Tuesday, 31 May 2011

News Round up - 31st May

After a relaxing weekend by the seaside, away from television and internet, I have returned to find a busy News weekend and here is a round up of the stories catching my attention:

BBC News - Global carbon emissions reach record, says IEA - disappointing, but if the global economy is to grow using the established economic models, it is inevitable. This highlights the enormity of the changes that are required to decouple our economy and prosperity from carbon.

BBC News - Germany: Nuclear power plants to close by 2022 - bold decision, but how will the industrial bedrock of Germany's economy cope with increasing reliance on renewable energy? The country has limited coastline for marine renewables so will be limited to wind energy, or solar in the south.  Will fossil fuel use increase as nuclear is phased out, or will the German grid simply import nuclear base load from France?

BBC News - France expands nuclear power plans despite Fukushima - the French nuclear power station operators see a market for exporting base load to other European countries which do not have the political stomach for nuclear power.

Scotland wants German-style nuclear shutdown, says SNP - The Scotsman - a bandwagon that the SNP are happy to join as part of Scotlands Bold Renewable Targets.

Blow to green energy plans as wind speeds forecast to drop for 40 years - The Scotsman - however, the SNP are more dismissive of this article, indicating that wind energy yield is likely to drop in the coming years as climate changes take effect.  This is coupled with more frequent extreme wind events which cause the turbines to shut down and which will pose risks to our infrastructure.  As a supporter of wind energy, this forecast is of concern and I will be investigating this further.

The road ahead: How will we power our cars in the future? - The Scotsman - There are hybrids, hydrogen fuel cells, battery powered electric vehicles, solar powered vehicles and more efficient internal combustion engines on offer but which will be adopted as the mainstay - well it looks like the good old internal combustion engine will be with us for a while yet.  Unless there is a game-changing breakthrough with the newer technologies they will not compete in terms of being mass produced and providing motorists with the flexibility to which they have become accustomed.

To sum up the story so far, carbon emissions are up and will stay up, the wind will stop blowing and nuclear is on the wane - a recipe for continued growth in fossil fuel use. it has been a good weekend for the oil industry, although they haven't all had it their own way...

Greenpeace raiders board Scottish oil giant's controversial Arctic rig - The Scotsman - as Greenpeace attempt to delay the inevitable drilling for oil off the coast of Greenland.

Away from the energy issue, the Scotsman reported that the Nightingale may sing no more by 2041.  Reasons suggested for its horrific decline over the last decade include loss of habitat due to increased dear numbers but also, possibly, due to factors in its sub-Saharan wintering grounds or along the migration routes.

Could organic farming methods help to maintain its habitat and stem their decline? Possibly, but organic agriculture is in the firing line over hundreds of cases of E-coli, including 14 fatalities.  We should know the source of the contamination within the next few days, but regardless of the conclusion, I would anticipate lasting damage to the reputation of organic produce.

This brings me nicely on to the final story of my collection, that food prices 'will double by 2030', according to Oxfam Climate Change, which we are doing little enough to tackle, as demonstrated by my first link, will be a big part of this increase.  One way to avert such high price rises would be the adoption of much more intense agricultural practices using hybrid (and GMO?) crops to improve yield but the environmental consequences of such a course would be catastrophic.  

Friday, 27 May 2011

2030 Electricity Generation Mix

I read a paper recently which examined the possible UK electricity generation  mix by 2030 and whether it could achieve the required carbon reduction targets.  The aim of the paper was to consider the extreme conditions faced by the electricity grid with different energy mixes.

The target for carbon reduction for the UK is 80% of 1990 levels by 2050.  In order to meet this it is necessary to reduce carbon emissions arising from electricity generation from the current value of 560 gCO2/kWh (CCC, 2008) to 70 gCO2/kWh by 2030.   Two scenarios were modeled to assess whether this could be achieved: one with a high penetration of renewable energy, predominantly wind power, and the other with a high proportion of renewable energy, tidal energy from a Severn Barrage, Carbon Capture and Storage schemes on 80% of coal and gas power stations and an increase of approximately 20% in nuclear generation.

The authors found that only the latter option could achieve the required reduction in carbon emissions and that the former required more fossil fuel back up due to variability of the wind.  This raises a few issues:

Severn Barrage: If built this could generate 8GW, approximately 5% of the UK's electricity requirements, and unlike wind it would be totally predictable: we would know with certainty when it would and would not generate electricity.  With a £33bn price tag, major ecological issues caused by changing the pattern of tidal flows in the Severn Estuary and lack of Government support, it is unlikely to be built.

Carbon Capture and Storage(CCS): There are no full scale CCS schemes in operation, only trial schemes, therefore it is rather ambitious to assume that the majority of power stations will be retrofitted with CCS over the next twenty years at a substantial cost.  Furthermore, depending on the techniques employed to capture the carbon and the storage location and methods, the process can be fairly energy intensive in its own right.

Nuclear Waste Management: Even if all the safety and security concerns regarding construction and operation of new nuclear power stations can be overcome - which will be particularly difficult in the wake of Fukushima, there are still no permanent solutions for dealing with the spent fuel and ancillary radioactive wastes.

The paper does look at extreme demand scenarios so the carbon reductions for the scenario without the Severn Barrage, CSS and new nuclear may perform better on average.  Both scenarios modeled had 25% greater installed capacity than we currently have, to allow for lower efficiency (load factor) of wind energy, and assumes that demand will be the same as current demand.

It is likely that the energy mix that develops over the next twenty years will include some CSS and some increases in wave and tidal energy (although not on the scale of the Severn Barrage), which will result in an outcome somewhere between the two scenarios studied.  If energy storage schemes and demand side management systems can also be developed to smooth out the worst disparities between supply and demand then further emission reductions could be achieved.

My conclusion is that developing more renewable energy sources will not be enough in itself to reduce Britain's carbon emissions in the medium term and that a significant reduction in demand will be required.

The paper is available for a limited time from the publisher, Thomas Telford
Gerber, Awad, Ekanayake & Jenkins,  Operation of the 2030 GB power generation system, Proceedings of the ICE - Energy, Volume 164, Issue 1, January 2011 , pages 25 –37

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Scotland's Bold Renewable Targets

Last week saw a stunning landslide victory for the Scottish National Party in elections to the Scottish Parliament, achieving an overall majority; the first party to do so since inception of the Parliament in 1999.  This removes a key barrier to implementing policies leaving no excuse for failure.

The SNP election manifesto is big on environmental pledges, including promoting green heat, reducing fuel poverty, reducing waste and increasing renewable energy.  In fact, its ambition for renewable energy is one of the boldest I've seen: 100% of renewable electricity by 2020. An extract from the Manifesto is shown below:

So, 100% of electricity from renewable sources within 9 years.  This requires a factor of 4 increase in generation from the current 25-30%, or perhaps more achievable a doubling of electricity generation combined  with a halving of consumption.  Even then it is ambitious, so how can it be achieved?

The extra generation is anticipated to come from off-shore wind - something which is still in its infancy in Scotland and faces significant logistical challenges; and this in the face of the Committee on Climate Change's  recent report calling for restraint on offshore wind.  An important nuance of the policy is that not all electricity consumed in Scotland would be from renewable sources, but rather the average will be 100%, with surplus exported south when the wind blows and shortfalls imported when it doesn't.  This is a bit of a fudge as it does not address the intermittency issue.

You and I come in on the demand side. A 50% reduction in electricity consumption requires significant changes to our lifestyles: switching appliances off instead of on standby will not touch this type of saving (although it is a start).  Most of us will replace the main electrical appliances in our home - fridges, washing machines, etc,  over the next nine years and replacing them with the most energy efficient models can make significant inroads toward this target.  Possibly the biggest saving is if you have electric heating which can be economised through home improvements such as draft proofing and better insulation and the SNP do have plans to improve home insulation to reduce fuel poverty which will help. Once the quick and easy changes have been implemented we are left with the harder lifestyle choices.

A significant challenge in reducing consumption is not encouraging those most concerned with our environmental vandalism, but encouraging everyone else to do their bit. If one in five households half their electricity consumption but the remainder do nothing we have no hope so...

... why don't you switch off the telly and do something more interesting instead ...

                                ...and tell a friend.


Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Don't let the incident at Fukushima put you off Nuclear Power

There have been no fatalities yet as a result of the explosions and resulting radiation leaks at the Fukushima Nuclear Plant, although some of the heroic workers have been injured. Compare this with he death toll from the 11th March 2011 earthquake and tsunami which is sitting at over 14,000, with a further 13,000 still listed as missing; it is likely that the final death toll will exceed 25,000. Even so, this is only a tenth of the number killed in the earthquake and resulting tsunami that struck in the Indian Ocean on the 26th of December 2004. Why then are we so obsessed by the fate of the nuclear plant rather than about all those others who perished from a nasty trick of nature, or all those displaced and struggling to scratch an existence?

On the 25th anniversary of the world’s worst nuclear disaster, in which 56 people died as a direct result of radiation exposure, the anti-nuclear lobby has hit fever pitch. Official estimates by the Chernobyl Forum, a group which includes the International Atomic Energy Authority, the World Heath Organisation, United Nations Environmental Programme amongst others, put the long term death toll which could be linked to the accident at 4,000. Compare this with the 4,749 killed in China's coal mines in 2006 alone. Greenpeace put the estimated death toll at 100,000, which is horrific, but similar in number to coal miners which have been killed over the past quarter century.

And what of the environmental impact? The long term exclusion zone is only 30km around Chernobyl, less than 3,000 square kilometres, within which wildlife has undoubtedly been affected by radiation. Compared this with 28,000 square kilometres and 2,100km of coastline affected by the Exxon Valdez oil spill, some of which is still affected by residual oil some twenty years later, and Deepwater Horizon was much bigger.

So the worst Nuclear disaster the world has seen is no worse in terms of fatalities or environmental damage than more traditional energy sources such as coal and oil and the risk of another Chernobyl or Fukushima are very low: lessons have been learned from Chernobyl and the same design flaws which allowed it to melt down are not present in western reactors or more modern reactors and the Tsunami that hit Fukushima has been estimated as a 1 in a thousand year event.

The carbon dioxide emissions are much lower than for fossil fuels so why doesn't the environmental movement, which relies on rational, evidence based science to support the idea of climate change and the need to act on it, not use the same sound scientific and engineering principles to support new nuclear power stations?

There are two principle environmental reasons: fuel and waste.

Relatively small quantities of Uranium are required to fuel nuclear power stations, however extraction can lead to environmental pollution. Substantial quantities of rock needs to be excavated to extract the useful Uranium and this spoil can contain radioactive material. In Australia and Canada, where much of the world's Uranium is mined, the control of this spoil, and the extraction process in general, is supposed to be to a high standard (ISO14001).

By far the greater problem is that of waste, particularly the high level waste such as spent fuel rods, which contain material with half lives measured in tens of thousands of years to tens of millions of years. Storage for these materials has still not been developed beyond the basic concept of deep geological storage. The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority(NDA) is currently spending around £4billion per year on managing the waste legacy, building ground level repositories and decontaminating sites in what can only be considered a temporary measure. Time scales for completing this exercise range from 70 years to 100 years and will allow some sites to be put to new uses while others will retain waste repositories. The projected cost for this is over £40billion according to the current NDA strategy.

These decommissioning costs are not included in the costings for new nuclear power stations, since the ultimate long term waste storage solution has yet to be developed, and this gives the impression that nuclear power is cheaper than the whole life cost would suggest.

In my opinion, this remains the one major technical or environmental barrier to development of new nuclear power stations to replace those coming off line in the coming decade. If this problem can be solved and the whole process from cradle to grave properly controlled then nuclear power could well provide the cornerstone of a low carbon future. If.

Post Script: A more detailed discussion of the damage done by radiation exposure from nuclear accidents and other sources is presented here: http://www.carboncommentary.com/2011/03/29/1888#more-1888