Energy for the 21st century, part I: fossil-fuels, renewables and nuclear

Left Futures

Bloggers note: I am not a proponent of nuclear power but when things are becoming so desperate in the fight against global warming and reducing our carbon footprint, I am willing to concede that some undesirable measures may have to be considered. That is not for me to decide but in deference to those who advocate nuclear alternatives, I give them voice also.

Energy for the 21st century, part I: fossil-fuels, renewables and nuclear

Posted: 13 Feb 2017 02:12 AM PST

With the exception of Arthur Scargill, most on the Left agree that the days of fossil fuels must soon come to an end. We all know that it would be environmental catastrophe to revive the coal industry. We have to wean ourselves off coal and other fossil fuels but what will take their place?

The dream answer is renewable energy, but, as I will argue, this is no more than a dream. Jeremy Corbyn has promised 65% of electricity from renewables by 2030, rising thereafter to 85%. It is said that this will create 300,000 jobs in the renewable energy supply chain. This chimes well with the Green New Deal advocated by progressives since the financial crisis of 2008.

But there are two problems. First, some sectors (such as agriculture, steel, and concrete production) would be difficult or impossible to decarbonise. So we must have greater reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from electricity than 65%, or even 85%. In effect it will need to be 100% to be achieved as quickly as possible. Second, even a target of 65% renewable electricity is not achievable for Britain.

To date, the following types of renewable energy have found extensive use: hydroelectric, wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass. Hydro, geothermal, and biomass energy are able to provide stable, base-load energy supplies. Hydro-power is the best-established technology and provides the vast bulk of electricity in Norway and parts of Canada. Unfortunately, taking geographical factors into account only a few hundred megawatts of new hydro capacity could be built in England and Wales. Scotland has more potential, with a theoretically possible few gigawatts of new capacity, but only a fraction of this would be viable. Furthermore, it is still only a few percent of the UK’s 50-60 gigawatt peak power consumption. The potential of geothermal energy in the UK is unclear: a renewable industry group estimates that it could provide up to 20% of the country’s current electricity needs and be used very effectively to heat homes, while others have suggested that it is an impractical power source for Britain. Even in the former case, however, other energy sources will be needed. Either way, it still does not come close to meeting all energy needs. Biomass power (mainly burning wood-chips) is expensive and of doubtful environmental benefit. It is only carbon neutral on a time scale that is too long to meet the global warming crisis and it can release more GHGs than fossil fuels.

That leaves solar power and wind. Given the relatively high latitude of the UK, general cloudiness, and fact that energy consumption is highest at the times of year with the least sunlight, solar panels are massively unfit as an energy source in this country. Furthermore, solar and wind are intermittent energy sources since their output varies, often unpredictably. In an electricity system with other energy sources that can be turned on and off, intermittent energy sources could provide a significant but minor part of the supply. However, as their share grows, so would the risk of voltage drops in the power supply leading to the need to both build excess generating capacity and storage capacity. Then, when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing, some of the energy can be set aside for when it’s dark and calm. Unfortunately, at present, we do not have technologies capable of economically delivering storage on the scale needed nor, given the vast scale of the problem, are we likely to have such technologies in the foreseeable future.

Another response is the suggestion of building a Europe-wide smart-grid. While this may help to even out the most severe troughs it would still be insufficient. When the wind isn’t blowing much in Italy, it also won’t be blowing much in Denmark, Germany, the UK, or anywhere else on the continent. The net result is that for wind energy to be a major component of the electricity supply, massive amounts of more reliable generating capacity are also needed. The eye-catching headline about Germany generating most of its electricity from renewables on a day in July missed the point that it failed to do so on most other days.

Given that renewable energy won’t be able to power Britain on its own, some pin their hopes on carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology to extend the life of fossil fuels. But the problem is how we go about ensuring that the captured CO2 stays where we put it. Usually it is suggested that it be stored underground, but were it to leak then it would undo all of our work capturing it in the first place. In many ways this is a more concerning problem even than nuclear waste, since the latter is solid—making it much easier to contain than a gas—and needs to be stored for only a finite time. That said, some CCS will be needed to deal with carbon emissions from chemical reactions involved in producing steel and cement.

Rethinking nuclear power

This leaves nuclear power. Nuclear power is, today, almost universally reviled by the left (with the notable exception of the French Communist Party). It is viewed as dirty, dangerous, and expensive. The truth is, it need be none of these things.

Much of the fear around nuclear power comes from not understanding the science and risks of radiation. The fact of the matter is that the extra radiation experienced by people living near a nuclear power plant is insignificant in comparison to background radiation.

The threat of accidents needs to be carefully evaluated. The major cases are Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. The consensus among peer-reviewed studies is that the Three Mile Island accident led to few or no deaths. The causes of the accident have been thoroughly investigated and reactor design and operating procedures have been improved as a result. Chernobyl, far and away the worst of these incidents, was the fault of a uniquely bad reactor design and a poorly executed experiment. RBMK reactors, such as the one at Chernobyl, are known to be unstable, had a control rod design which initially increases the reaction rate, are surrounded by flammable graphite, and lack the containment buildings seen in all other nuclear power plants. A Chernobyl-like accident would not be possible with the types of reactors used in the West.

Fukushima is the most recent of these and has resulted in a renewed backlash against nuclear power. It is important to remember that this event was initiated by a 13m-15m tsunami resulting from a magnitude 9 earthquake, neither of which are events which can strike Britain. Furthermore, the private operator TEPCO had been cutting corners in terms of disaster preparedness. Clearly, strong independent oversight is needed for nuclear power and reactors should be in public ownership to make corner-cutting less likely. However, Fukushima is not an indictment of nuclear energy per se. No one died from radiation poisoning and any increase in cancer deaths looks set to be very small (even when using pessimistic models) and difficult to separate from background rates. As with Chernobyl, mental illness is a bigger threat to the effected population.

Obviously every death is tragic, but no energy source is without risks. Despite its scary reputation, nuclear power has the lowest number of deaths per gigawatt-hour of any energy source. When things go wrong, they tend to do so in a big, scary way, which misleads people as to the threat. New reactor designs (and, indeed, some older ones such as the CANDU) include “passive safety” features which do not depend on human or electronic intervention, making accidents like those at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima physically impossible.

The other big argument against nuclear power concerns its waste. We can keep the waste in dry cask storage indefinitely as we look for longer-term solutions, so unlike GHG emissions this is not a pressing issue. Ultimately, burying nuclear waste deep in dry, geologically stable regions looks to be a viable solution. The volume of high-level waste produced is relatively small; if all of Britain’s current energy needs were met by nuclear for 100 years (by which time better alternatives such as fusion or space-based solar power would hopefully be available), then a waste facility of only a few square kilometres—the size of a small airport—would be needed to store it. Encouragingly, Generation IV reactor designs promise to be able to use existing nuclear waste as fuel and produce much lower volumes of their own, shorter-lived, waste.

Is nuclear energy more expensive? New reactor designs have been known to go over-budget. On the other hand, while results of studies examining energy costs vary greatly (see the Wikipedia article), they tend to show that overall nuclear is of comparable cost to other energy sources. Studies claiming that renewables are cheaper do not seem to take into account storage requirements and changes to the electricity grid. Nuclear power plants have large capital costs and low operating costs. Therefore building them in the private sector requires expensive subsidies. Nuclear-dependent France has middling to low electricity costs and demonstrates the savings which can be achieved by building reactors through a public sector energy monopoly to a standard design. In the future, small modular reactors could potentially be mass-produced, bringing prices down further. While no clean energy source is cheap, nuclear is likely to be the cheapest option for countries without hydroelectric or geothermal capacity.

It is only within a left-wing comprehensive economic plan that nuclear power can reach its full potential. The energy transition of France in the 1970s and 1980s shows what can be achieved by a state intent on transforming its power supply. For a country to prosper, it must have a clean, reliable, abundant energy supply and renewables alone will not provide this in Britain. If socialism is to bring prosperity, rather than a more equitable distribution of misery, our socialism must be nuclear powered.

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