Saturday, April 1, 2017

The end is near

Some say that, almost whatever we do technically, we are all doomed to damage the planet so much that civilisation will collapse. Tinkering will not help.  A recent NASA funded study by the US National Science Foundation-supported National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, said that technical fixes lead to continued resource consumption: ‘Technological change can raise the efficiency of resource use, but it also tends to raise both per capita resource consumption and the scale of resource extraction, so that, absent policy effects, the increases in consumption often compensate for the increased efficiency of resource use.’
This is a version of the so-called Jevons paradox: increased resource-use conversion efficiency cuts the cost of consumption which therefore can continue to expand, so that resources are exhausted.

Is that really the case?  Renewable energy sources can supply energy for ever, or at least as long as the sun lasts- they are never used up. However, building the energy conversion technology does need energy and resources.  Some of the specialist materials used in some of these plants may be scarce, although some can be recycled from earlier projects or substitutes found. More significantly, the energy needed will initially have to come from conventional sources. Some say that there won’t be enough fossil energy to build the replacement system, and that might be the case if we continue to use most of it for other things. So we might insist that in future most fossil energy is earmarked just for the renewable expansion programme. However, gradually, and as fossil availability and/or use declines, renewables can provide most of the energy for the next phase of renewable expansion, until a stable state is reached, with renewables supplying all energy and only marginal maintenance and replacement work  then being needed. Some might add nuclear fission to the mix as an interim option, but the increased amount of energy needed to sustain nuclear as fissile fuel reserves dwindle may make it a poor choice for this role, quite apart from the risks. New breeder technology might stretch the fissile reserves and fusion could open up another possible future, but for the moment at least that is very speculative. Renewables are only sustainable options we have at present.

Whatever the mix, how quickly we can reach the point at which renewables can bootstrap expansion will depend on how rapidly we want to make the change over, and on what we do about energy use and wider economic growth.  If we are aiming at a steady state, low or zero growth future, then the resource and energy problems become more tractable. But that may take time. Depending on which renewables are adopted, there may also be other impacts- for example on land use and water resources. They may limit what can be done, for example in terms of using biomass. But in theory a transition could be made, although it will require careful management and also, arguably, some major social changes. 

Here is where the NASA-backed analysis gets quite radical. It suggests that since we can no longer feed endless growth, in that context, the inequitable use of resources by minorities and elites will be increasingly provocative. Indeed, in almost Marxian terms, the study suggested that, ‘accumulated surplus is not evenly distributed throughout society, but rather has been controlled by an elite. The mass of the population, while producing the wealth, is only allocated a small portion of it by elites, usually at or just above subsistence levels.’ Moreover, unless that is challenged ‘the Elites eventually consume too much, resulting in a famine among Commoners that eventually causes the collapse of society’. That is on top of whatever direct damage in being done the planet. However, while not indicting exactly who might make this change, it concludes ‘collapse can be avoided and population can reach equilibrium if the per capita rate of depletion of nature is reduced to a sustainable level, and if resources are distributed in a reasonably equitable fashion’. 

It recognises that this will be hard: ‘While some members of society might raise the alarm that the system is moving towards an impending collapse and therefore advocate structural changes to society in order to avoid it, Elites and their supporters, who opposed making these changes, could point to the long sustainable trajectory 'so far' in support of doing nothing.’ Does that sound familiar?

There are other views, some of which, rather optimistically look to new technology changing the growth-consumption link, empowering those previously mostly excluded from economic progress and heralding a post-capitalism transition:   And also

While some of this analysis may be overdone (new technology can also be used by the elites to buttress their control), it is clear that changes are underway, including in the energy economy, with self-generation by ‘prosumers’ and grass roots energy co-ops challenging the market power of some of the conventional corporate energy suppliers and that is part of a wider rethink about the future.   

Seventeen years into the century, millennialism, powered by serious concern about the future, continuing global economic uncertainties and heightened climate change worries, seems to have finally arrived, some of this prefigured in Jeremy Leggett’s 2014 book ‘The Energy of Nations’.  He saw some big global economic risks ahead, most of them being likely to interact and lead to another major global financial crash, but this one worse, as the world markets get hit by energy price shocks due to peak oil, a collapse of the shale gas boom, a collapse of carbon asset values as climate change hits, plus wider economic problems due to climate impacts. But he said mobilizing renewables and redeploying energy funding could soften the crash and set us on a road to renaissance. Some say peak oil has been delayed, although equally it may have been accelerated by low market prices, but either way he may be proved right- we are in for a crisis.  Summary/chapter 1 at:  His latest book, ‘Winning the Carbon War’, brings the story up to date: although gains have been made, the crisis has not been averted and the battle continues, with Trump being the latest challenge:
 Though looking to the future, if IT/AI expands, longer term, we may all be redundant!   Homo Deus included!

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Why the UK backed nuclear

The UK government has backed the Hinkley Point C nuclear project and is keen on several follow ups- maybe 16GWs in all, with perhaps many more to follow. The Hinkley decision was widely challenged, with even the Economists saying Hinkley was ‘pointless’: The Telegraphs was similarly dismissive:
So why is all this happening?
The National Audit Office said that ‘supporting early new nuclear projects could lead to higher costs in the short-term than continuing to support wind and solar’. In which case ‘the decision to proceed with support for nuclear power therefore relies more on strategic than financial grounds: nuclear power is needed in the supply mix to complement the intermittent nature of wind and solar’.  That last bit is odd - as the NAO admitted, nuclear is inflexible and can’t balance variable renewables.
There must be other explanations. We systematically examined a range of different possible reasons for official UK attachments to nuclear power’, says Emily Cox, a co-author of a report from the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex, but ‘none of these are satisfactory to explain the intensity of support for nuclear power maintained by a variety of UK Governments’. Especially since, as the report claims, civil nuclear power was recognised in the Government’s own detailed analyses to be expensive and otherwise ‘unattractive’ compared to other low carbon options. There may be other factors, but Cox said that from their review ‘it seems that pressures to continue to build nuclear submarines form a crucial missing piece in the jigsaw’.
That conclusion seems a little odd. The team says that to acknowledge this possibility, ‘is not to entertain a conspiracy theory. It can be understood instead, in terms of more distributed and relational dynamics of power. Building on literatures in political science, we refer to this as a ‘deep incumbency complex’. Such an evidently under-visible phenomenon would hold important implications not only for UK nuclear strategies, but also the wider state of British democracy’.
The report documents strongly-held views in UK defence policy, that nuclear-propelled submarines form a crucial military capability, with, another co-author Dr Phil Johnstone noted, ‘strong fears that without continued commitment to civil nuclear power, the UK would be unable to sustain the industrial capabilities necessary to build nuclear submarines.’ The report identified many key links between UK submarine and civil nuclear supply chains.
According to the third co author, Professor Andrew Stirling, ‘what is remarkable about this pressure for a nuclear bias is that it is well documented on the military side, yet remains completely unacknowledged anywhere in official UK energy policy documentation.’ Although they did find one defence policy document that considered the possibility to ‘mask’ some of the costs of nuclear submarine capabilities behind spending on civil nuclear power.
So it’s not the issue of nuclear weapons as such that’s driving civil nuclear, as some suggest, so much as the need for nuclear submarine power units. Well maybe, although that’s a relatively small industrial activity. But its expansion to help build Small Modular Reactors (similar in some ways to sub reactors, with Rolls Royce involved with both) might change that. But that’s still only part of the story: surely the overlap between the technologies for producing fissile material, and for the use of this material in nuclear plants, bombs and submarine power units, along with the perceived need for the retention of the associated expertise, may also play a role. See this earlier analysis:
That covers a lot more people- one way or another, the whole nuclear sector. And it links in to a wider issue, which arguably has played a larger role, employment protection. Much has been made of the number of jobs in the nuclear industry and the role of nuclear expansion for creating more. That has certainly had a major impact on trade union views, with the TUC and GMB union backing Hinkley:
It is interesting, in this context, to look back at the 1980’s when, after a protracted battle between pro and anti nuclear power unions, in 1986, in the wake on Chernobyl, the TUC backed a nuclear ‘moratorium and review’ policy. In the same year, the Labour Party had confirmed its 1985 anti-nuclear stance, with a two thirds majority for phasing out of civil nuclear.  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 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 put the unions on the defensive- they sought to protect energy jobs across the board. It seems they are still at it! A sub-text to that is the low level of conviction by most of the unions at that time that renewables could provide viable alternative employment. In it 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 28 years but they are now big and growing, creating jobs. But still often blocked by the continued support for nuclear.  
Whatever the reasons for the current commitment to nuclear, the reality is that its backing by some key unions makes it harder to challenge:  The claim that renewables can create more  jobs may fall on deaf ears. Economic and safety arguments similarly.  We are back where we started in the early 1980s. Then it was the slow patient grass roots lobbying work of groups like SERA, taking the arguments out to trade union and Labour Party branches, that eventually changed the mood- along with Chernobyl! Does all that have to be repeated? Do we have to challenge every silly assertion made by the likes to GMB all over again? Like this one:  But also go on the offensive re jobs? Seems like it. Here’s a start:
And also the the ‘1 million climate jobs’ booklet produced by the Campaign on Climate Change:
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).
Also, for a much more recent input, see my Green jobs and the ethics of energy’, in Hersh, M. (ed) ‘Ethical Engineering for International Development and Environmental Sustainability’ Springer, London:

For a very different view of UK nuclear history see Simon Taylor’s The Fall and Rise of Nuclear Power in Britain’. He sees the governments Chief Scientists, Sir David King and Sir David MacKay, as having playing key roles in recent developments:

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Hinkley in La La Land

 ‘The reactor at Hinkley, as well as being the first of its kind in the UK, will also be the last of its kind, and any future build will be a new design. I cannot believe that independent due diligence would give this project the green light as it stands. The decision has been strongly influenced by political opportunism and fear of loss of face.’ So said pro-nuclear stalwart Prof. Ian Fells, in the Times 19/9/16.
Concerns about annoying China, by spurning their offer of £6bn in inward investment in the project, were certainly there, but so were concerns about giving China more control over the UK energy system. However former energy minister Lord Howell said that, rather than worrying about whether China will be a good nuclear partner, we should worry about EDF: ‘The real risks are that EDF's financial affairs are wobbly, its supplier's affairs are wobbly, the design has never yet worked anywhere, it's a design that's unproven. And we are going to be really in unknown territory as we build this thing.’ 
There are of course protections in case of financial problems, including contract cut off deadlines, and under the renegotiated agreement, should it go bust, ‘the government will be able to prevent the sale of EDF’s controlling stake prior to the completion of construction’.
Moreover, the legal framework means the government can intervene in the sale of EDF's stake once (if!) Hinkley is operational. There’s still the Austrian legal objection to be heard and the results of the forging quality tests on Areva’s steel containment, but for now EDF is obviously happy. So its next EPR project, at Sizewell, may soon be up for consideration, along with the other UK projects- Wyfa and Olbury (Hitachi ABWR), Moorside (Westinghouse AP1000) & Bradwell (a Chinese reactor). We will be hearing more about that:
Meanwhile though, the Guardian’s nuclear evangelist George Monbiot, who opposed Hinkley as an expensive distraction, sang the praises of small modular reactors that use nuclear waste as fuel’: the integral fast reactor variant ‘could supply all the UK’s energy needs for 500 years by consuming the nuclear waste stockpile.’
A bit fantastical- with many cost, safety and security unknowns and risks. Even the pro nuclear ETI said that SMRs wont be available, at best, until 2030: And for now, dazzled by the promise of jobs, the TUC and  GMB, along with the government, seem delighted to build conventional large plants, starting with Hinkley!
I will be coming back to the union’s position in my next post, but it does seem very short sighted. Renewables can also create jobs and they are much faster to deploy, in weeks or months for PV and wind, not up to a decade, as with large nuclear projects. And, quite apart from the unique safety, security and waste management worries with nuclear, it’s expensive. Indeed, as even the government now admits, more expensive than some renewables.
In its three page ‘Value for Money’ assessment in relation to the Hinkley project, the government says its £92.50/MWh strike price is ‘above the comparable cost range of large-scale solar Photovoltaics (PV) (£65-92/MWh) and onshore wind (£49-90/MWh)’. However, it claims that ‘in order for large-scale solar and onshore wind to produce the same amount of electricity provided by HPC, there would be significant upgrades to the grid required (such as connection and planning costs) as well as increased costs to keep the system in balance’.
Well yes, balancing might add 10-15% to the cost, on the basis of CCC estimates by Imperial College:  Moreover, grids and balancing have to be upgraded anyway since we plan to use more renewables, offshore wind especially, even with Hinkley on line. The government says that Hinkley comes out at towards the bottom of the comparable cost range of offshore wind (£81-132/MWh)’ but that may now be dated- offshore projects are going ahead for 2020 at ~ £54/MWh off Denmark. Even with grid costs added that would still beat Hinkley, and who know what offshore wind costs will be by 2025 when Hinkley might start up- 20-30% cost falls have been predicted.
There could also be some extra unexpected nuclear costs. The large cost of dealing with nuclear waste and eventual plant decommissioning (put at £5.9-7.2bn) is meant to be covered by the CfD strike price, with contingency extras added in to the legal agreement. Insurance cost similarly. But who knows if these provisions will be sufficient- all previous clean up cost estimates have proved wrong:
As for fossil fuel alternatives, the government says that Hinkley comes out at towards the top of the comparable cost range of gas Combined Cycle Gas Turbines (CCGT) (£47-96/MWh)’ but ‘towards the bottom of the comparable cost range of first-of-a-kind commercial carbon capture and storage (£77-249/MWh) for delivery in 2025’. It has dumped CCS for now, but it is still keen on CCGT, presumably using shale gas, increased emissions not withstanding. However, perhaps a little deviously, it argues that Hinkley offers extra value by avoiding the costs of replacing the gas fleet and avoiding the rising carbon costs of gas generation post-2050’ and also by unlocking the option of ‘further new nuclear’. But renewables could avoid all of that, arguably at lower cost. Certainly by 2050 and probably by the time Hinkley might run. Or any SMR’s: if, as it seems, the earliest for them is 2030,  by then renewables could be clearly dominant, if not before.                                               
That is clearly not how the government sees it. On Hinkley, it puts the total cost over its whole 35-year index-linked CfD at £11-21bn (2012 prices, discounted to 2012), although the NAO say there is likely to be a £30bn top up: But sticking with the governments lower figures, the NAO says: ‘Our most realistic projections mean that around £12 from energy bills will go towards supporting the plant in 2030’. Whereas, if Hinkley ‘is delayed by three years and offshore wind and Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) are needed to fill the gap, it would lead to a £24 annual increase on household electricity bills on average from 2026 to 2030 (2012 prices). Similarly, if onshore wind and large- scale solar PV were to fill the gap, consumer bills would increase annually by £21. Gas plant coming on to fill the gap would see bills £6 cheaper per year, but this would undermine the UK’s ability to meet legally binding decarbonisation targets’.  
Greenpeace said ‘The numbers speak for themselves. In the unlikely event Hinkley is working sometime in the second half of the next decade, renewable energy will be much cheaper, yet British consumers will still be forced to pay over the odds for nuclear power’. It’s hard not to agree. Though that doesn’t explain why the government is still pushing for it- something I will look at in my next post in this series.  

The government’s Value for Money analysis is at: