Archive for the ‘Energy’ Category

A Liberal Energy Policy

Friday, May 13th, 2011

A few days ago I said we must define policy in our own liberal terms. One areas where I think we can do this to great effect is energy. It is widely understood that we support “Green” energy proposals, but what I think has been missed is that by defining energy policy in liberal terms makes our energy policy truly distinctive and provides a solid justification for why it must be green.

Underlying many green proposals lie implicit life-style compromises, often expressed as a dislike for air travel and personal transport (cars). Most green advocates want increased use of public transport and want to change peoples’ behaviour, often desiring to restrict their freedoms. For example, by making fuel unaffordable or by restricting access to cities for cars. Take the Green Party as an example. They aim for the economy to “reduce its demand for energy to a sustainable minimum” with “measures to penalise the use of large engines in cars; measures to discourage private and encourage public transport”. Don’t get me wrong, many of their policy proposals are laudable (and we have similar policies) but they start with a fundamental premise that life-style must be compromised.

These compromises go largely unchallenged except by some of the climate change deniers. But one of the great changes that has happened in the last half century is that most people – whether rich or poor – can afford cars and can travel freely and cheaply around the world. This has widened peoples’ horizons, giving not only direct exposure to different cultures but also the ability to live remotely from work, often in nicer surroundings. I would hate it if, as a consequence of green policy, these things once more became luxuries only available to the rich.

So as liberals, our starting point must be that we don’t want to compromise life-style or force illiberal behavioural changes onto people. Instead, we must forge policy that is liberal and without such compromises. Note that I didn’t use the word “green”. However, it is clear that liberal principles dictate a “green” policy: if we continue to pour CO2 into the atmosphere at the current rate, our descendants will be forced to live in a world with diminishing biodiversity, rising sea levels and more extreme weather. This would restrict their freedoms in an illiberal and unacceptable manner. So personal liberalism alone forces an energy policy that addresses the issue of CO2 emissions (actually I think we must go further than just tackling emissions and should introduce bulk sequestration, but that is a post for another time!).

Fundamental to this must be a switch to zero-carbon energy sources (you can find my series of posts outlining that challenge here). This switch must cover not just electricity generation but also domestic heating and transportation and means that over the next fifty years we must more than double our generation capacity, building almost 200GW of GHG-free capacity.

I don’t want to revisit how this 200GW should be generated. Instead, I want to consider the domestic heating and transportation aspects. Here it is clear that merely generating electricity doesn’t solve the problem. We must also address how to turn this electricity into heat for houses and into fuel for cars. So a direct consequence of a liberal energy policy is that it demands significant innovation and research which in turn will lead to jobs and economic growth.

Part of our policy must also look at how we best use the energy we generate. One area that springs to mind here is the energy efficiency of our homes, where 62% of homes fall into the worst bands (E-G). So a liberal energy policy must also improve the efficiency of existing properties (by insulation, double glazing, etc) making them cheaper to heat.

So by thinking about energy policy in liberal terms results in an energy strategy that:

  • Preserves the freedom of people to own cars and have access to cheap air travel
  • Is “Green,” switching electricity generation, domestic heating and personal transportation to zero-GHG technologies
  • Improves our housing stock
  • Drives innovation and research
  • Creates jobs and drives economic growth

Transition to a Green Economy – revisited

Saturday, April 2nd, 2011

After the terrible earthquake and tsunami in Japan and, in particular, the ongoing events at Fukushima, I’m going to briefly revisit the topic of zero-carbon energy.

Have these events changed my opinion that nuclear power should play a significant role in our future energy supply? No. To quote Lewis Page of The Register “Operating nuclear power stations is not just very safe, or safer than other methods of generating power. It has to be one of the safest forms of activity undertaken by the human race.”.

This may be a controversial view, but when you look at the outcome of the Tōhoku earthquake, some 28,000 people are estimated to have died. In comparison, any deaths from Fukushima would pale into insignificance (not that I expect any). It should also be remembered that no modern design would have ANY of the problems experienced at Fukushima, which is a 1960′s design, built on a site with fundamental weaknesses (seawall too low, no provision for site inundation, no provision for regional infrastructure collapse). Again, no modern design would have these flaws.

In fairness to TEPCO and the Japanese authorities, the site WAS prepared for both earthquakes and tsunamis. But it was designed in the 1970s before plate tectonics and megathrust earthquakes were properly understood . . . I’ll be very interested to see over the next months and years whether they had had plans in place to upgrade (or close) the site.

The main thing Fukushima highlights for me is the woeful lack of understanding of science within the media. ALL the early coverage of the events was riddled with sensational alarmist reporting which even a minimal understanding of science and a bit of googling would have quashed.

Transition to a Green Economy 3

Thursday, June 3rd, 2010

Before I get going, I want to make an assertion: we should be investing more in low-carbon energy sources rather than compromising on lifestyle!  Many plans for reaching a low or zero carbon economy assume significant degradation of lifestyle, particularly travel.

Personally, I don’t want to return to a world where travel is the preserve of the rich.  I want a world where people have access to simple, cheap, personal and international transport and where people have many electrical and electronic devices in the home.  So I want to show that this is possible and feasible!

So let’s reassess the need for that extra 187GW. Will we really need that much?  Clearly if we compromise on lifestyle, savings can be made.  But I want to examine whether this number accounts for known trends I previously glossed over.

I derived the figure from estimated 2012/13 production (~95GW) and the proportion of GHG emissions produced by electricity generation, transport and heating. This calculation still holds, but I missed several factors.

  1. Population growth. I assumed essentially zero growth. In reality, our population is expected to grow, with ONS projections putting the population as high as 71.6 million by 2033 – i.e. 16% growth.  Presumably these extra people will need electricity, so I’ve underestimated significantly.
  2. Increased numbers of electrical / electronic devices per household.  As should be obvious to everyone, there has been an explosion in the numbers of electrical and electronic appliances over the last 30 years.  I expect this trend to continue as more people buy additional computers, printers, TVs for other rooms, etc.  However, I think this is likely to be offset by increased efficiency of these devices.   For example, LCD TVs are much more energy efficient than plasma, and LED-backlit TVs are even more so.  As technology improves, it will use less power (I know, it’s my job!).
  3. Standby efficiency of electrical / electronic devices.  Current devices have very high standby power, by some estimates this accounts for about 8% to 10% of household consumption.  The technology exists to reduce this to almost zero.  As people’s behaviour is difficult to change, legislation on the standby power of new devices seems the best way of achieving this reduction.
  4. Increased efficiency of domestic lighting.  Roughly 19% of electricity (18GW) is used on domestic lighting, most of which is incandescent.  Incandescent bulbs are about 5% efficient, so with 100% efficiency this could be reduced to 900MW.  Current low-energy bulbs are about 30% efficient and LEDs are about 80% efficient, so it seems reasonable to assume <5GW will be needed for domestic lighting (assuming a reasonable uptake of LED lighting).  This adds up to a saving of ~13GW (about 7%).
  5. Increased thermal efficiency of housing.  At present, only 8% of housing is rated in bands A – C for energy efficiency and62% is rated in bands E – G.  As space heating accounts for ~60% of household energy demand, any improvement here will significantly reduce the electricity demand.

I think that is as quantitative as I can get!  Population growth will add ~16% to the total required; standby efficiency improvements will reduce it by ~8%; use of LED lighting will reduce it by ~7%.  That is, these factors roughly balance out.  This leaves improvements in housing, where I can’t find any good estimates.

One concrete thing we can do is on labelling of devices.  When the EU energy label for “cold” appliances was introduced in 1999, it improved the average efficiency of these by 15% in 15 months (see here, box 4)!  Introduction of similar labels for TVs, computers and other items should have a similar noticeable effect.

In summary, I think I’ll stick with my initial estimate though it is fraught with uncertainties.

Transition to a Green Economy 2

Friday, May 28th, 2010

Before I talk about where can we get 187GW of low-GHG capacity, I think it is worth outlining the carbon cost of all the methods.  The numbers below are for the complete life-cycle of the plant, from extraction of raw materials an fuel through to decommissioning costs:

  • Coal:  >1,000g/kWh.  800g/kWh can be achieved with gasification technology.  200g/kWH may be possible with Carbon Capture and Storage.
  • Oil: 650g/kWh.
  • Nuclear: ~5g/kWh
  • Wind: ~5g/kWh
  • Wave and tidal:  25-50g/kWh.  High due to large amount of steel required
  • Solar-cells: 58g/kWh.  High due to extraction of silicon from sand.

For bulk generation, I’m going to rule out water and solar-cells as they are significantly worse than both nuclear and wind.  For small local systems, solar-cells are useful; I’m less convinced by wave and tidal.

This leaves nuclear and wind as the two low-GHG options.

There are two options for new nuclear power stations: the AP1000 and the EPR (the ACR-1000 and the ESBWR were initially considered but the proposing companies withdrew them from consideration).  The AP1000 and the EPR have both completed phase 3 assessments by the government and both have moved to phase 4 (completion June 2011) with recommendations for design changes.  For now, I’m going to look at the numbers for the EPR because it has a higher capacity (1650MWe versus 1154MWe) and is European.

For offshore wind, the largest wind-turbine is 10MW, from Sway in Norway.  Most other large turbines (onshore and offshore) are in the 5MW range.

Before you moan that I’m obviously pro-nuclear because of how much detail I provided compared to the amount for wind, I did this because nuclear power is contentious!  Wind is not contentious and there are several suppliers.

There are three extreme scenarios for generating the full 187GW from low-GHG sources: all-nuclear and all onshore or offshore wind:

  • Using the EPR would require 114 reactors.
  • Using 10MW offshore wind would require 18,700 turbines (covering roughly 1,000 square kilometres).
  • Using 5MW onshore wind would require 37,400 turbines (covering roughly 2,000 square kilometres).

Hopefully this demonstrates that both approaches have issues!  With nuclear, the main issue is public concern over safety; with wind, public concern about aesthetics.

That feels like enough for now (and I need to go to work:-)).  Still to come: cost, sites, and transition from current situation, carbon sequestration, etc.

Transition to a Green Economy

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

Given our commitments to moving to a “carbon free” economy, I thought I’d take a break from Europe and look at some of the implications of this.  I think they are much bigger than people realise.

Let’s start with the big picture. 65% of our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are from three sources: electricity generation (28%), non-electric heating and hot-water (16%) and transport (21%).

There is one more large contributor, which is combustion and other processes in industry which accounts for a further 19%, but I have no idea what to do with this so for now, I’ll ignore it!

Conversion of electricity generation to low-GHG sources is an obvious target, and non-electric heating and transport can also be reduced to almost zero by use of low-GHG electricity sources.

So what does this mean for electricity generation? By 2012/13, the UK aggregate power station capacity will be ~95GW.  Of this, 10% will be nuclear (9.5GW) and ~4% will be wind (~4GW).  The remaining 86% (~82GW) will be from high-GHG sources (which accounts for that 28% figure above).

To cover the requirements for non-electric heating and transport, we would probably need to double our aggregate electricity generation capacity.  This is a difficult calculation to make as the differences in efficiency are difficult to assess.  For example, petrol or diesel engines are considerably less efficient than power stations, but replacing them with either battery power or hydrogen adds other inefficiencies.  So I’ve made the simple assumption that these roughly cancel out.

This doubling of capacity means we will need an additional 95GW of low-GHG sources in addition the to conversion of 82GW to low-GHG sources.  Also, the 9.5GW of nuclear needs replacement soon.  In total, over the next 20+ years we need to build ~187GW of low-GHG capacity.   This is an immense task!

To give you an idea how big, our biggest power station (Drax) generates 3.9GW, so we need to create roughly 50 times this in low-GHG capacity!

I’ll talk about the options in the next post.  Suffice it so say for now that I think nuclear is very much on the table.