Archive for March 2011
Monbiot and Lynas Don’t Get It
UN nuclear monitors have advised Japan to consider expanding the evacuation zone around the stricken reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. An exclusion zone with a radius of 20km (12 miles) is currently in place but the UN says safe radiation limits have been exceeded 40km away. Meanwhile, radioactive iodine levels in seawater near the plant reached a new record – 4,385 times the legal limit.
What do the apologists reckon the total cost of the first evacuation, a second evacuation and the eventual clean-up is going to be? Certainly many many billions. And who will pay for that? Not TEPCO – it looks like they are going to be nationalised. When it comes to climate change mitigation there is no such thing as a cheap lunch – and nuclear power is once again proving to be very expensive and more than a bit indigestable.
This is the first nuclear accident in a densely populated area in a ‘civilised’ country with a top engineering reputation . . . and it has exposed the true potential cost of nuclear power, far beyond the ability of a private energy company to deal with. Why should the Japanese taxpayer put up with the disruption and cost? Where now ‘unsubsidised’ nuclear power in the UK?
No, this does not prove how wonderful nuclear power is – and every day TEPCO and the government fail to get on top of it and the situation worsens another nail is driven into the nuclear industry’s coffin. Monbiot and Lynas are going to look like utter idiots when this is over – Monbiot more so because at least Lynas is not a recent convert.
Wake Up, Freak Out – Then Get a Grip
So far man-made emissions of greenhouse gases have only warmed the planet by 0.8 degrees and effects have been minor and difficult to measure. This has led many to dismiss the claims of climate scientists as exaggerated, with some even claiming a conspiracy against our whole way of life by groups with narrow agendas. As a result the push for renewable energy is slowed or watered down.
There are two elements in this debate that need clarified. The first is the fact that even if we stabilise atmospheric CO2 at the current level global temperatures will keep on rising for 50 years. The second is the concept of tipping points. There are a number of vital mechanisms - such as the ability of the oceans to absorb CO2 and the albedo effect of ice cover - that will be affected by rising temperatures in a way that is liable to set up a feedback loop, increasing the rate of change. At some point a tipping point will be reached where a manageable two degrees of warming suddenly ‘runs away’ and results in a world perhaps six degrees warmer, with catastrophic implications for human life on this planet.
Scientists cannot yet predict exactly when we will reach a tipping point - but the geological record shows that this has happened (with different triggers obviously) in the past, with associated mass extinctions. By turning our backs on the problem becasue it is difficult or painful we are playing with the future of human civilisation on this planet. This eleven and a half minute video explains the concepts involved in simple terms.
Europe’s Offshore Powerhouse
Scotland has some of the best natural offshore renewable energy resources. Her coastal seas and offshore waters provide perfect conditions for the development of commercialisation of wind and tidal renewable energy technology.
Tidal barrages or nuclear power – U-turns and twitchers
On October 18th 2010 Chris Huhne, the UK Energy Secretary, publicly scrapped plans for a Severn tidal barrage that would have generated 5% of the UK’s future energy needs. In its place he announced eight potential sites for building new nuclear power stations by 2025 that would generate an equivalent amount of electricity.
There are several facets of this that are disturbing. From the political point of view this represented another huge LibDem U-turn. Huhne stood on a no-nuclear ticket at the general election and had long been a vocal opponent of nuclear power. Here’s what Huhne had to say about nuclear power in 2007:
“Nuclear is a tried, tested and failed technology. New nuclear would be economically foolhardy, environmentally irresponsible and pose long-term security questions that are impossible to address. “If we opt for a new generation of nuclear reactors, future generations may rue the day. We will be encumbering them with high costs and enormous and unknowable liabilities. We will miss a key opportunity to pioneer a green future.”
One of the major objectors to the Severn Barrage was the RSPB, who were primarily worried about the effect on the habitat of wading birds. There is no evidence that a long-term decrease in overall UK wader populations would occur despite strenuous efforts on the RSPB’s part to show otherwise, but they seemto be an unnaturally powerful body. This remarkable little quango of middle-aged cardigan-wearing twitchers seem to have taken over swathes of our countryside for no logical reason and with little success (think corncrakes) even by their own standards. In addition to their barrage wars they have objected to every major windfarm, making them de facto friends of the nuclear industry.
Nearer to home, the only estuary in Scotland with potential for a useful tidal barrage is the Solway. The largest scheme looked at here could provide nearly 6GW, a useful percentage of the UK’s total future needs. Guess what Peter Robinson of the RSPB said about it:
“We need to stop wasting taxpayers’ money on feasibility studies for old-fashioned technologies such as tidal barrages.”
Yes, It’s wading birds again. So, no wind turbines, no tidal barrages, not anywhere, not ever. Well, we’ve got news for the RSPB – if we allow runaway global warming to happen climate change will cause more damage to the Severn and Solway estuaries through rising sea levels and species diversion than a barrage ever would. Yes, the environment will change if we build a barrage. Some niches will disappear, other new ones will open and wildlife will adapt to the new environment. In the Rance estuary – the only large-scale tidal barrage in Europe, commissioned in 1966 – there are the same number of bird species (120) as there were before the barrage was built, and it attracts over 200,000 tourists every year.
Nature can adapt, unlike the dinosaurs of the RSPB.
Smart Grids and Renewables
The most common objection voiced in response to proposals to dramatically increase in the percentage of renewables in our generation mix is intermittency, or variability. When the wind doesn’t blow wind turbines don’t turn, when the sun doesn’t shine solar panels don’t produce current and the power of the tides varies with the phases of the moon. The answer is to make the way we price, distribute and use electricity a lot more flexible.
The term ‘smart grid’ has several meanings, but essentially it is a system to deliver electricity flexibly from suppliers to consumers using two-way digital technology to control appliances at consumers’ homes to save energy, reduce cost and increase reliability and transparency. No-one knows exactly how the next generation smart grids will work, but one element that most think will be part of future smart grids is variable pricing. For example - you programme your freezer to cool itself down to -15C when electricity is 10p per unit, maintain -10C when it’s 15p/unit and buy electricity at any price to avoid getting above -5C.
Another interesting proposition is using electric vehicle batteries as storage units. Your car is plugged in to the charging point in your garage. It charges up with cheap electricity then later – if you are not using it – sells it back to the grid at a profit when there iks a surge in demand for power.
Here’s a presentation by Cisco on smart grids: