December 13, 2017
And then there is this other technology that can save the world – which at least the UK is convinced we can’t do without
ENERGY WATCH #1 by Karel Beckman
Heading for a climate change showdown – in the courts
December 13, 2017
There are many signs that the great global climate change battle will be moving increasingly to the courts. With profound implications for the energy sector.
Court decisions, after all, are very different from political decisions. They have to be complied with. They cannot be changed with lobbying. Ask the tobacco industry. Or oil companies that have been convicted on corruption charges.
In Germany, a court in the city of Hamm, near Münster, has ruled that it will hear the case of a farmer from Peru who is suing Germany energy giant RWE over climate change damage in the Andes. Campaigners (including Germanwatch, the NGO that supported the case) have hailed the decision as a “historic breakthrough” – and they may be right at that.
The court’s decision sounds pretty amazing – or not, when you think about it. The effects of CO2 are not confined to German borders after all – and, reports The Guardian, RWE has been responsible, according to one study, for 0.5% of global emissions “since the beginning of industrialization”.
The farmer, Saul Luciano Lliuya, argues that RWE, “as one of the world’s top emitters of climate-altering carbon dioxide, must share in the cost of protecting his hometown Huaraz from a swollen glacier lake at risk of overflowing from melting snow and ice.”
The court said in a statement that it will choose experts to evaluate the claim. Germanwatch said that the court must now decide whether “the accused’s contribution to the chain of events depicted here is measurable and calculable”.
Lliuya versus RWE is not the first climate litigation case, but according to expert Will Frank, writing on the website of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, of Columbia Law School, it is the “first international climate litigation case based on private law liability.”
For those who want to follow the developments in climate litigation, the Sabin Center is the place to go to.
In May, the Sabin Center and UNEP published a global overview of climate change litigation cases (also available in German and French). The Center also has a database on its website tracking both U.S. and non-U.S. cases. It shows that in recent years hundreds of climate suits have been instigated against governments and corporations both in the U.S. and outside.
Some of them have already met with success. For example, in the Netherlands, a court case against the Dutch government’s climate policy by NGO Urgenda has arguably had a great effect on the country’s climate policies.
In California a city and two counties are suing oil companies, arguing that the companies’ greenhouse gas emissions are pushing sea levels up. In another significant case at a federal district court in Oregon, a group of kids is suing the federal government over its contributions to climate change.
Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center, said in Scientific American that he’s expecting to see “a lot more litigation about fossil fuel extraction, especially on federal lands and waters,” as the Trump administration seeks to expand domestic energy production.
One noteworthy case is the one being waged by the attorneys general of the states of New York and Massachusetts against ExxonMobil. The oil company is being accused of deliberately failing to inform its customers and shareholders of the dangers of climate change. Exxon is trying to get the case dismissed, but so far without success. Exxon argues that the prosecution is a politically motivated effort to suppress its free speech.
But ExxonMobil aren’t the only ones fighting back. The National Association of Manufacturers, a large national lobby group in the U.S., last month announced a new legal initiative to “push back against a growing array of climate change and other lawsuits brought by environmentalists and state attorneys general”, reports the Washington Examiner.
They are reportedly the first business group to do so. One of the actions they intend to fight is the investigation against ExxonMobil.
Other actions go beyond climate change. One case has to do with paint manufacturers and the presence of lead in paint in California. “This is seen by experts as a potential precedent for a case making its way through the state’s court system in which states are trying to hold oil companies accountable for harmful climate pollution causing sea-level rise”, notes the newspaper.
The paper notes that one of the lawsuits made it all the way to the Supreme Court in 2011, American Electric Power v. Connecticut, where it was struck down in a unanimous 8-0 decision. “The justices ruled that fossil fuel companies could not be sued for greenhouse gas emissions because federal law dictates that the Environmental Protection Agency regulates carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act.” The climate change lawsuit was the first based on a public nuisance claim.
The Trump administration is also, apparently, trying to come to the rescue of the beleaguered energy companies. Scientific American reports that Trump is “filling vacancies on top courts around the country” (including the Supreme Court) with judges that may be expected not to be too positive about climate litigation.
Trump’s judicial appointments rank “pretty high” in terms of his climate change legacy, said Glenn Sugameli, who runs the Judging the Environment project, which tracks judicial nominees’ environmental records.
“They’re the ones that are going to determine whether the actions taken by the Obama administration, by states and local governments are justified, are legal, are sustainable,” he said. And “they’re the ones that are going to decide whether the actions taken by the Trump administration are legal.”
Richard Lazarus, an environmental law expert and professor at Harvard Law School, said courts have played an “outsized role” in climate policy in recent years because regulators are working with an old law to deal with a problem its authors weren’t specifically addressing.
“The reason why the courts play a big role right now is that, whether the executive branch is run by [President George W.] Bush or the executive branch is run by Obama, each time they’re kind of stuck with old language,” Lazarus said, noting that the 1970 Clean Air Act hasn’t seen a major overhaul since 1990.
The Obama administration tried to use the existing language to support the administration’s signature climate rule, the Clean Power Plan, and “you can expect that Trump judges would be more skeptical of those activities.”
With widespread vacancies in federal courts at the end of Obama’s term and more openings since Trump took office, the administration has the potential to remake the federal judiciary and shape numerous legal decisions related to climate and environmental policy, notes Scientific American.
The Trump administration’s efforts don’t stop there. According to Climatewire and E&E News, the Justice Department has been “quietly courting climate scientists for a simmering legal fight that could have massive implications for government global warming policies.”
Author Scott Waldman notes that “in recent months, Department of Justice officials have met with Ken Caldeira, an atmospheric scientist in the Department of Global Ecology at the Carnegie Institution for Science, as well as Judith Curry, a professor emeritus at the Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences who has broken with many of her colleagues in the field by questioning the extent of humanity’s role in climate change.”
The goal: the Justice Department wants these scientists to “help formulate a legal argument that would maintain that climate change is not enough of a dire threat to require immediate government action.”
They are doing this apparently for several reasons.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is launching a public debate about climate change as soon as January, administrator Scott Pruitt has said, according to Voice of America. (You thought the debate was over? Haha! Not for Trump and his ilk.)
The EPA has been working over the last several months to set up a “red team, blue team” debate on the science relating to manmade climate change, Pruitt said, to give the public a “real-time review of questions and answers around this issue of CO2.”
Pruitt is reportedly vetting a list of scientists that have expressed doubts over climate change to take part in the upcoming debates, including some that have been recommended by conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation, according to Voice of America.
The article on Climatewire, however, says the Department of Justice is talking to scientists specifically for what is called the “children’s climate change case” in Oregon, known as Juliana v. United States. This was filed in 2015 by 21 young plaintiffs who claimed their constitutional rights had been violated by government inaction on climate change and by policies that could exacerbate it, like oil and gas drilling in public areas.
Climatewire notes that “Earlier this year, just days before Trump took office, the Obama administration Justice Department argued that there is no widespread belief among scientists that the world’s climate becomes dangerous after passing the 350-parts-per-million mark for atmospheric carbon dioxide, a key metric in the case.”
Phil Gregory, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, compared the case to the famous Scopes monkey trial of 1925, when a high school teacher fought for the right to teach human evolution in public schools. The difference now, he said, is that this case would be a showdown on climate science in a courtroom.
He said his plaintiffs have extensive evidence that glacial melt, coral reef destruction and rising temperatures pose a grave threat to future generations. “What we’re going to have is the youth of America and their climate scientists,” he said. “The Trump administration can bring on any scientist it wants, and we can have that debate based on evidence in a courtroom, so it’s better than the Scopes trial, because in the Scopes trial, it wasn’t limited to scientific evidence; they talked about the Bible and waved that around.”
The next step in the case is oral arguments on December 11 before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, notes Climatewire. “The government, through a writ of mandamus, wants a review of a 2016 decision by a lower court not to throw the case out. If the government is not granted that review, the case could eventually head to trial and climate science could become a central part of a legal argument.”
Incidentally, the two scientists approached by the Justice Department say they would like to help put a good review together, but they are both wary of being used as pawns in a political game.
The plaintiffs in the case have already submitted an expert review by scientists, economists and other experts in the field that clearly shows the threat climate change poses to future generations, said Gregory, the co-counsel representing the plaintiffs. The government has not yet submitted a report that would challenge established climate science, and lawyers have essentially argued that producing such a report would be too burdensome, he said.
Gregory said: “Our position all along has been to put the science on trial, and we want for them to bring in recognized scientists and let those individuals submit reports and testify before the courts; that’s exactly what we think should happen. Obviously what’s occurring now in our climate should not be decided by politicians, but should be dictated by the best available science.”
If these plaintiffs and others like them succeed, climate change policy may increasingly become a legal rather than a political issue in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere.
ENERGY WATCH #2 by Karel Beckman
“Humanity’s fight against climate change is failing. One technology can change that”
December 13, 2017
With this dramatic headline, the well-known website Quartz kicked off a series of long-reads and reports on carbon capture and storage recently. The series – the Race to Zero Emissions – is not just about CCS in power plants – it’s also about other technologies that are being developed to remove carbon from the atmosphere, as well as technologies to find new uses for CO2.
The author of the series, Akshat Rathi, has certainly put a lot of effort into them and has worthwhile developments to report. However, his line of argumentation as such is not new.
He starts out with an argument that most of our readers will be familiar with: virtually all energy experts, and in particular, “the foremost authority on the matter, the International Panel on Climate Change” have projected “hundreds of possible futures to find economically optimal paths to achieving [the Paris Agreement] goals, which require the world to bring emissions down to zero by around 2060. In virtually every IPCC model, carbon capture is absolutely essential—no matter what else we do to mitigate climate change.”
However, as everyone also knows, in practice, CCS has so far not delivered what is expected of it. The main reason: it’s too expensive. In addition CCS suffers from a poor image. Environmentalists and other supporters of renewables view it as a way to extend fossil fuels, which they feel should be replaced rather than maintained.
Nevertheless, Rathi says, “After a year of reporting, through visits to large and small carbon-capture plants around the world, and conversations with more than 100 academics, entrepreneurs, policy experts, and government officials, I’ve come to a conclusion: Carbon capture is both vital and viable.”
Rathi points out that “the optimism surrounding renewable energy masks some harsh realities. Despite decades of progress, about 80% of the world’s energy still comes from fossil fuels—the same as in the 1970s. Since then, we’ve kept adding renewable capacity, but it hasn’t outpaced the growth of the world’s population and its demand for energy.”
What is more, despite falling costs of renewables, there are no signs that this will change in the near future: “In a recent analysis (paywall), Deborah Adams of the International Energy Agency, an intergovernmental think tank, notes that the world’s demand for coal actually increased in 2017. (And, not surprisingly, global annual emissions are projected to increase and set a new record.) New coal power plants are being built in most poor countries, “because coal is a relatively cheap, readily available, secure, and reliable source of power,” she writes. “A coal-fired power plant is a massive capital investment and will typically operate for 40 years. This means coal will continue to be a significant part of the energy mix for decades to come.”
“The hugely valuable oil and gas industries, accounting for 33% and 24% of total world energy use, respectively, are also entrenched. “Based on what we know now, we would need major technological breakthroughs or weak world growth, including for large emerging and developing economies, for oil demand to peak in the next 20 years,” says Gian Maria Milesi-Ferretti of the International Monetary Fund. Despite the growth in electric vehicles, most oil companies agree that peak oil is “not in sight.”
Even the head of the International Renewable Energy Agency, whose job is to ensure that its more than 180 member countries reach 100% renewable energy, is not exactly gung-ho about the prospects. “In the electricity sector, 100% renewables by 2050 or 2060 may still be achievable,” Adnan Amin told me, “but it’s unlikely to happen for all energy use.” The global electricity sector is responsible for only about 25% of all emissions.”
Add to this the fact that there are a “handful of industries essential to the modern way of life”, such as steel, cement and ethanol, that contribute 20% to global CO2 emissions and have no easy ways of “decarbonizing” and the conclusion is inevitable: “there is no way to achieve zero emissions through subsidies and taxes that are within the bounds of what would reasonably ensure that the global economy doesn’t come to a complete halt. (For coal, for example, these would be in the range of ±$80 per metric ton of CO2 emitted). You need something else to reduce emissions. Carbon-capture technologies are essential.”
According to Rathi, there is already enough evidence that CCS can work. As an example, he notes that “among a string of failures”, the Petra Nova project “stands tall” as it was completed “on time and within budget”.
Petra Nova is a 240 MW CCS project at the giant 3700 MW electricity generation facility (four gas units, four coal units) the WA Parish Generation Station, outside of Houston, Texas. Its success is partly attributable to its use of off-the-shelf technologies that had been tested and proven, notes Rathi.
In his article he gives a detailed description of the project. What should be noted is that the CO2 it captures is used for enhanced oil recovery in a nearby oil field.
Incidentally, putting CO2 into an oil field does not mean it will automatically stay there: “Every time CO2 is pumped into the oil field, about 20% of the gas remains underground. The rest comes back up to the surface with the oil. That CO2-oil mixture is separated by simply lowering the pressure and letting CO2 bubble out of the sticky black liquid. Then the carbon dioxide is recompressed and put back into the field. In the end, all of the greenhouse gas is sequestered.”
Interestingly, most of the CO2 that oil companies currently use for enhanced oil recovery comes out of “naturally occurring CO2 fields”, i.e. underground fields where CO2 is available as pure gas.
Petra Nova may be a success, but it “is one of only 17 large-scale CCS facilities in the world (if you consider 240 MW large-scale!), with just a handful more under construction”.
And “The world needs at least 200 facilities by 2025 to stay on track to hit zero emissions.”
So how to get there?
“The major reason why we don’t have more is because there isn’t a long-term business model for CCS yet”, writes Rathi. “Studies have shown that revenue from enhanced-oil recovery can provide a bridge to the creation of business models that make CCS more sustainable.”
Since “not every project will be able to sell its CO2 for use in enhanced-oil recovery,” new uses will have to be found. This, Rathi says optimistically, “presents a major opportunity” for entrepreneurs. Their challenge: “either convert carbon dioxide into products people are ready to pay for, or find a way to capture the gas at zero cost.”
Fortunately, Rathi believes there are many potential applications of CO2. He quotes Issam Dairanieh, CEO of the Global CO2 Initiative (formerly with BP), which is planning to invest $300 million over the next 10 years in clean-energy startups. The Global CO2 Initiative runs a contest, the Carbon X-Prize, to find projects with potential.
Investing now, Dairanieh believes, will position him well to take advantage of what could become a massive industry. “The potential market for products made from carbon dioxide could be as much as $1.1 trillion by 2030,” says Dairanieh.
According to Rathi, “He’s not the only one placing big bets on carbon-capture tech. Just over the last few years, hundreds of startups have sprung up in search of ways to convert carbon dioxide into new products. As Dairanieh was beginning his work with the Global CO2 Initiative in 2015, the $20-million Carbon X-Prize was wading through the project proposals of 47 teams competing to create the most valuable product from carbon dioxide. Since then, the applicants have been culled to 20 semi-finalists. Each has until February next year to build a prototype that can capture at least 200 kg of carbon dioxide per day for at least three days straight, and convert it into useful products. The teams will use emissions from a coal power plant in Wyoming to test their technology. ‘We seek inventions that are audacious but possible,’ says Marcus Shingles, the CEO of X-Prize.”
Some companies are already selling CO2 products, notes Rathi, including Covestro (formerly Bayer Materials) in Germany, which offers a mattress foam with CO2 inside, and Tuticorin Chemicals in India, which is converting CO2 into soda ash.
Eventually, Dairanieh estimates “new CO2 products could store as much as 10% of the world’s annual emissions, about 4 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide.”
How about the possibility of reducing the cost of CCS? Here, Rathi goes into an initiative from a young entrepreneur, Ethan Novek, “who won his first science fair at the age of 12; he got his first patent at 16; and now, at 18, he runs his own company, Innovator Energy.”
Novek “took an idea from a school project that won him awards at the International Science and Engineering Fair in 2015, and developed it into a technology he now believes could capture and bury carbon dioxide at $10 or so per metric ton, about 85% less than industry standard. The basic science was validated in a lab at Yale University and published in a peer-reviewed journal; he recently moved to San Antonio, Texas, to build a pilot-scale plant.”
Indeed, Rathi devotes an entire article to the case of Novek, with an equally dramatic headline: The teenager inventor who could change the way the world fights climate change. You can read it for yourself it you are interested. Typically exaggerated American stuff you could call it – then again, who can deny that sometimes brilliant young inventors do come up with revolutionary ideas?
Rathi also mentions another example: “About three hours east of San Antonio, startup Net Power
is piloting what could be an even more revolutionary technology. A conventional natural gas plant, though better than coal, is still only 60% efficient. Net Power has built a $150-million facility in Houston, Texas, that utilizes some of the unique properties of CO2 to increase that overall efficiency. Better still, because the plant uses pure oxygen to burn the fuel, the exhaust contains only carbon dioxide and water. That means, after a little bit of cooling and recompression, which require extra energy, that CO2 can be pumped underground. In the end, Net Power gets about the same efficiency as a standard natural-gas power plant but with essentially free carbon capture. The startup’s 50 MW pilot plant—which would produce enough energy to power 40,000 homes—is expected to start burning natural gas in early 2018. If it succeeds, it will be the world’s first fossil-fuel power plant that produces zero emissions at no extra cost.” (This case too is detailed in a separate Quartz’s feature story.)
Nevertheless, for all these positive innovation stories, Rathi does recognise it is extremely unlikely that CCS will really take off without government support.
He makes the interesting point that this is a hardly unique situation. For example, the nuclear power industry we have today is also the result of massive government efforts. Similarly, the success of solar and wind power are largely due to the German government’s Energiewende. Even the massive LNG industry has its origins in a government-led effort: by Japan in the 1970s.
He concludes that “If people don’t change their mind about CCS and governments don’t invest to make deployment of CCS at large scale a reality, the world will soon exceed the carbon budget required to keep global temperature rise below 2°C.”
Which, as I said before, is not a new conclusion. But that doesn’t make it any less relevant.
As a footnote to this story, on the excellent website The Conversation, an interesting article was published recently by John Richard Underhill, a professor at Heriot-Watt University.
Underhill has done research into the offshore sites that have been designated by the UK government to be used for CO2 storage. He raises the question whether the right sites are being looked at.
“The offshore options on the table”, writes Underhill, “are depleted petroleum fields and saline aquifers – massive porous sedimentary rock formations saturated with salt water. The petroleum fields are closed-off “traps” that sit within these aquifers. Potentially this makes traps more secure for storage, but aquifers have vastly more storage capacity and may well be required to store CO₂ in substantial quantities.”
“The Grangemouth and Aberdeenshire projects are both looking at depleted fields in the Moray Firth in the north of Scotland, while Teesside is looking at the Triassic Bunter Sandstone saline aquifer off east England in the southern North Sea. The two leading proposals in the UK government’s previous competition had similar plans – a Shell/SSE Aberdeenshire project would have used the Moray Firth while White Rose in Yorkshire would have used Triassic Bunter.”
But according to Underhill these sites may not store the CO2 as securely as we think. The oil fields may contain leakages and the two aquifers are “riddled with faults”, raising more concerns about leakage.
He concludes that plans to store CO2s in the selected sites are “premature” and warns that “When the country reaches the stage of a demonstrator project, it really needs to succeed. An early leakage could destroy national confidence in CCS. This means obtaining the best possible geological understanding of the sites and prioritising those fields that contain CO₂ already.”
ENERGY WATCH #3 by Karel Beckman
And then there is this other technology that can save the world – which at least the UK is convinced we can’t do without
December 13, 2017
Decarbonizing a city like Helsinki with the help of 10 ten small (400 MW) advanced nuclear reactors – could that be a serious idea?
Yes, it could – at least according to Rauli Partanen, Finnish energy expert and journalist, and one of the founding members of the Ecomodernist Society of Finland (more about ecomodernism next week in this space).
He undertook a study exploring “how a city of approximately 1.5 million people can be totally decarbonized by 2050, using mainly advanced nuclear reactors.”
Partanen notes that energy is not just electricity, but also heating and transportation – and, like Akshat Rathi over at Quartz (see the section above) – he notes that renewable energy alone is not going to get us where we need to be:
“Many of us would like to decarbonize our energy system and stop climate change using primarily, if not entirely, renewable energy sources. However, this is not likely to happen, not quickly enough anyway (see graph below). Credible, mainstream deep decarbonization scenarios imply a large amount of nuclear power and carbon capture and storage (CCS)3 . So far, only the former has actually proven itself a viable tool for decarbonization. While renewable energy sources enjoy widespread political support, even they have their weaknesses; bioenergy has a very limited scale if we want to produce it in a sustainable manner, and many think humanity is already farming and using more than its share of arable land. Wind and solar require large amounts of mined and manufactured materials and area to harvest their energy, and as intermittent energy sources, they need large scale backup capacity or storage to answer our society’s 24/7 energy demand. Right now, that backup capacity is almost always based on burning fossil fuels, which is antithetical to our goal of decarbonizing. Hydro power is very useful, but has limited scalability, as it is very dependent on good locations. It also has significant environmental consequences.”
Partanen notes that “many analysts, politicians and scenarios go to great lengths to ignore or downplay both the achievements and the possibilities of nuclear. Instead, they focus on the opportunities of renewable energy, energy storage, energy efficiency and demand flexibility. While these opportunities are huge, they are nowhere near enough in the time window we have. The intermittency of solar and wind makes it more and more expensive to add ever larger shares of them to the energy system. They require an ever-growing amount of supporting schemes to keep the lights on and houses warm. These schemes – energy storages, demand flexibility and so on – will keep improving, but they have grown too slowly, setting a bottleneck for adding more variable renewable energy into the energy mix.”
According to Partanen, “baseload nuclear power can offer huge advantages, as it can be used to produce a sizable part of a society’s heat and power needs even without extensive storage and flexibility systems.”
In the study, “the Helsinki metropolitan area is used as the background case for most of the modelling, although there is little to stop anyone from scaling and modifying the energy demand profile for other locations as needed.”
The scenario presented by Partanen’s paper “has enough baseload nuclear capacity to supply most of the heat and power needs even during the high-demand winter. During low demand in the summer, this extra capacity is used to make hydrogen with High Temperature Steam Electrolysis (HTSE). This allows a relatively efficient system, where there is little need to throttle back nuclear capacity, and one that also decarbonizes not just electricity and heat, but also transportation fuels and parts of chemical industry feedstocks.”
Partanen’s paper assumes the presence of district heating systems, but he notes that “if a district heating network is not feasible, the most prominent solution is to move to heat pumps and direct electrical heating and then using clean energy sources to provide the electricity. Hot water boilers that can offer local, smart and flexible energy storage for heating and hot water use would also help, along with solar heat collectors.”
Then again, according to the European Heat Roadmap, the aim is to increase share of district heat from 10 percent to 50 percent of households by 2050.
The study looks in particular at two reactor types: “the HTR-PM pebble-bed reactor that China is currently building, with a commercial scale first-of-a-kind finished by end of 2017 and Terrestrial Energy’s IMSR (Integral Molten-Salt Reactor) that is currently being designed in North America.” Both should be commercially available in the 2020s or in the early 2030s.
In the end, the conclusions that Partanen draws are not black or white.
He notes that “nuclear reactors can offer a distinct advantage by supplying low-carbon baseload heat at relatively low prices. Heat pumps in their various applications can, and do, produce affordable heat, but they do have some disadvantages compared with nuclear reactors. For example, they can’t be used to produce electricity (nor hydrogen), but instead they use electricity, which needs to be supplied reliably by other (clean) means.”
Another question is how and at what scale and price do energy storage technologies develop in the coming years? “From an economic point of view, the question for baseload demand is this: will, and at what share of total energy demand, nuclear be cheaper in providing a reliable 24/7 energy service than variable renewable energy + storage?” Partanen notes that “at least for the time being, we lack affordable large-scale storage technologies for electricity (save for pumped hydroelectricity which has limited scale). Making hydrogen with electrolysis or high temperature electrolysis could be one such technology. It remains to be seen how various technologies develop …”
In this context, says Partanen, “small nuclear reactors hold a distinct advantage compared to mega-projects, as they can be built relatively quickly without the need to lock-in enormous construction projects for decades ahead.”
Finally, another key finding is “that if nuclear reactors are used for combined heat and power, their overall efficiency and economics can improve enormously compared with producing just electricity (depending of course on the relative market prices for heat and electricity). Instead of producing power at 35 % efficiency, they can produce heat and power at over 80 % efficiency.”
Although Partanen’s paper is a theoretical exercise, in the UK actual money is being made available for R&D of small modular reactors.
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy announced on 7 December that, as Platts reports, it is making up to GBP44 million ($59.01 million) of funding available to nuclear development companies to establish an advanced modular reactor feasibility and development program.
BEIS defined AMRs as a broad group of advanced nuclear reactors. “AMRs differ from conventional reactors, which use pressurised or boiling water for primary cooling,” it said.
BEIS added that AMRs “aim to maximize the amount of off-site fabrication and can target generating low cost electricity, increased flexibility in delivering electricity to the grid and increased functionality.”
Platts notes that it is not clear what the relationship is between this funding round and the “ongoing small modular reactor competition announced by then UK Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne in March 2016. Almost 40 ‘expressions of interest; were submitted for this competition by various reactor manufacturers and utilities including NuScale Power, Rolls-Royce, China General Nuclear Power Corp. and Westinghouse.”
The original timeline for the SMR competition is significantly delayed and several deadlines set by the government have already been missed.
In a separate statement, BEIS said it will support early access to regulators to “build the capability and capacity needed to assess and licence small reactor designs and will establish an expert finance group to advise how small reactor projects could raise private investment in the UK.”
A further GBP86 million was also announced for “fusion research to set up a national fusion technology platform at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in Oxfordshire.”
Power from small modular reactors (SMRs) would cost nearly one-third more than conventional large ones in 2031, the report found, because of reduced economies of scale and the costs of deploying first-of-a-kind technology.
The analysis by the consultancy Atkins said there was “a great deal of uncertainty with regards to the economics” of the smaller reactors.
However, the authors also said “such reactors should be able to cut costs more quickly than large ones because they could be built and put into service in less time.”
Chris Lewis, infrastructure lead at the big four consultancy EY, said the government research showed there was a case for SMRs. “While the study recognises that the economics to build SMRs are challenging, measures can be taken to achieve greater cost reduction through the standardisation of technology, greater modularisation, and the ability to standardise design and repeat manufacturing,” he said.
The UK government itself also defended the case of nuclear power, despite lower costs of renewables, notes the Guardian. Richard Harrington, the energy minister, said the record low subsidies recently awarded to offshore windfarms emphasised the challenge for the French, Korean, Chinese and Japanese companies building the UK’s new generation of nuclear plants to be competitive on price.
But the minister argued that the lower cost of wind did not spell the end for new nuclear. “We are trying to avoid … this simplistic view – well, as some people say, oh well, with the way the price of offshore wind has gone down that means bye bye nuclear and bye bye everything else,” he told an industry conference in London. “We know this is not the case. That’s a very naive and very simplistic way of doing it.”
The UK has managed to attract at least one other foreign investor in nuclear, in addition to the Chinese and French: the UK government on 28 November signed a memorandum of understanding with South Korea calling for “greater collaboration in the construction of new nuclear power plants and the decommissioning of old ones”, reports World Nuclear News.
The MoU was signed in London by South Korean minister of trade, industry and energy, Paik Un-gyu, and UK secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy, Greg Clark. The signing followed discussions on the expansion of nuclear cooperation between the two countries, including the construction and dismantling of nuclear power plants.
The British press reports that on the back of this MoU, Korea Electric Power Corporation (Kepco) is expected to say “it will join the beleaguered consortium behind Europe’s largest new nuclear plant at Moorside in Cumbria to help prop up the £15bn project. The early agreement will kick-start the process of securing final approvals from nuclear regulators and company bosses before a final decision is made early next year.”
All these signs point to a continued commitment from the UK government to expanding nuclear power greatly, despite the widespread criticism of the expensive Hinkley Point C project. Perhaps Brexit is only making the UK more determined to stay the nuclear course.
ENERGY WATCH #4 by Karel Beckman
How energy transition may yet be accelerated (soon for sale: an EV for $5,000)
December 13, 2017
Although Akshat Rathi and Rauli Partanen (see above) are no doubt right that weaning us off fossil fuels is much more difficult than many people think – and will probably need both CCS and nuclear power – that doesn’t mean renewables and EVs can’t grow faster than many other people think.
Now there are any number of reports projecting this or that future scenario for renewables, but in the end to find out how things will turn out the best thing to do may be to look at actions taken today. They speak louder than words.
So here are some spectacular ones.
EDF Group, the largest electricity company in Europe, has committed to convert its whole fleet of cars (worldwide) to EVs by 2030. The press release does not say how many cars this involves, but a spokesman told me it’s almost 20,000. So this is a very significant move.
With this commitment, EDF becomes the first French company to join the EV100 initiative, run by the international non-profit organization, The Climate Group. The number of members of this initiative is still limited (just 16 companies, including Vattenfall, Unilever, IKEA Group and Deutsche Post DHL), but it is the kind of initiative that can make a big difference by giving the first necessary big push to the EV market.
For EDF the step is logical, says the company: “The EDF’s R&D teams have long been involved in this field, with a widely recognised expertise when it comes to batteries for electric vehicles. The Group has already launched initiatives to develop electric vehicles, including for example in its generation fleet: at the Blayais nuclear plant, EDF installed three hectares of photovoltaic panels under which “simple plug” smart charging terminals made by EDF’s subsidiary Sodetrel have been introduced, a world first.”
EDF Group “is also working hard to develop electric mobility for its customers, by developing charging infrastructures across the country, as well as electricity supply services to help private individuals, businesses and local authorities recharge their electric vehicles. In 2016, EDF commissioned 200 fast charging stations for electric vehicles on France’s main motorways to make interurban travels easier, thanks to the Corri-Door project.”
But that’s not all. EDF has also announced that “it will pour all its energies into the new Solar Power Plan with a view to developing 30 GW of solar capacity in France by 2035.”
That’s a lot of solar panels, four times as many as have been installed in France up to date. Again, the kind of initiative that can make a big difference in the end. (Note that EDF is also the owner of the French nuclear fleet. The French government aims to reduce dependence on nuclear power from 75% to 50% some time in the future.)
Then there’s Schneider Electric, another very big French company (144,000 employees), which has announced it is joining the RE100 initiative, committing itself to sourcing 100% renewable electricity by 2030, and doubling its energy productivity by the same date, through the EP100 project.
Or what to think about this, even more spectacular announcement. According to an article on Cleantechnica, the UK-based globally operating auto parts supplier Delphi Automotive — currently in the process of changing its name to Aptiv — is aiming to reduce the costs of self-driving cars by over 90% by 2025, the company’s CEO, Kevin Clark, revealed in a recent interview.
That is to say, “the plan is to cut self-driving car costs down to only around $5,000 (!) or so within 7–8 years.”
The idea “is apparently to ‘help automakers rethink the way vehicles are engineered and built and make money on the data generated by autonomous electric vehicles,’ as explained by Reuters.
Here’s more from that coverage: “While current estimates for the cost of a self-driving hardware and software package range from $70,000 to $150,000, ‘the cost of that autonomous driving stack by 2025 will come down to about $5,000 because of technology developments and (higher) volume,’ Clark said in an interview.”
“One of the biggest opportunities for cutting costs, Clark said, will come as automakers, working with companies such as Delphi/Aptiv, begin to re-engineer their basic vehicle platforms specifically to accommodate electric motors, batteries and self-driving sensors.”
“We’re working now with our customers to optimize’ current platforms, Clark explained, but we’re also working with them to redesign future vehicle platforms as well — ones with fewer components, but more software and more safety tech.”
“Looking 5 to 10 years out, given the amount of software going into the car, the complexity of (self-driving) systems and infotainment systems, the basic architecture of the vehicle needs to be rethought,’ he continued.”