My sponsoring company, the AES Corporation*, have relaunched with a snazzy looking new website, so I thought this would be a time to give them a more direct blogging mention.
For those of you that haven’t heard of them, these are the guys that sponsor my research doctorate.
They’re a Fortune 200 global power company with generation and distribution businesses all over the world, operating with a portfolio of just about every conventional and renewable generation technology out there.
We teamed up around three years ago to look at the impact of renewable energy on existing electricity markets. A broad remit, granted, but one that gave me the freedom to pick a project that played to my strengths, and that would have a real world relevance and impact (unlike some PhDs which can end up being some interesting bits of research, but one that is ultimately never utilised).
It’s refreshing working for a power company that is genuinely forward looking, keen to be proactive and to understand how it can help facilitate renewables growth.
The team I work with, the European wing of the business (primarily for me looking at Northern Ireland and the challenges there), is giving me an excellent opportunity to respond to the very real but necessary challenges of integrating wind energy with the Irish electricity market. As I’m now slowly starting to thread together the distinct lines of inquiry my research has led me down, I’m starting to get excited about how my conclusions will influence the development of the Northern Ireland electricity system for the better.
You can read more about AES, our businesses and our values at: www.aes.com.
*I think, for clarification purposes I should mention here that this blog has always been, and will continue to be “all views my own”.
I’ve finally got around to something that I’ve being to for a long time… upload my research poster! The poster has been done for a long time now, it’s just that uploading it has been at the bottom of the list of a long things to do for a while, and it didn’t look like that list was ever going to diminish to the point that I’d get it done.
If you’re unfamiliar with my research it should give you an overview of what it is I do and why it’s important. I’ve tried to cut down the jargon, but the language is still a bit stuffy and techy (hey, it is an academic research poster), but I’ve tried to explain all of the important terms so hopefully it’s reasonably accessible.
Ok, last post in this series.
We’ve now covered the problems with carrying on as we are in terms of generating electricity (basically, we can’t!), and have tackled two of the three technologies that can help us deal with this challenge. Finally, a little bit wiser hopefully, we are on to the technologies I originally wanted to discuss… renewables.
There are a huge number of renewable technologies, including:
· Onshore wind
· Offshore wind
· Solar PV
· Solar CSP
In the UK we are blessed with one of the best wind, wave and tidal resources in Europe, all forms of renewable energy that can be developed and exploited to our benefit. Renewable energy is a broad field, and not one technology, but an umbrella term for many different technologies with different respective advantages and characteristics.
Their common benefits are that they utilize naturally replenishing resources, rather than finite fossil fuels, or finite nuclear fuels. Their fuels, the wind, the waves, the tides, are all free. They are zero carbon, and provide a huge potential opportunity for manufacturing, innovation and growth. Anything else about them has to be said individually, as they have different characteristics that offer different drawbacks and benefits. To avoid cramming this all into one post, I will have to tackle these individually at one point or another in the future. For now, suffice to say these can work in a very complimentary way, and many technological developments can help some of their potential drawbacks.
There has been silence on the blogging front for a little while, as I am away at the World Renewable Energy Forum in Denver, Colorado. Although this means I will not be updating here for a while, this is one of the most social media active international conferences I’ve attended, and you can keep up to date by following my updates on twitter. Normal blogging service to resume soon.
CCS is a technology that allows us to produce electricity through the conventional fossil-fuel based processes, but with the added task of capturing and storing all the carbon dioxide that is emitted to the atmosphere. Such a solution is certainly convenient if it can be made reality; it allows us to use electricity generation technologies that we have used for more than 100 years. Conventional power also is more flexible in its ability to vary its output compared to nuclear, which makes it more compatible with variable output renewables.
All the individual steps to make CCS technologically feasible already exist, and are used in a variety of industries for various purposes. However, bringing them all together in a commercially competitive manner is still a worryingly distant goal. The cost uncertainty is not as much as an issue as for nuclear – we know CCS will be expensive!
A number of demonstration projects being attempted, (the Global CCS Institute reports 74 large scale demonstrations around the world) , but in Europe the CCS movement has stalled, with demonstrations both in the UK (Longannet in Scotland) and Germany (Vattenfall Jänschwalde) cancelled due to funding and regulatory issues respectively.
A drawback of this technology is that the storage aspect of CCS is surrounded by uncertainty. Many novel techniques have been proposed to store carbon dioxide, but the most proven are those already used by the oil and gas industry; namely to pump CO2 back into gas and oil fields. Historically, this has been used to enhance oil recovery rates, but the goal of permanently storing the CO2 is more challenging. Even if carbon can be stored in such a way, we need to be certain that it will not leak out over time, for example by escaping through cracks in the impermeable geology we are trying to trap it in. We will be doing the climate no favours if we adopt this technology and merely delay the rate of carbon escaping into the atmosphere by a few decades.
The main concern, at least for me, is that the added energy input required to capture the carbon reduces the efficiency of the power plant. This means more fossil fuels have to be burned at an even greater rate to sustain the same amount of electricity production. With a growingly scarce resource, this seems like a foolhardy approach.
Nuclear power is a non-renewable resource. It is, however, low carbon. There are two main types of nuclear power; fission and fusion. Fission operates on the principle of breaking apart atoms to release energy, fusion on slamming them together. There are no commercial fusion reactors in the world (though there are demonstration models), a technology which attempts to replicate the type of reaction that is fuelling our sun. Fission on the other hand has been used since the late 1940s, following the development of the atomic bomb, and is based upon the same principle. To be clear, when I refer to nuclear power, I refer to fission, rather than fusion.
A nuclear reactor, once built, is able to produce very large amounts of energy very cheaply, assuming the cost of Uranium processing do not increase in the future, and that nuclear power runs much as it has in the past – as what is known as base load power. Base load power is essentially a continual steady supply of energy near full output, and no variation from this pattern.
As the technology has been around close to 70 years, we also know it is commercially proven, unlike CCS or some of the more experimental renewable technologies.
The first drawback to nuclear power is that reactors are very expensive to build. Nuclear reactors are hugely complex. Extensive planning and safety considerations need to be met. This makes them difficult to finance; few companies are willing to make an investment in a technology that will take some 30 years to pay back.
Furthermore, at the end of a nuclear reactor’s life, it has to be decommissioned. This involves taking apart the reactor and remediating the site, i.e. dealing with the nuclear waste and radiation. This is expensive, and is another big issue for investors – not only are you asking a business to front a large bill to construct the reactor, and take the payback over several decades, you are then asking them to pay a significant cost at the end of the project. The German nuclear decommissioning costs that were a result of German policymakers decision to retire it’s nuclear capacity (as a backlash to the Fukashima incident) have also stalled development plans in the UK, with RWE and E.ON both pulling out of new developments.
Another concern is the radioactive waste that is a by-product of the fission reaction. Though small in volume, a long-term solution for dealing with this waste (as opposed to just storing it) has never adequately been addressed. This becomes a greater concern if nuclear becomes adopted worldwide as the solution to decarbonizing our grids, as the volumes of waste will greatly increase.
Public perception of safety is another concern. Disasters such as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukashima all tar the image of nuclear. Personally, I feel the media overplays the danger of nuclear; there are valid concerns over safety and rightly so, however, we do not hear the same hype over the number of deaths associated with the coal industry, where a tragic number of lives are lost in third world countries mining coal. I may at some point return to the Fukashima reactor, because it’s an interesting case to learn from, but I would stress that though a large area of land has been exposed to radiation that makes it unsafe to inhabit, no one has to my knowledge reportedly died from the accident. This is compared to the 15,000 lives so far accounted for taken by the combined earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan and led to the nuclear incident. A sense of proportion to risk nuclear presents must be maintained.
Another, more political issue is the concern of nuclear proliferation. In other words, the danger of a civil nuclear program being used to mask a military development of nuclear weapons in less stable countries (such concerns have been raised with Iran), or the risk of nuclear materials being stolen from a power plant for nefarious purposes.
A final concern to note is the inflexibility of generation. Nuclear is cheap because it generates at full output all the time. It is difficult to use nuclear in anything other than an on/off state. This makes it somewhat incompatible with wind, which requires a degree of flexibility in other generation to account for the variability in its supply of electricity.
So given the security of supply, fossil fuel scarcity and climate change concerns, we now have a much more compelling basis to consider alternative forms of generating electricity. We have three choices: Nuclear Power, Carbon Capture and Storage and, finally, Renewables.
I’ll dedicate my next few blog posts to these technologies in turn. I will not elaborate on how they work or debate them in detail; merely present the benefits and concerns with them. If you do wish to learn more, I’ll be happy to point you in the direction of any resources.
On to the final of our three arguments of why our fossil fuel based economy can’t continue, and perhaps the most fundamental of all. Even the skeptics of climate change and those unconcerned by security of supply find it difficult to argue with the fact that fossil fuels are a finite resource that will run out, potentially within our lifetime. Coal, gas and oil have all formed over millions of years, by the slow relentless buildup of heat and pressure of many layers of geology. They cannot be replenished in our lifetimes. They will run out; the question is simply a matter of when.
Calculating how large the reserves of fossil fuels are in the subterranian world under our feet is an uncertain and imprecise art, and for this reason, estimates vary widely. It is normally quoted as an “X years supply remaining” figure, though of course this relies heavily on the assumptions that are made regarding future consumption patterns. All trends point upwards, given the rapid development of countries such as India and China.
It is widely accepted that there is substantial more coal than gas or oil that has not been tapped into, perhaps enough to last several hundred years. It is more labour intensive to extract, requiring extensive mining operations rather than wells, and it’s quality varies largely; there are many different types of coal, depending primarily on the age of the seam. The “best” coal, and the longest pressurized, is anthracite, which resembles a very hard rock, the weakest for use as a fuel is peat, which is still almost like a soil. These fuels all burn with very different qualities; poorer coals such as lignite and peat produce less energy and a lot more ash per unit burnt compared to anthracite.
Our oil and gas reserves look a lot less short lived than coal. Estimates of reserves vary considerably, and it is again very difficult to know how significant the resource we actually have is. Oil and gas come from deep under the earth’s surface, something we can only probe at. It is not a simple metric to measure, and most predictions involve statistically including reserves that we have not discovered (probable reserves) in addition to those we know we have (proven reserves). Depending how optimistic you are about finding new reserves, you get rather different answers regarding how much supply of oil we have left. Estimates are typically in the range of 50-70 years supply for both.
There is still considerable debate as to whether a world peak of oil production will occur, and whether a sharp decline will follow. Economists and oil companies argue that advances in exploration and adapting technology to unconventional fuels (e.g. shale oil fracking) will delay the peak and prevent a sharp decline, or even plateau it indefinitely, buying the world time to develop a technology to replace oil, whereas many geologists believe that the peak is imminent.
In either case, there is a matter of time running out that forces our hand… climate change, security of supply and scarcity of finite fossil fuels all mean we need to transition to producing electricity another way, and within only a few decades. No mean feat. Next time… what are our options?
Last time I discussed the first of the arguments for moving away from fossil fuel based generation, summarising that climate change, while certainly supported by a vast body of evidence, is not well communicated with the public and this has led to acceptance issues.
This time, we shall consider the second argument of those I identified in Part I, relating to security of supply.
Security of supply is a very serious sounding term, the likes of which is used by dour men in Westminster, wearing somber coloured suits, tutting quietly and beguiling the state of things. The term simply means ensuring that our electricity supply is not interrupted. That the lights stay on. Always.
Our economy depends on an uninterrupted supply of electricity. Our economy would not function without it. The stock market, the internet, motors… all run off this invisible supply, carried by transmission and distribution lines up and down the country. A blackout costs the economy billions. Worse still, it can cost lives.
If we accept the climate change argument, we already have a strong argument to move to sustainable, low carbon forms of energy. Even if we do not, there is a second valid concern regarding our dependency on other countries for the fuel we use. In the UK, we produce electricity with a lot of gas and coal. We have limited resources of gas and rely heavily on imports. Even though we do have coal reserves, we get a lot of it from other countries because it’s cheaper.
As fossil fuel resources become scarcer (or alternatively, more expensive to process, for example with shale gases), electricity prices will be forced to rise. Competition increases, and we will struggle to continue with a reliable supply of fuel. The Russia-Ukraine gas crisis of 2006 is a classic example of the danger of relying on one country for much of the fuel used in our power mix. If we rely on gas, and our gas is primarily piped from Russia, what happens if the supply is switched off? Security of supply. Tutting dour men in Westminster.
Food for thought, even for the climate skeptics. Next time: the final of the three main arguments; fossil fuel scarcity.
The argument that our earth’s climate is changing, and that this is due to our human activity, has been a point of discussion for many, many years.
Over time the strength of argument has grown, with more studies and more verification. There is a strong consensus of the scientific community that anthropogenic (human influenced) global warming is occurring, and that we need to sharply reduce our carbon emissions to limit the change to our climate that has been set into motion.
Sadly, scientists (with notable exceptions of characters such as Brian Cox and Robert Winston), have a poor track record at engaging with the general public, and explaining science. The job is often left to the media, whose job is to entertain as well as to inform.
Notable scandals and controversies, such as “climategate” undermine this consensus in the eye of the public. This is seized to political advantage, and climate change is presented as the need to change the way we change we think about our energy consumption as an unnecessary tax. A con.
If you investigate the University of East Anglia emails for yourself (Go on… I’ve linked it), you might be surprised to find there is nothing in fact to the hype of the media regarding the scandal. Of course, most of us do not have time to investigate these things for ourselves, and rely on the media to inform of us of current affairs. This is where the seeds of doubt are presented in our minds and why the climate change argument keeps re-emerging; consensus is boring. People don’t want to read about it.
This is a very difficult PR problem for the scientific community to overcome. We, as a community, need to be able to convey our research across more effectively.
If you are a climate skeptic, I would encourage you to look at the reports of the IPCC if you wish to delve into the science, and to watch Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth even if you are not. These set out the case for anthropogenic climate change a lot better than I ever could. Be wary also of the anti-climate science used to dispute these findings. Some are perfectly reputable studies, discovered by the media and use out of context to report something the scientist did not intend to be understood. Others are based on cherry picking evidence (case in point, the “Climategate” emails). Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science is an excellent resource to arm yourself against disputable techniques used in the anti-climate science camp, and indeed in all aspects of science.
That’s enough for this post. This is a big topic and one that could never be adequately addressed in a few paragraphs, but hopefully there’s enough food for thought there to go out and investigate if you find yourself doubting climate change because of what you have read in the media.