Friday, August 29, 2008

Germany's feed-in tarriffs supporting PV

Germany's recently approved "climate package" is its latest step in securing the country's position as a leading investment location in renewable energies.

What is needed in the UK is a similar package of measures to guarantee a strong future for investors in renewable energies.

"The reforms maintain attractive feed-in tariffs and strengthen the legal framework for energy-efficiency investments, therefore adding to Germany's already inviting investment conditions in photovoltaic (PV) energy," says David Wortmann, Director of the Renewable Energies and Resources team at Invest in Germany.

One of the main drivers of PV investment in Germany is the Renewable Energy Sources Act (EEG in German). The EEG requires power companies to buy renewable energy from owners of renewable energy installations at a rate that is above the standard retail price.

The "feed-in-tariff" for PV projects beginning in 2008 stands at 35.49 - 51.75 EUR cents/KWh. The rate is guaranteed for 20 years. There is also no limit to the energy that can be sold into the grid at the EEG rates. This legal framework encourages Germans to invest in PV products, creating a long-term and sustainable domestic market.

Germany is turning its renowned scientific expertise into an asset for the solar industry. There are over 80 different academic degree options in solar energy and energy management at German universities, including a new Masters Degree program at Berlin's Technical University (TU).

An "energy university" will soon open in Berlin to offer graduate-level students from all over the world the chance to improve their knowledge of the energy industry. This qualified workforce contributes to Germany's high standard of quality in its PV products and also to its comparatively low product failure rate.

This expertise is found not only in universities, but also in the many research institutions in Germany that cooperate closely with PV investors.

For example, the Fraunhofer ISE is part of the internationally renowned Fraunhofer Society that is one of numerous research institutes and universities doing research on the latest technologies in PV, often in cooperation with the solar industry.

Supportive laws, qualified employees, and access to researchers and suppliers are some of the reasons that leading PV companies such as First Solar, Arise Technologies, Signet Solar, and recent entries like Intico Solar and Masdar PV GmbH have invested in Germany.

More will be revealed at the 23rd European Photovoltaic Solar Energy Conference and Exhibition (PVSEC), September 1 - 5, 2008 in Valencia, Spain.

If only it could happen in the UK.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Carbon capture and storage is an end-of-pipe dream

The Government is basing its enthusiasm for new coal-burning power stations on the notion of retrofitting CCS (carbon capture and storage) in the future once the technology is developed.

But is this feasible?

"Even the most optimistic proponent of CCS would not envisage any demonstration plant to be operational much before 2015, which would put wide-scale deployment as far away as 2020 or later after lessons from the pilot have been learned and digested," says a submission from The Royal Academy of Engineering to the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (EAC).

In July the EAC published its examination of CCS and found it to be a pipe dream. In fact, an end-of-pipe dream. It estimates that the cost of building the first CCS plant could be anything up to £500m, on top of the £1bn cost of a new coal-fired power station. Retrofitting CCS at a station like Kingsnorth is likely to cost over £1.1bn. This is a huge figure by any standard, and would have a massive impact on energy prices.

The EAC urges: "We cannot emphasise strongly enough that the possibility of CCS should not be used as a fig leaf to give unabated coal-fired power stations an appearance of environmental acceptability." Furthermore, "Replacing old coal-fired power stations with new ones, rather than using alternative energy sources, locks Britain in to a high level of emissions for many years to come."

Hutton has said that a high carbon price under the EU-ETS will mean that CCS-retrofitting so-called 'CCS-ready' new power stations becomes economical. The EAC slams this notion on three counts:

1. Lack of knowledge of the technology: since the eventual nature of CCS technology is currently unknown, how can a plant built now be designed to have the technology retro-fitted on?

2. Carbon emissions: "The EU ETS is a mechanism designed to reduce emissions; using it as a cover for choosing high emissions technology goes against the purpose of the scheme."

3. The price per tonne of CO2 for retrofitting CCS required to make it commercially viable is unfeasibly high: estimates of this vary from the rather optimistic €40 (E.ON UK) to €90-155 per tonne (Climate Change Capital) and €70-100 per tonne (UK Energy Research Centre). How much it will really be is anybody's guess, but the Government cites an EU estimate of a forward price of carbon of €39 for 2013-2020 (EU-ETS Phase 3). The UK Energy Research Centre predicts around €30. The EAC concludes from this: "the gap between the carbon price and the cost of CCS is enormous".

The EAC concludes: "Coal should be seen as the last resort, even with the promise of CCS."

[Sources available in the EAC report on CCS].

Friday, August 08, 2008

King Coal returns to the battleground

24 years after the miners strike, coal is at the centre of a new battle.

This weekend activists are attempting to close down Kingsnorth power station, protesting against government plans to build a new coal-fired power station at the site in Kent.

This is just one of many anti-coal protests around the country, as public feeling against coal mining and coal burning is mounting. Simultaneously, the industry has plans to open many new mines, and the government is deciding whether to give the go-ahead to seven or eight new coal-fired power stations, the first for 30 years.

Yet concerned climate scientists argue that leaving coal in the ground is the best form of carbon capture and storage - the planet just cannot survive that much more CO2 put into the atmosphere. The burning of coal for electricity and heating, the logic goes, is far easier to halt and to replace than is the use of oil for transportation.

Coal is primarily used for electricity generation, which is the largest source of UK greenhouse gas emissions. Of all power stations, coal-fired ones are most CO2 intensive.

Today, globally, burning coal is responsible for around one quarter of our global CO2 emissions. And currently, approximately 1,000 tonnes of CO2 are released into the Earth's atmosphere every second due to human activity. But around half of all the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere now, due to us, is from burning coal. The majority of this came from Western developed nations who industrialised before China and other emerging indistrialised powers.

This is why developing economies like China and India argue, in the current round of climate control talks, that as today's climate change is due to our historical emissions, developed countries should curb their emissions before they do. Climate campaigners argue that if we want these countries to stop building new coal-fired power stations (China is opening two a week), we must set a good example.

James Hansen

James Hansen is described by many as the world's leading climate scientist. He first alerted Washington politicians to the dangers of climate change in June 1988 and has been an outspoken advocate of action to stop it ever since. He is the director of the Goddard Institute of Space Studies at NASA and adjunct professor at earth and environmental sciences at Columbia University. He has called for a moratorium on building coal-fired power plants and for a 350ppm target for the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. (Currently it is 385ppm.)

"It's very difficult to see how we can prevent the oil from being used and the carbon getting in to the atmosphere because it comes from vehicles, but in the case of coal if we're going to use that, we could restrict it to power-plants and we should say it can only be used there if you capture the CO2," he says. He argues that it's easier to make electricity and heat buildings with other sources of energy than coal, than it is to find alternatives to the fossil fuels which power our vehicles. Therefore we should do this first. "I think it's a better way than saying let's reduce CO2 80% or 90% or 60% or any particular number because we really can't let 40% or 20% of the coal to continue to be used; that's the one source that we really need to cut off."

Hansen has written to Gordon Brown requesting that the Government doesn't build any new coal fired power plants without carbon capture and storage. "Coal is the largest contributor to the human-made increase of CO2 in the air," he wrote. "Saving the planet and creation surely requires phase-out of coal use." We don't know if Brown replied. Source.

In June Hansen on Monday told listeners on Capitol Hill, Washington, that the heads of oil and coal companies who knowingly delayed action on curbing greenhouse gas emissions were committing a crime. “These CEO’s, these captains of industry,” he said in the briefing, “if they don’t change their tactics they’re guilty of crimes against humanity and nature.” He compared cordons of coal cars heading to power plants to the death trains of the Holocaust (because of the mass extinctions foreseen by many biologists should warming go unabated).

Hansen said in an interview in March: "I would say within a decade or so, that these coal plants are simply not compatible with keeping a planet resembling the one in which civilisation developed. And I think there is going to be eventually pressure to in effect bulldoze those plants, so economically they just don't make sense. You are not going to be able to leave them there 50 years."

Hanen argues that we will have to "restore the point of energy balance because as it stands now we will lose the Arctic sea ice without any more greenhouse gases, as there is additional warming in the pipeline. That means we would have to reduce the amount of CO2 at least to the 350ppm level, and we are already at 385. So, we've actually got to go backwards and it's really too bad that we didn't realise this earlier."

Does Hansen believe it's possible to reverse the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere?

"Yes, yes, it's still possible. If we get on the stick very promptly, it's still practical to do that in ways that are quite natural. The most important thing is to have a moratorium on new coal fired power plants that don't capture CO2 and then to phase out the dirty coal use over the next 2-3 decades.

If we do that, you know that the system does still take up CO2, the ocean and the soils and things, so that other things being equal, CO2 would only go up to a bit more than 400 if we phase out coal use. But then we have got to take at least 50ppm out of the atmosphere, and that is possible with improved agricultural and forestry practices, things that we have not being paying much attention to."

Britain's coal resources

The coal industry estimates there are 45 billion tonnes of recoverable UK coal reserves, which at current rates would last us 300 years. This represents around 150 billion tonnes of CO2. The industry says new mines are in development because it is becoming more cost-effective to mine rather than import, which currently costs Britain around £3 billion a year.

But just-released government energy statistics show that coal consumption fell by just under 7% in 2007, with an 8.5% decrease in consumption by the major power producers (consumers of 81% of total coal demand). Electricity supplied  from coal in 2007, actually fell from 37% in 2006 to 34% in 2007. Burning coal at home only uses 1% of coal.

The only reason the government wants to burn more coal is to reduce the demand for imported gas and replace currently offline or closing nuclear power stations. But it should invest in renewables, the power of the future, instead.

The government's BERR and coal supporters talk about using ‘Carbon Capture and Storage’ (CCS) at coal-fired power stations as a solution to climate change. This technology does not yet exist and the industry itself says it won't be ready for at least 10 years. It is also likely to be highly expensive. In America the Bush administration withdrew its support for the FutureGen CCS project in February for this reason. Despite this, the government is now deciding whether to allow seven or eight new coal fired power stations.

Opencast coal mining

Where will the coal come from? There are 17 opencast mines in the UK now, with a staggering 25 in planning or proposed (see table below).

Opencast coal mining recovers over 90% of the coal deposit, more than deep mining but leaves a huge scar on the landscape. Soil and rock are first broken up by drilling and blasting with explosives then removed by draglines or by power shovels and trucks. With the coal seam exposed, it is also drilled and blasted. Large trucks or conveyors then take it to where it will be used. These activities have the following effects on local communities, notwithstanding the climate damage:
  • Noise, such as blasting and vehicle movements
  • Dust and dirt
  • Health problems: respiratory, eye and skin conditions
  • Traffic congestion
  • Adverse visual impact and change to local landscape
  • Long term environmental damage
  • Reduced investment and lowering of property values
  • Loss of local countryside for recreation.
For example, Ffos-y-Fran is one of the biggest opencast coal mines in Europe, on the outskirts of Merthyr Tydfil. Merthyr residents have opposed the scheme for many years as the mine comes within 36 metres of the nearest homes. In England and Scotland, the scheme would have been rejected because the law requires a 500 metre buffer zone between opencast mines and residential areas.

Elsewhere, protestors have occupied Prospect Farm off Bell Lane, Smalley, Derbyshire, site of a proposed open cast mine and occupied by activists since June 2008. They were evicted on August 7.

If Britain is serious about climate change, it cannot sanction new coal mines and power stations.

Opencast coal mining sites in England and Wales: Currently producing:

Licensee Name Location
Celtic Energy Ltd Margam Opencast Bridgend, S Wales
Celtic Energy Ltd Nant Helen Extension Powys
Celtic Energy Ltd Selar Neath, Port Talbot, S wales
Dynant Fach Colliery Company Dynant Fawr Carmarthenshire
Energybuild Ltd Nant-y-Mynydd Neath, Port Talbot, S wales
H J Banks Developments Delhi Site Northumberland
H J Banks Developments Shotton Surface Mine Northumberland
UK Coal Mining Ltd Cutacre Bolton
UK Coal Mining Ltd Lodge House Derbyshire
UK Coal Mining Ltd Long Moor Leicestershire
UK Coal Mining Ltd Maidens Hall Extension Northumberland
UK Coal Mining Ltd Oxcroft Derbyshire
UK Coal Mining Ltd Sharlston West Yorkshire
UK Coal Mining Ltd Stobswood Northumberland
Minerals (UK) Ltd Bwlch Ffos Neath, Port Talbot
Ward Brothers Prestwick Pit Northumberland
Miller Argent Ffos-y-Fran Mid-Glamorgan, Wales

Opencast sites proposed/in planning process in England and Wales

Licensee Name Location Status
Bryn Bach Coal Ltd Cwn Yr Onen Colliery Reclamation Carmarthenshire  
Celtic Energy Ltd East Pit East revised Neath, Port Talbot, S wales  
Celtic Energy Ltd Margam Extension Bridgend, S Wales Planning applied for Oct 2007
Draeth Mining Pentre Mawr Carmarthenshire  
H J Banks Developments Alcan Farms Northumberland planning put in Oct 2007
H J Banks Developments Brenkley Northumberland  
H J Banks Developments Cavil Head Northumberland planning put in Oct 2007
H J Banks Developments Houndalee, nr Widdrington Northumberland Planning put in Oct 2007
H J Banks Developments Newton Lane Surface Mine Leeds  
H J Banks Developments The Cockles, nr Ulgham Northumberland Planning put in Oct 2007
Hall Construction Services Ltd Skons Park, Burnopfield Gateshead, Newcastle Planning rejected 2007. New submission expected
Parkhill Estates Ltd Caughley Quarry Shropshire  
Shires Development Ltd Corporal Lane Quarry Calderdale, yorks  
UK Coal Mining Ltd Bradley County Durham Planning expected April 2008
UK Coal Mining Ltd Butterwell, nr Ulgham Northumberland Planning expected 2008
UK Coal Mining Ltd Chesterfield Canal Derbyshire Planning expected 2008
UK Coal Mining Ltd Highthorn, nr Widdrington Northumberland planning submitted Oct 07
UK Coal Mining Ltd Huntington Lane Telford,Shropshire Planning expected 2008
UK Coal Mining Ltd Minorca Leicestershire Planning expected 2008
UK Coal Mining Ltd Park Wall North County Durham  
UK Coal Mining Ltd Potland Burn Northumberland  
UK Coal Mining Ltd Steadsburn Northumberland  
UK Coal Mining Ltd Whittonstall, nr Consett Northumberland planning submitted Oct 07
UK Coal PLC Temple Quarry Kirklees, yorks  
Unknown Whittle Colliery Northumberland


Wednesday, August 06, 2008

French nuclear cock-ups: not coming soon to a reactor near you

The collapse of the EdF takeover of British Energy is the right decision for the wrong reasons.

The private shareholders in British Energy, Invesco and M&G Investments who own 22%, greedily holding out for a higher share price, have shocked the pro-nuclear, pro-business BERR with their decision to reject EdF's £12 billion offer. The French state-owned EdF wasn't too pleased either. That sort of thing wouldn't happen in France.

The government sold all but 35% of its stake in British Energy last year. They probably rue the day now because they would love to have the £4bn in the Treasury coffers and the nuclear newbuild to go ahead. Conservative MP Peter Luff said the collapse was not necessarily a bad thing - if it had gone through, EdF would have "owned over a quarter of all electricity generation in the UK and the competition effect would've been very serious." I quite agree.

Business Secretary John Hutton has put a brave face on it: "We thought it was a good deal and were ready to accept." Like a pathetic salesman he tried to tout the land still available for anybody who wants to build a new nuclear power station: "Our commitment to nuclear power is clear.... BE still has potential sites and sites are available from the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority."

Meanwhile, British Energy is not exactly performing well. It announced in July that its Heysham and Hartlepool reactors, currently off-line due to faults, will now cost at least twice as much to repair - over £100m. Its chairman confessed that "output from our nuclear stations last year was disappointing." No kidding. And they say windfarms don't deliver.

French nuclear headaches to be exported to Britain

For those who think that new nuclear power is not a solution to either high energy prices, energy security or climate change, the EdF/BE news was positive, especially in view of the scandal rocking the French nuclear industry at the moment.

On July 7, Areva accidentally poured at least 18 cubic meters of liquid containing at least 75 kilograms of uranium onto the ground and into the river at the Tricastin nuclear site, prompting local authorities to launch an official enquiry and local people to be banned from drinking their own water. Environment Minister Jean-Louis Borloo has ordered an overhaul of France's nuclear supervision as well as groundwater checks around all nuclear plants.

President Sarkozy is keen to export French nuclear know-how around the world. Since his election, he has signed cooperation agreements on civilian nuclear energy with Algeria, America, Jordan, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, and the United Arab Emirates, among others.

France has 59 reactors supplying 80% of its electricity. The Tricastin site is a major part of the French nuclear industry, with over 5,000 employees and many sub-contracting companies. It includes the military research facility of Pierrelatte, the EDF power plant, a factory for converting natural uranium (Comurhex), and a uranium enrichment factory (Eurodiff). The latter two are subsidiaries of Areva, which wants to build new nuclear power stations in Britain.

In June a consortium led by Areva won a 17 year contract to clean up Sellafield, worth at least £50m a year. Malcolm Wicks said in a parliamentary answer just before the summer recess that the contract specified no limit on the risk to the taxpayer in the event of an accident like that at Tricastin.

The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) has given Areva indemnity if there were to be an incident, provided that it is insured against the first £140m of the damage costs.

NDA slammed for management failure as clean-up costs rise

We could have funded two London Olympics just from the rises in the estimated costs of cleaning up our nuclear waste over the past two years. The estimate is now around £73bn, according to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA).

An audit of the NDA, published also in July, says there are "inherent risks" in the way the body operates, pointing out that half of its income is dependent on unreliable sources such as fuel reprocessing at Sellafield's Thorp plant (closed since a leak was discovered in 2005). It also highlights management and accounting failures; simple things like not taking notes at minutes has led to budgetary confusion.

The audit is by the government's Select Committee on Business and Enterprise. The NDA is funded by Government funding and from commercial income. The commercial slice is "volatile and over time will decline as sites progressively close and move into the decommissioning phase," says the report. "The grant-in-aid portion of the NDA's income already represents a very sizeable proportion of BERR's annual budget - 42% of the original total Departmental Expenditure Limit (DEL) for the 2007-08 financial year."

The nuclear dilemma

It is said that your position on nuclear power comes down in part to your response to this dilemma: which is worse, the local damage caused by nuclear leaks and processed fuel lying around for 4.5 billion years (which Is the half life of depleted uranium), or the global catastrophes caused by runaway climate change?

However Britain doesn’t need to build major new power stations to keep the lights on and maintain security, according to a report just released by independent consultants Pöyry.

It says that if the UK government can meet its EU renewable energy targets and its own action plan to reduce demand through energy efficiency, then major new power stations (either coal, nuclear or gas) would not be needed to meet the country's electricity requirements up to at least 2020.