Friday, October 26, 2007

How long is a long time?

Current government policy on energy technology is based on a curious mismatch of ideas about time

Ideas of 'a long time' vary according to context in the Low Carbon Kid's analysis of the government's Energy Market Outlook published two days ago.

There is enough uranium ore in the world to meet currently projected demand for up to 85 years, according to current estimates from the Euratom Supply Agency.
Where our nuclear fuel will come from
Renewable energy will, by contrast and by definition, last forever. Oh yes, and it's free.

Technologies which use renewable energies as a fuel source will therefore have application forever.

In other words, investing now in developing new renewable energy technologies would produce expertise that would provide a strong foundation for industries that could last for centuries, rather than, by contrast with nuclear technology, one century.

Technologies' lifetimes

Technologies have their lifetimes.

Steam power has lasted roughly 250 years. The internal combustion engine may last (it first appeared in 1850) 200 years.

Nuclear power looks set to last for 150 years at the most.

Water power (mechanical) has been around for at least 2000 years and will probably never go away.

Electricity as a clean means of conducting energy may also be around now as long as we are.

Renewable technologies generating electricity and heat will obviously improve and change with innovation, but they will be around also as long as we are, it's safe to assume.

What the government says

In the long-run we believe increased prices and global demand will help maintain reliable uranium supplies, thus not representing a constraint on any new nuclear build in the UK.
This is not a long run in my books. It is a medium term run as it is looking not 85 years but 15 years into the future.

The report begins by saying
In the short term, the main concern is the extent to which
we can be confident that energy can be delivered when and
where it is needed, i.e. reliability.

In the medium term, the focus is on the availability of
infrastructure, the planning process and supply chain issues
such as the availability, both within the UK and
internationally, of raw materials, machine components and
project management and engineering skills.

In the longer term, there is a wider range of options open to market participants, including significant capital investment and the development of new technology. Given this, the key concern in this time-frame is likely to be the availability of primary sources of energy.
In this discussion, short term is therefore about up to 12 years (2020); medium term seems to be the same actually, as over the same period the same concerns apply, but might extend a further 10 years as the Grid infrastructure is updated; and long term is any time beyond this.

Governments usually can't see beyond the electoral term of office. They are therefore bound by the need to balance the books - they can't spend too much public money.

Nuclear power stations in general take twice as long to build as coal power stations - ten as opposed to five years.

It's therefore curious that nuclear stations are being backed by ministers as they neither address the short term issues or the very long term issues.

New build nuclear power stations will be up and running around 2020. They would last until around 2095, then the fuel runs out. And anyway they will be worn out.

Before then, there is plenty of time to implement 15% of our generating needs from renewables that are currently proven - wind power, ground source heat pumps, solar thermal, and solar electric.

In the medium term government policy should signal to the markets that they should invest In the newer technologies - marine current turbines, wave power, tidal power and more advanced solar photovoltaic generation.

In particular the more predicatable sources - marine currents, tides, geothermal, heat pumps - should be prioritised.

So that after 2020 these are increasingly phased in.

in the medium
term the electricity generating industry faces a substantial
challenge in ensuring delivery of the new generating
capacity that will be needed if demand continues to rise. [p 37]

All the more reason for speeding up the planning process.

[And we haven't even mentioned the very very very very long time that nuclear waste poses a threat for]. If Stonehenge had nen a nuclear reactor it would be well glowing still.
> Energy Market Outlook

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nuclear power looks set to last for 150 years at the most. "

With breeder reactor recycling of nuclear used fuel (multiplier of 60), and the use of thorium (multiplier of 10), and the fact that recoverable resources are far greater than proven reserves (multiplier of 10), we are left with nuclear power being able to generate energy for mankind for about 150x60x10x10=1,000,000 years.

Professor John McCarthy indepedently came up with a similar estimate.

One million years is a mighty long time. In anyone's reference.