25 November 2005

Polly Toynbee hits the spot again.

"This is not cold weather for late November. There is no energy shortage. Domestic gas bills are the lowest in the EU. Electricity is 10% cheaper than in 1997. A few imprudent industries refused fixed prices to play the energy spot market, but squeal now the market is against them. They represent only 0.05% of industry, despite the CBI's Digby Jones crying wolf over yet another "government crisis"."

This time Polly Toynbee has turned her attention to nuclear power.

"Global warming is more dangerous than any other threat. Its progress is certain, its deadly effect already striking down the weakest. A few Chernobyls would do nothing like the damage caused by melting ice caps, flood and drought. Let's all agree on that, right? Nuclear power with low CO2 emissions is better than doing nothing."

"Get this clear: for all the waste and terrorist threats it produces, nuclear power, if it is maintained, will still only prevent 10% of the rise in our CO2 emissions because electricity represents a relatively small part of our total energy use. Yet it is discussed as if it were the only show in town, as if nothing else has to be done."

"the government has had to give the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority £56bn to clean up after existing nuclear plants. That wasted cash is more than enough to provide as much renewable energy as we could use, by anyone's sums."

"If the world is nuclear, all the money will go into that one technology. If the world is definitely not nuclear, then it makes it worth investing in a host of tidal, wind, solar, bio-mass, clean coal, carbon sequestration and micro home-generators. Any or all of them could employ millions and develop highly exportable new technologies."

I couldn't have put this any better or any more succinctly. Well done Polly.

12 comments:

  1. There is one minor problem with wind power: it's intermittent and slightly seasonal, and you would need to build quite a lot to ensure that you always have enough to cope with peak demand.

    This is certainly fixable, but requires one or both of two things:

    - better storage technology. Ffestiniog pumped storage works, but is only capable of handling a few % of electricity consumption. Please don't say hydrogen, the efficiency is awful.

    - dynamic "smart" demand management. Imagine running a signal cable along every power wire that tells devices on the end the spot price. So when all the domestic users turn their kettles on at half-time, the industrial HVAC powers down briefly. This technology could cut both prices and consumption, but would be the most radical change to electricity supply since Tesla introduced AC.


    I agree entirely with Toynbee on this one about the tendancy for people to lie about the cost of nuclear power and the problem of decommisioning. Although it could probably be done cheaper if (a) the people desiging the power station thought about its decomissioning and didn't use e.g. liquid sodium coolant, and (b) the public weren't quite so scared of low-level waste which is less radioactive than Cornwall or coal ash dumps.

    ReplyDelete
  2. the public weren't quite so scared of low-level waste which is less radioactive than Cornwall

    Heh. I like this; we should encourage the press to use "the Cornwall" as a unit of radioactivity, rather as they use "the Nelson's Column" or "the London Bus" as a measure of distance.

    ReplyDelete
  3. if it is maintained, will still only prevent 10% of the rise in our CO2 emissions because electricity represents a relatively small part of our total energy use

    That's a fairly typical piece of Toynbee stats-mangling, on at least four fronts.

    Firstly, electricity generation accounts for roughly 40% of world primary energy use; hardly a small fraction.

    Secondly, "if it is maintained" is a weasel phrase. Nobody is suggesting that we should maintain nuclear power generation at its present level. There is no reason not to go from the current level of roughly 20%, up to maybe 80%. It worked for the French.

    Thirdly, almost all non-transport energy requirements can be addressed by electricity. We only heat our houses with gas, oil and coal because they are cheap. If we have to, and oil prices rise to levels which make it financially viable, I'm sure we could even cobble together some sort of transport infrastructure based on (say) industrial methanol synthesis, again given a decent supply of cheap, clean electricity.

    Fourthly, if her major criticism of nuclear (that it's impact is limited, somehow, to 10% of CO2) emissions, surely a similar line of reasoning applies to renewables.

    Any or all of them could employ millions and develop highly exportable new technologies.

    Is she really saying that "employing millions" is a worthy goal? Surely, to remain competitive as a country we should be aiming to employ _as_few_ people to generate our power as possible.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Clean technology using biomass in coal-powered stations could become CO2 emission negative, eating more CO2 in growing fuel than is produced in burning it.

    Holy crap, it pays to RTFA. What can this mean? Either she's talking about carbon sequestration, or she's been burning a bit too much of her own personal brand of biomass.

    This sort of thing does the green movement no credit at all.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Oh I'd missed that last one. Well, that's obviously nonsense. Also, you have to watch the CO2 cost of biofuels: the Americans distil fuel ethanol using natural gas, which consumes about 75% of the energy available from the resulting ethanol. It's a form of subsidy farming.

    http://ergosphere.blogspot.com/ is a great resource for this subject, as it involves actual numbers. Back-of-envelope stuff, but good for ruling out the outrageous.

    http://ergosphere.blogspot.com/2004/11/where-to-go-from-here.html
    " There are also things we should not do, such as ethanol from corn. This fuel should be strongly discouraged; it requires 1 BTU of fossil inputs to produce only 1.2 BTU of alcohol. 10% ethanol mixes qualify for forgiveness of the $.19/gallon Federal gasoline tax, amounting to a subsidy of roughly $11.40 per gallon of non-fossil energy. This ill-conceived farm subsidy program and others like it should be terminated immediately and the money rolled into programs which actually work. "

    ReplyDelete
  6. Peter clay: "There is one minor problem with wind power: it's intermittent and slightly seasonal, and you would need to build quite a lot to ensure that you always have enough to cope with peak demand."

    Nobody is saying that wind power should provide ALL our energy needs. But it is realistic that it can replace the 20% that nuclear currently provides. At the moment wind provides less than 1% of our power, when countries like Denmark are aiming towards 50% of their power from wind, we surely can do better than 1%.

    I notice none of you are denying the economic arguments Polly highlights. Renewable energy is cheaper and cleaner than nuclear. Doesn't it make economic sense to develop technology there rather than nuclear?

    Eben: I'm not necessarily against nuclear power completely (it could play a minor diminishing role) , but I think expanding it massively to produce 80% of our energy needs would be a bad idea. For example, France is storing up massive nuclear waste problems for thousands of years to come. Are you suggesting we copy France?

    I agree that 'employing millions' is not a good argument for renewable. I'm not really sure why Polly put that in there.

    On the biomass point, I assume Polly is talking about carbon sequestration.

    Overall I think spending 100s of bilions of pounds on developing Nuclear is a bad idea when renewable technology and energy saving could give us a safe clean alternative.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I notice none of you are denying the economic arguments Polly highlights.

    I'm not keen on a discussion carried out on planning application rules (if an objection isn't mentioned in one round, consent is implied). The economic case for some renewable generation seems pretty clear cut. The problem is that, with the exception of hydro, there's no evidence that renewables can make an appreciable contribution to baseload capacity.

    At the moment wind provides less than 1% of our power, when countries like Denmark are aiming towards 50% of their power from wind, we surely can do better than 1%.

    See my earlier comments about Denmark's very suspicious pattern of electricity imports and exports, and about the systematic overstatement of Denmark's existing wind generation capactity on the part of the green movement.

    For example, France is storing up massive nuclear waste problems for thousands of years to come.

    I assume they plan to bury the high-level stuff in the Pyrenees somewhere, and wait for the low-level stuff to cool off, just like we should be doing.

    Are you suggesting we copy France?

    I think that it's pretty clear from my original post that this is exactly what I'm advocating.

    This is about the need to replace the baseload capacity that we will lose if we stop using fossil fuels in power stations. It's also about the fact that people like Toynbee, intelligent people who must know that what they are suggesting makes no sense, are nonetheless prepared to stand up and advocate schemes which can't possibly work.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I'm not denying the economic benefits, and I'm not denying that electricity generated from wind is cheaper. I am concerned about the electricity "not generated", that is the "baseline" power requirements for when the wind is not blowing. Denmark is rather dependant on baseline hydroelectric imports from Scandinavia:

    http://www.dea-ccat.dk/e21dk/eleccorr.htm

    (I know that page doesn't quite illustrate the problem, it illustrates a different one, why Denmark's CO2 emissions are rising. I need to put together a full explanation of the baseline problem, which will take ages)

    ReplyDelete
  9. I assume they plan to bury the high-level stuff in the Pyrenees somewhere, and wait for the low-level stuff to cool off, just like we should be doing.

    Note to self: although this is appealing, I think we might end up having to use the Lake District instead.

    ReplyDelete
  10. http://www.eeca.govt.nz/eeca-library/renewable-energy/wind/summary/wind-integration-in-nz-report-summary-05.pdf

    We need one of these: a sensible government review. Unfortunately, the last thing we're going to get out of this government is a review where the answer has not been politically determined in advance.

    Read the PDF: it does a VERY good job of explaining the problems briefly in nontechnical terms, and says that the limit in NZ of wind use is about 35% of capacity. I suspect a similar figure will apply here.

    So, given the limit, what do we do to generate the remaining 65% of our electricity?

    ReplyDelete
  11. Cheers for the links guys, v. interesting stuff. After reading George Monbiot struggle to make a case for renewables in the Guardian today, I'm coming to the conclusion that we are going to need 'some' nuclear capacity. I'm not convinced we need to follow the French though.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Good luck. Here in Ontario, Canada, we are experimenting with smart meters...ones which charge you high during peak periods, and low during the night. Do your laundry at night! We have the technology....now to change the habits of a nation!

    ReplyDelete