could argue that if Carbon Capture and Storage  was ready then maybe we could think about more gas and even shale gas, but it does not look very likely for some while. The UK first attempt at finding a competitor for its £1bn CCS prize failed miserably. It ‘s now having a second go.  European plans for  CCS have also been much delayed and, if they do finally get going on a significant scale, will require a network of 22,000 kilometres of CO2-pipelines to be built across Europe, to transport 1200 million tons of CO2 per year by 2050, at a cost of €50 billion. This is conclusion of an international consortium of companies and research institutions, CO2Europipe,
Nevertheless it if often claimed that that without CCS, fighting climate change will be much harder . James Smith, chair of the Carbon Trust and former chair of Shell UK, wrote in the Guardian (17th Dec) that, around the world,  ‘like it or not, relatively cheap coal and gas will be the major fuels for the next few decades in generating electricity. Unless CCS is used to stop the resultant carbon dioxide getting into the atmosphere, man-made climate change cannot be contained’.
However, Brad Page from the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute  says that it’s unlikely there will be 130 in CCS projects in operation globally by 2020, the number his organisation. But there might be some: ‘ I think you’ll see by 2015 16 plants’ and ‘ we’re probably on track for 20 by 2020’.
According to Vaclav Smil ‘To sequester just 25% of carbon dioxide emitted in 2005 by large stationary sources of the gas (9.6 G cu m at the supercritical density of 0.468 g cu cm), we would have to create a system whose annual throughput (by volume) would be slightly more than twice that of the world's crude-oil industry, an undertaking that would take many decades to accomplish.’ (Nature 453, 154 8 May 2008)
Should we really bother? Why not get stuck into the renewables and energy efficiency?
It is true that, despite having the best wind, wave and tidal resources by far in the EU, we are lamentably behind in developing them. While the leaders are at 30 and 40%  (of total energy coming from renewables) we are at about 4%, only just beating Malta and Luxembourg.  See
It’s embarrassing and shameful. But if the government doesn’t want to, then maybe we had better do it ourselves. That is what is helping push to government on in Germany; they are now 600 local energy co-ops there. We could do the same. Last year’s report ‘Co-operative Energy in the UK’ written by Rebecca Willis and Jenny Willis provides some inspiring UK case studies,
And 'Community Energy in the UK' by Seyfang, Park and Smith (2012)

Also The Rough Guide to Community Energy