Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Tidal vs Nuclear

Even as Gordon Brown gives support for more nuclear newbuild, tidal stream energy makes big strides forwards while nuclear costs rise and problems continue

Decommissioning costs rising

The cost of cleaning up the UK's nuclear facilities - some of which date back to the 1950s - will rise above £73bn, even as Gordon Brown is rushing to build new ones. Jim Morse, a senior director at the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) told the BBC this week that the costs of dismantling 19 sites will rise by billions of pounds. The National Audit Office upgraded the figure to £73bn. it just keeps going up.

Morse said: "I think it's a high probability that in the short term it will undoubtedly go up. We've still a lot to discover. We haven't started waste retrieval in those parts of the estate where the degradation and radioactive decay has been at its greatest. No-one's done this before."

Nuclear shutdowns

In other nuclear developments this week, two of British Energy's ageing nuclear reactors - the Hunterston B7 reactor at Largs, Ayrshire, and the Sizewell B reactor in Leiston, Suffolk - also shut down unexpectedly triggering blackouts.

Robin Oakley, head of Greenpeace's climate and energy campaign, said: "The nuclear industry has had a woeful 24 hours that must be shaking confidence in this outdated technology. Sizewell B shut down unexpectedly, clean-up costs are soaring and the reactor that France wants to sell us has had construction halted for safety reasons."

EDF's not to be trusted

On Tuesday, the French nuclear safety authority (ASN) ordered EDF Energy to partly suspend the construction of its new-generation nuclear reactor in Flamanville after concerns about the quality of the construction work. This is the same company that has recently been buying up farmland adjacent to Wylfa nuclear power station on Anglesey, expecting to be given the green light to build a new nuclear power station there.

The local council is in favour of the project, because it is fearful that a nearby steel plant, dependent on the energy from the power plants, will have to close down when the power station is decommissioned after 2012. But the Welsh Assembly government has not given its view.

Marine current turbine world first

A Friends of the Earth Wales report has said a marine tidal farm could generate the equivalent energy to Wylfa rendering a new nuclear power station unnecessarily. The marine currents just alongside the power station are amongst the strongest around Britain's coast. Construction is to begin on a 10.5MW project, expected to be commissioned around 2011/2012.

The pioneering project is a joint initiative with Marine Current Turbines and npower. Marine Current Turbines has successfully installed the world's first megawatt-scale tidal turbine, a 1.2MW SeaGen tidal energy system, in Strangford Narrows, Northern Ireland in May. It should start regularly feeding power into the Northern Ireland grid in August.

Marine Current Turbines tidal turbine, a 1.2MW SeaGen , in Strangford Narrows, Northern Ireland

Martin Wright, Managing Director of Marine Current Turbines said: "This has been a ground-breaking operation, the like of which has never been attempted before and it has attracted interest from around the world. SeaGen's installation has been filmed by TV crews from North America, Germany and France as well as from Ireland and the UK." When fully operational the tidal system's 16m diameter, twin rotors will operate for up to 18-20 hours per day.

These turbines are modular, so if these installations are successful more may be added later, spreading the cost, unlike with tidal barrages or nuclear power stations.

Monday, June 02, 2008

UK and Irish governments told to implement personal carbon trading

The British government should reconsider its decision to put on the backburner the idea of personal carbon trading, especially since the Irish government has now been advised to roll out a pilot for the transport sector.

Britain should consider giving individuals a personal carbon emissions allowance that they can use or trade, in order to help the country meet its CO2 emissions target, the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) told the government last week. The government had earlier in the month dismissed the idea.

Hilary Benn, the environment minister, told me at a climate change conference (Think 08) that the scheme was too early (meaning that people weren't ready for it), too expensive and too complicated to explain and to administer. Additionally, he argued that there was a danger of inequity in the system, disproportionately affecting the elderly, rural and poor who would have to be compensated.

However, the Irish government has just received a recommendation to trial a form of Cap & Share in the transport sector.

The Defra report deliberately underplayed the carbon benefits and admitted to a low level of research quality citing a "reduction in personal emissions of 0-10% - although these figures have been drawn from research on metering and energy displays rather than trials of personal carbon trading... a low range of 0-5% reduction is assumed. Though [even] a 10% reduction would still not be sufficient to balance the cost-benefit assessment more favourably."

The Environmental Audit Committee disagreed. "Existing initiatives are unlikely to bring about behavioural change on the scale required, with many individuals choosing to disregard the connection between their own emissions and the larger challenge," the EAC said. "Personal carbon trading might be the kind of radical measure needed to bring about behavioural change." It would be more effective and fairer than bringing in "green" taxes.

Hilary Benn said the cost of introducing PCAs would be between £700m and £2bn.

However, Tim Yeo, the Conservative EAC chairman, strongly disagreed, saying difficulties of implementing the scheme could be overcome and calling for more feasibility work. He said that if the private sector were to administer it, it could be done a lot cheaper, along the lines of supermarket loyalty cards. "It engages people at all levels in their decisions, about whether they heat their house to a slightly lower temperature, whether they really need to put air conditioning in their flat, whether they really need to take that flight," he said.

Meanwhile, Ireland forges ahead

But PCAs are not the only such scheme on the table. At the end of May, British consultants AEA Energy and Environment released their interim final report, commissioned by Comhar, the Irish national sustainable development council, into Cap & Share, which the coalition government is seriously considering. Their conclusion was that Cap & Share is much fairer, cheaper, and more cost-effective.

Under Cap & Share, permits for the right to emit carbon are given to the population, who can then choose whether or not to sell them to companies introducing fossil fuels to the national economy. (Currently of course permits are given away under the EU emissions trading scheme, which boosts the energy companies’ profits at consumers’ expense.) As only a small number of firms are importing or producing energy, this makes C&S easy to administer. Each fuel company is required to purchase permits to match the eventual emissions from the fossil fuels they extract or import, with the total number being reduced year on year to promote the transition to a low carbon society.

Of course companies have to add the cost of the permits to their prices and this puts up the cost of everything sold because all goods and services have an energy content. But the Irish environment organization Feasta comments: "it's just as fair as any other scheme. Under the proposal lower income households, on average, would benefit since they have lower than average energy consumption and would receive emissions certificates worth more than the increased fuel costs they incur. "

How much would it cost?

AEA compares 10 different ways of rationing carbon currently being considered around the world, including carbon taxes. Their report is far more detailed than that produced by Hillary Benn’s department.
This AEA table compares the various carbon reducing schemes on offer. The green colour symbolizes the most benefit and the redder shade the least benefit.

The AEA report compares the various carbon reducing schemes on offer. The green colour symbolizes the most benefit and the redder shade the least benefit.

They say the cost of "the Cap and Share scheme... would be lower than the more complex personal carbon allocation options but higher than introducing a carbon tax. For the Cap and Share scheme the cost of administering the fuel suppliers is likely to be secondary to the costs associated with issuing certificates to the general public. Our simple bottom up estimate... puts the transaction costs for a system where certificates are cashed in remotely in the range 8-11% of the value of the certificates. This range depends on income and assumes an allowance price of €20/tCO2 and a bank direct transaction charge of 5%. At higher carbon prices the cost effectiveness would be better, with transaction costs around 6-7% for a price of €50/tCO2."

AEA therefore recommends the system to be introduced on a trial basis first of all in the transport sector in the Republic of Ireland "with subsequent consideration to sectoral and geographical expansion" in the North. This would also combat the fuel tourism which currently goes on, as fuel is cheaper south of the border – which I witnessed first hand recently. Measures would be needed to shield the vulnerable from increased costs. AEA suggests not allocating to children, "although again consideration will be needed for increasing support to families".

AEA concludes its comparison thus: "Cap and Share and the Sky Trust currently appear the most favourable [schemes]. The schemes that treat individuals as an emitting entity (Tradable Energy Quotas, Personal Carbon Rationing, Rate All Products and Services and the Ayres Scheme) look the least appealing, because of their complexity and the resulting costs. Furthermore, the lack of public engagement, uncertainty over environmental outcome and no direct compensation for individuals mean non-traded options such as a carbon tax and direct regulation score less well in our analysis than Cap and Share and Sky Trust."

[The Sky Trust is an American idea whereby permits to pollute are auctioned and the revenue generated given to households in order to "lock in public support for emission reductions, no matter how high fuel prices would rise." The dividends could be used by residents to subsidize the price of energy-efficient appliances and/or renewable energy generation.]

The Irish Environmental Protection Agency is currently considering the recommendations. If the Irish government goes ahead it will be another case of the Republic courageously going first where its neighbours in the British Isles later follow – as with banning plastic bags and smoking in pubs. The ‘Celtic Tiger’ can certainly teach us a thing or two about looking after our health and the environment. How surprising is that?

Further illustrations of how the different schemes work:

The AEA explanation of Cap and Share.

The AEA explanation of Domestic Tradeable Quotas.

The AEA explanation of carbon taxes.