Thursday, October 5, 2017

Trade Unions and Nuclear power

The UK Trade Unions currently mostly back nuclear power. In 2016, TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady noted that the Hinkley project ‘will be the largest construction project in the UK, creating 25,000 high-quality jobs and 500 apprenticeships’.
 It wasn’t always like this. In 1986, in the wake of Chernobyl, the TUC backed a nuclear ‘moratorium and review’ policy. In the same year, the Labour Party had confirmed its 1985 anti (civil) nuclear power stance, with a two thirds majority for phasing it out. The then quite dominant Transport and General Workers Union said it was ‘clear and unambiguous in its position on nuclear power. We support a halt to nuclear expansion and a safe and planned phase out of nuclear power in this country.’ So what has changed?
 The Labour Party had gone into the 1987 national election with a manifesto talking of ‘gradually diminishing Britain’s dependence upon nuclear energy’, but was unable to unseat the Tories, whose subsequent electricity privatisation and liberalisation programme (continued by Blair) put the unions on the defensive - they sought to protect energy jobs across the board. And Blair then switched to a pro-nuclear policy.
 A sub-text to that may have been the low level of conviction by most of the unions at that time that renewables could provide viable alternative employment. In its 1988 Nuclear Energy Review, the TUC said ‘renewables are not going to make a big contribution to Britain’s energy supplies over the next 20 years’.
 Well it’s taken nearly 30 years, but they are now big (25%) growing, and creating jobs-  with nearly 126,000 people employed in the UK renewable energy industry in 2017 according to the REA:
 However, the unions still seem unsure, and some have taken to recycling dubious statistics and arguments to try to undermine the case for renewables.  At its 2016 annual Congress the GMB Union’s National Secretary, Justin Bowden, noted that ‘over the last 12 months there were 46 days when wind was supplying 10% or less of the installed and connected wind capacity to the grid’ and insisted that ‘until there is a scientific breakthrough on carbon capture or solar storage, then nuclear and gas are the only reliable shows in town which those advocating a renewable energy-only policy have to accept.’
 This doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. For over half of those 46 low-wind days i.e. outside of winter, and for most of the nights, overall energy demand would have been low, so a low wind input would not matter. When it did, existing gas plants would have ramped up a bit more to provide the extra energy needed e.g. as they do any way to meet daily peaks. As more renewable come of the grid, other balancing measures can also be used, so there is not really a problem. But inflexible base-load nuclear plants are no usef or this - they can’t vary output regularly, quickly and safely. They just get in the way of the flexible supply and demand approach that is needed.
The unions are not unaware of the the benefits of renewables and do offer support for them as well as nuclear. In her 2016 article, Frances O’Grady said ‘while nuclear is an important part of meeting our future energy needs, renewable energy projects need more investment too. Cuts to support for solar power in the last few years have led to the loss of half the 35,000 jobs in the sector. We need sustained investment across the renewable energy sector if we are to achieve our ambition of a carbon-free future, and seize the chance to deliver more high-quality jobs’.
 However, that’s a replay of the ‘more of everything’ approach beloved by the TUC, inherited from the days when they sought to avoid conflicts between members in coal, gas, oil and nuclear, the code phrase used being ‘a balanced energy system’.
 There seems to be no awareness of the opportunity cost issue. Given inevitably limited budgets, choices have to be made: e.g. money spent of nuclear can’t be spent on other options, and for most of the last few decades nuclear has got the lions share of what was available for new energy technology. Thankfully that is beginning to change, although for the pro-nuclear unions that is a cause for regret. Indeed, some say that some of the big unions have ended up as corporate stooges, backing nuclear jobs at all costs:
Certainly, with renewables booming and eclipsing nuclear (direct UK nuclear employment is now at around 16,000 and 65,000 in total including indirect jobs), the nuclear unions are on the defensive. And defending options like Hinkely is getting harder by the day. The GMB is also finding it hard to accept the governments plan to let China fund, and maybe build, reactors on the UK:
 While that battle plays out, there are some signs of a more positive approach, notably CaCC’s excellent 1 Million Climate Jobs campaign. The Unions are also broadly supportive of Labour’s new energy policy, with its emphasis on public ownership and democratic control. Indeed, this years Trade Union Congress backed that, with a broad climate and energy policy motion being passed: But that doesn’t specifically mention nuclear. The otherwise excellent policy developed by PCS, the Public and Commercial Services Union (see my next post), also in effect ducks out of the nuclear issue.
The Labour Party leadership, Corbyn at times apart, still seem to be mostly pro-nuclear, as witness the manifesto commitment earlier this year, and the views expressed at this years Party conference by Labour’s Shadow Secretary for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Rebecca Long-Bailey (she backed the Moorside project), along with Nisa Landy and Caroline Flint (nuclear offered lots of jobs). However, Labour is also strongly pro-renewables and the Party is taking an interest is some of the political issues associated with renewables. The Repowering Britain sessions at this years Labour Party Conference were prefigured by this commentary: ‘Our energy system will be radically transformed with the rise of wind, solar, tidal & energy storage. This clean future should be democratically -run and owned by the people, delivering hundreds of thousands of decent jobs for decades into the future. What does this look like? We have all heard about the small-scale energy co-operatives building solar and wind projects. But the future also needs a bigger scale. Who will build and own the mega offshore wind farms and tidal lagoons that will bottom line our electricity supply for the next century? Publicly owned companies are at the forefront of building the offshore wind energy infrastructure of the future - but they’re Danish, Swedish and German. Only 0.07% of our offshore wind is owned by the UK public’.
 At the Conference, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell said that ‘Labour will ensure we become world leaders in decarbonising our economy. With a publicly owned energy supply based on alternative energy sources…Ours will only become an economy for the many, if we significantly broaden ownership. That means supporting entrepreneurs, small businesses, the genuinely self-employed and massively expanding worker control and the co-operative sector.’
 That’s an interesting debate, but it seems pretty clear that nuclear is not a candidate for local ownership, or even UK ownership! So maybe at some point there will be a change in view- given enough grass roots agitation. That’s what happened in the 1980s, with grass roots groups like SERA doing much of the foot work. While, sadly, on nuclear, it may seem that we are back where we were in the 1980s, starting all over again to build opposition, the rapid growth of renewables, and their continuing cost reductions, does change the situation.
For a full account of the twists and turns of Trade Union and Labour Party policy on nuclear power in the 1980s, see the series of OU Technology Policy Group reports I produced: TPG Occasional Papers No. 4 (1981), 14 (1987) and 17 (1988). I can supply copies.

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: