Friday, September 28, 2007

Germany eyes North Africa's sun

Having become a world leader in wind turbines and photovoltaic panels, Germany is now turning its sights onto solar thermal generation.

Harnessing the sun's energy on just 6,000km2 of desert in North Africa would supply energy equivalent to the entire oil production of the Middle East of 9 billion barrels a year, acording to the German Aerospace Centre. It believes that solar thermal power plants could supply 68% of North Africa's as well as all of Europe's electricity by 2050.

One company that agrees is Flabeg, a German manufacturer of parabolic trough mirrors. Its new mirror can concentrate 92% of the sun's rays onto an absorber tube with a diameter of 70mm or less. It expects to sell these to power stations in Spain and North Africa and is already supplying 210,000 to the 50 megawatt solar thermal power plant, Andasol II, in Spain — the biggest in Europe.

Europe's first commercially operating solar thermal tower plant went into operation in April in Sevilla, Spain, generating 11 MW. The German Aerospace Center has built an experimental solar thermal tower power plant in Julich, Germany, to be commissioned in 2008.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Nuclear vs solar water heating and carbon impacts

New nuclear build is carbon lighter than fossil fuels but not as light as some renewables.

All renewables have a carbon impact, but it varies enormously from technology to technology. For example, much electricity is used for water heating. Solar water heating has negligible carbon emssions associated and can provide 30-50% of hot water over a year, depending on the location and orientation.

Electricity is used for space heating, and so is gas. Again, with new buildings, passive solar designs and high efficiency can reduce to almost zero the amount of fuel required. Heat pumps can triple the value of the energy input.

Figures from the LCBP show solar water heating was by far the renewable energy installation of choice for householders obtaining this grant. At the end of May, the figures showed that since it launched in April 2006 the LCBP has directly funded 2175 installations on homes, including 1467 (over two thirds) solar thermal heating systems, 313 (14%) solar PV projects and 242 (11%) mini-turbines.

That proves its popularity and effectiveness. The Energy Act should make it mandatory that all new buildings install this technology, and set retrofit targets. But as far as I can see it doesn't even mention this technology.

Space and water heating counts for 83% of domestic energy use (BNDH12, quoted in EST's Rise of the Machine, page 14) and about the same for office use. Together, offices and homes account for around 35% of UK energy use. Ie, 28% of total UK energy use.

Providing 40% of this by passive solar, solar water heating, heat pumps, domestic CHP, and woodchip/pellet boilers, would account for a significant proportion of the amount of power requirement as that required to compensate for the loss of old nuclear power stations.

It would have almost as great an impact in a shorter time scale and far cheaper but with little environmental impact than building new nuclear power stations, as well as creating more, sustainable jobs.

The above forms my answer to question two of the government's nuclear consultation

Monday, September 24, 2007

The cost of nuclear new build

The UK Government’s public consultation on the possibility of building new nuclear power stations runs until October 10. Have your say.

This blog looks at the cost of nuclear new build and its context.

The international picture

There are 76 reactors on drawing boards worldwide - and uranium is scarce.

China aims to build 30 nuclear plants over the next 15 years. India is planning 19 and Russia is switching a quarter of its energy supply to nuclear power.

The US is looking at 17 plants over the next six years.

The UK picture

According to a New Economics Foundation report published last month, the costs involved in building new reactors is up to three times higher than supporters say.

"Nuclear power has been promoted as a solution to climate change and an answer to energy security. It is neither," the report concludes. "As a response to global warming it is too slow, too expensive and too limited."

The think tank rejects the government's cost estimate of 2.2-5.0 pence per kilowatt hour of power produced by new nuclear power plants, instead putting the cost at 3.2-7.5 p/kWh.

Another recent report agrees. Poyry Energy Consulting says the commercial case for building new nuclear plants is shaky and that none will be built without a higher long-term carbon price than that set by the current European Union Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS).

A nuclear power programme requires a huge capital investment of up to three-quarters of its costs, compared to a gas plant’s 25%. Interest costs during construction mean that delays can make or break a nuclear project.

"Despite the rhetoric, it is difficult to see much new nuclear capacity coming into the market before 2020," Poyry director Andrew Nind said.

"Beyond then prospects look better, but the future of nuclear probably depends on the creation of a long-term carbon price guarantee. In its current form, the ETS will not suffice."

Several recent estimates of future carbon price movement show that it won't reach €35, the price the White Paper argues makes nuclear economically feasible, for a long time.

Market forecasts say there will be an over-supply of credits from developing countries, and a continuing over-allocation of credits in Europe. The price has mostly been below 20 euros a tonne over the last year. This market over-saturation will keep the price low.

For this reason the nuclear lobby is arguing in Brussels that nuclear should be classed as renewable in order to be eligible for ETS-subsidies, like solar and wind are.

This would be barmy. But of course that wouldn't deter the EC.

As I said, uranium is scarce and the price will rise. The future of the ETS after 2012, however, is uncertain, and investors don't like that.

The nuclear companies' new plans

Here in Wales, Hugh Richards, of the Welsh Anti-Nuclear Alliance, also believes there are strong grounds for believing that new nuclear power stations may prove financially unviable.

He has examined the four power station designs that were registered with the nuclear regulator last month for pre-licence assessment. (The Government is moving to pre-license standardised designs and streamline planning procedures in order to reduce the lead times for nuclear construction.)

(However this increases the risk that the public will lose confidence in the regulatory process, and experience suggests that it will not speed up projects. In England, where public inquiries were scrapped for all the advanced gas-cooled reactors, an average 10-year construction over-run resulted.)

None of the four Generation III designs submitted to the regulators for pre-licensing assessment in July are proven commercially; they are design concepts without working prototypes to test their safety. No attempt has been made to test their financial robustness, says Richards.

British Energy, bought back out with £5bn of public money in 2002, has the only experience of operating nuclear reactors in Britain.

Of the six foreign operators expressing an interest in building reactors here, from Germany, France, Spain and Belgium, five say they want to have a choice of the best available designs, but none of these designs are proven.

The Finnish reactor under construction now, whose economic model is widely touted as being the way forward, by preselling power to private buyers, will not work here, and anyway has been shown to be based on faulty accounting.

Three of the operators have non-nuclear plants in the UK - Scottish Power recently acquired Iberdrola, npower is owned by RWE, and Eon-UK. Ironically, they all put great emphasis on renewables in their marketing.

So where are we?

  • Environmental regulations could force many of Britain's coal fired power plants to close over the next decade
  • all but one of its nuclear power plants are expected to shut by 2020
  • The government has refused to pay for nuclear or build the plants with public money
  • A spokeswoman for BERR said on 17.09 the government was already trying to work out how the country will cope if no nuclear power plants are built
  • It has admitted that the current target of getting 20 percent of its power from renewable sources of energy by 2020 is already "very challenging"
So we may have to become still more dependent on imported gas, while slashing demand.

And actually as the price of oil and gas rises coal becomes more and more economic.

Which is why they're currently trying to build the largest open cast coal mine in Europe in South Wales.

And all because the civil servants are allergic to renewables.

(And we haven't even talked about transport, responsible for more global warming than electricity.)

*Sigh* The nuclear 'consultation'

I haven't posted on this blog for ages because the whole sham of the consultation process depresses me.

I've gone over the arguments against nuclear and for renewables of many types many times before. Yet the government is persistent and persistency tends to pay off.

My friend George Monbiot and my girl Kate Doubleday the eco-singer insist I keep up the blog however. So here goes.

I said to George I thought the green movment had made a mistake by withdrawing from the consultation process, since the government was using this as propaganda, and the votes at the end of the seminars (however rigged), without their presence and influence, have been used to suggest most people support nuclear power.

He disagreed. He believes that, like the Big Conversation sham of a couple of years ago, also seen as a sham and which sank without trace, this will come to be seen the same way.

He thinks that if Greepeace did take part, it would be seen as hypocritical, since they have attacked the process and succeeded in court once.

However, I believe that as this consultation is going to end in an Energy Act, whatever the spun outcome is, it will be used to justify the Act's content.

No doubt the civil servants have told everyone to get nuclear in there at all costs, and no doubt the lobbyists from the four companies lining up to build new nuclear power stations have a good reason to believe they've already got the green light.

The government's favourite pollsters, Populus, founded by two Tories and published in the Times, have produced a convenient poll proving conclusively that the public backs new build.

No doubt people like me and other grenies are all deluded, and we only choose to believe the info that fits our preconceived ideas.

Well, whichever is the correct tactic, only time will tell, but I do believe this - the government is going around saying that the nuclear waste problem is solved, when it isn't; that Scotland and Wales don't want nuclear power; and that the Royal Commision is right to be worried about the security implications of the waste issue.

When renewables could deliver, sooner than nuclear, through tidal energy principally, but also through a myriad of other technologies, the solutions to our energy 'gap' and our energy security, without endangering the lives of future generations or international security, and by backing new techologies that will last far longer than nuclear power once the uranium is all used up in 80 years max, it doesn't make sense to back nuclear on any grounds - not even cost.