Friday, September 1, 2017

Community Energy: aspirations and limits

Generating and using energy locally makes a lot of sense. It avoids transmission loses and can enable direct ownership and control by local users and/or community groups.  The UK  Coalition Government’s Community Energy Strategy in 2014, as updated in 2015, aimed to aid the growth of community energy, with, in 2016, the Urban Community Energy Fund offering £200,000 in grants and £1m in loans, while community energy groups were offered a tax advantaged under Social Investment Tax Relief. However, take up has been hit by wider policy changes, and registrations in 2016 fell to just 10.
That doesn’t mean there’s any lack of grass root activity. ‘Thousands of community groups across the UK are developing practical, positive examples of the zero carbon transition, ranging from waste food caf├ęs to community energy schemes. While many of these community-scale projects are small, they empower and connect people, help expand the political choices available, give people a sense of agency and help normalise sustainable behaviours. The role of intermediary organisations that connect and support grassroots projects is very important in helping to scale up and replicate ideas’. So says the Centre for Alternative Technology in it latest update on achieving ‘Zero Carbon Britain’.
It puts a lot of stress of behavioural change. That is clearly important, but it has to eventually add up to significant material change. A conference on energy change options in Milton Keynes in February heard about some of the excellent local initiatives backed by Community Energy England, but they reported that the total capacity installed so far was only 188MW. Small compared to what is needed but a start. And maybe size doesn’t always matter: at this stage it’s more about community engagement, which can lay the basis for more things later. At least 30,000 people have invested in local projects so far, via 222 community energy groups across the UK- 186 of them being Community Benefit schemes- a form of co-op. Over 100 projects used PV solar.
The situation is better though in Scotland, where the devolved governments 2020 target of 500MW of local projects has already been met. And it’s all very different in Germany where prosumers and energy co-ops are near to dominating the 100GW green energy market. But that may change as FiT support is cut. Though the cultural changes won’t go away: so maybe building on that is part of the way ahead.
Certainly the potential for local generation is large. A report produced last year by CE Delft for green NGOs says that 19% of EU electricity could be produced, with the right investment, by 2030, by ‘energy citizens’, rising to 45% by 2050. Many more households, organisations and small enterprises could produce their own energy, supply demand-side flexibility or store energy in times of oversupply. It says this isn’t limited to individuals, but can include farmers, community groups, small business, and co-operatives. CE Delft Report and Excel files: 
Clearly, community energy is well developed in parts of the EU, with 34% of renewable supply in Germany coming from community schemes, and in Denmark 70-80% of wind turbines were community owned in 2013- though that’s been falling due to support cuts and buy outs. It was much harder in the UK, given even lower financial support levels, but, in a UK-relaying of the Delf report, it was noted that in all , including Scotland,  there were 5000 UK community energy groups, and that community schemes create 12-13 times the community value than privately owned schemes. So they were important to back. It suggested the UK could get 44% of its electricity from them by 2050. A big stretch from now, but a good target! Source: The UK Blue and Green coverage of the FoE/Greenpeace/EREF/RESCoop backed study:
Community projects also make sense elsewhere in the world, in developing countries in particular. Foreign aid programmes can help, as with the UN backed Scaling Up Renewable Energy Project, if properly administered. Though the Telegraph doesn’t like this sort of thing!
Ethiopia, one of the poorest nations in the world, has been one of the recipients of climate related aid which has included support for a wind project. And, although not all of this will be community based (there are some large hydro projects), interestingly, Ethiopia has now usurped Egypt and South Africa as Africa’s largest source of renewables capacity, with total renewable energy capacity in the country jumping from 2,307MW in 2015 to 4,188 MW in 2016, more than 10% of the continents total generation capacity of 38GW. Edies noted that is it is ‘now gearing up to become the wind power capital of Africa, with its second Growth and Transformation Plan, a five-year strategy to reduce poverty and spur national development – pursuing an increase of wind energy output from 324MW in 2015 to more than 17GW by 2020’
The risk with development programmes is that they will involve ‘top down’ mega schemes, requiring large external funding sources, and leading to major local impacts but little local participation or benefit.  By contrasts, smaller scale low impact renewable projects, for example using solar or wind energy, can be locally owned and controlled are are much less likely to be opposed. Indeed, they are likely to welcomed and promoted locally, hopefully then providing bases for local enterprises and local economic and employment gains. That fits in well with the UN’s Sustainable Energy for All programme, which aims to increase access to energy, renewables especially, at the local level, in Africa and elsewhere.
Localisation, whether led via communities or local municipal authorities, can certainly work. That is a lesson learnt from the EU experience with local ownership and local council   energy projects, in Germany especially, and is also now being demonstrated in the USA, with local energy co-op and municipal projects catching on- and, as in Germany, challenging the utilities: And also see:
Back in the UK, there are some good local community projects and networks, and some support from the government and OFGEM: And also, crucially, from local councils: But there is still a way to go to rival Germany and Denmark!

*The European Federation of Renewable Energy Cooperatives represents 1,240 initiatives and 650, 000 citizens. Its members have jointly invested €2 bn in 1GW of renewable energy projects, with a combined annual turnover of up to € 950m:

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Nuclear power- time to give up?

There is talk again of expanding nuclear power globally, with the World Nuclear Association looking to an extra 1000 GW of capacity globally by 2050. This is nothing new. In the past there have been plans for global programmes of nuclear roll out, as in the 1950s Atoms for Peace initiative backed by the USA. More recently, in the 2000s, President George W. Bush promoted a Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) under which the US (and maybe others) would help to service civil nuclear developments globally, including possibly with fuel supply and waste processing.
In one variant of this approach, the US or other vendors might install reactors, possibly Small Modular Reactors, in developing countries, to be run on a franchise basis, the reactor modules being leased, and the fuel /waste being controlled, by the vendor. For example, the US might repatriate the spent fuel capsules and reprocess the spent fuel to extract plutonium for use it is own reactors. Certainly at one time there was talk of SMRs being rolled out across the developing world, with micro projects being seen as well suited to countries without well developed grids. Echoing the rhetoric of the Atoms for Peace initiative, at one point US Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman claimed that ‘GNEP brings the promise of virtually limitless energy to emerging economies around the globe’:
 However, given the changed security climate after the 9/11 terrorists attacks on the USA, and increased concerns about the risks of proliferation of nuclear weapons material, GNEP seems subsequently to have been sidelined. The GNEP programme did not prosper under President Obama. Instead there has been an expansion of more conventional commercial approaches. For example, France, Russia, Japan, China and South Korea are seeking to export their nuclear technology around the world.
 There is certainly no shortage of promotion of nuclear expansion, with some exponents clearly still projecting confident views based on allegedly new technologies like SMRs. In direct opposition, renewable energy lobbyist argue that nuclear is a distraction which cannot help much to limit climate change, whereas, despite claims to the contrary, renewables can:
 With renewables now supplying around 25% of global electricity and expanding fast, with costs falling rapidly, while nuclear seems stuck at 11%, with costs rising, their case is strong. Nuclear power has certainly not lived up to the perhaps unrealistic expectations raised in the early days, with for example, US Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Lewis Strauss, in a 1954 address to science writers, claiming that ‘it is not too much to expect that our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter’:  He was not specific about whether that was via fission of fusion, but it is clear that, either way, he has been proven wrong.
 In terms of technology, the substantial and long running efforts of many highly qualified and motivated people notwithstanding, while there have been some notable successes and reactor systems which have gone on to provide many years of relatively reliable service, there have also been some major disasters with commercial projects and repeated technological failures as new ideas were explored. One result has been a loss of faith in nuclear technology amongst increasing numbers of people. As might be expected, that includes most environmentalists.
 Their objections often go beyond just concerns about environmental impacts and safety, important though they are: the basic technological trajectory is seen as flawed, with nuclear power being viewed as an unreliable way to respond to climate change. The environmentalist criticism also extends to the more specific technological development issues covered in this text. For example, leading UK environmentalist, Jonathon Porritt, has commented that ‘the consistent history of innovation in the nuclear industry is one of periodic spasms of enthusiasm for putative breakthrough technologies, leading to the commitment of untold billions of investment dollars, followed by a slow, unfolding story of disappointment caused by intractable design and cost issues. Purely from an innovation perspective, it’s hard to imagine a sorrier, costlier and more self-indulgent story of serial failure.’
 That may be put a little aggressively, but a widely shared view is that the nuclear lobby is forever offering ‘jam tomorrow, but never today’, as the late Lord (Walter) Marshall, one- time head of the UK Atomic Energy Authority, once wryly admitted in the context of hoped-for cost reductions, adding: ‘The British Public have never had the cheap electricity that we have always promised from nuclear power’:  That seems to have been a general pattern: the next reactor system will be better, cheaper, safer! After 70 years or so of development, regular assertions like that begin to ring a little hollow.  It remains to be seen whether the next iteration will do any better. On past performance, it is hard to be optimistic.
 Some countries will continue to press ahead with, and rely on, nuclear power, as a minority (30 countries out of the 196 global total) do at present, but it is likely that most will not want to go down this route and more that have already done so will back off.  Some would see that as tragedy, given the huge effort that has been put into nuclear power development over the years.  It would certainly be painful to admit failure. But there would be some useful spin off, both technologically (there is some expertise overlap with other energy options) and policy-wise. For example, the long tortuous history of nuclear power may provide a useful warning for those of us that hope and believe that renewables can do much better. Technological innovation is not easy and we can expect similar up and downs, though hopefully with fewer major disasters and more technical and economic success. There is a way to go, but, along with energy saving, that does seem likely to be a more productive route forward.
The above is extracted from the new book ‘Nuclear Power: past, present and future’, which looks at the early days of nuclear power and how some of the ideas that emerged then are being re-explored as Generation IV:  It may open up what could be a useful debate on how to ‘de-nuclearise’ e.g. how can existing nuclear workforces be transferred, perhaps with retraining, to find productive roles in the new energy system.  It shouldn’t be hard finding them jobs: for example, renewables now employ over 7 times more people in the USA in electric power generation than nuclear and they are growing there, as elsewhere. The US solar workforce increased by 25% in 2016, while wind employment increased by 32%.
For a very different view see ‘Making Sense of Nuclear’. This new report recycles the familiar pro-nuclear case under the guise of looking at ‘what’s new’. Not much actually- its the same old story.  
It hasn’t been as bad as you think, and anyway new nuclear will be cheaper and safer:

On its backer, ‘Sense about science’, see this: