November 18, 2016
If Trump wants to save nuclear and coal power in the US, he will have to dole out subsidies
November 18, 2016
What do about the American nuclear power sector? This will be a very interesting test case for the new US administration.
Currently nuclear power cannot survive in the US without government support. The nuclear sector has long had a ready-made argument why they deserve support: nuclear power is CO2-free after all. But how much force will this argument carry with a climate-sceptic administration?
Of course, the new US administration may decide to save the US nuclear industry. But if they do so, do they then have a principled argument against government support for renewables? When it comes to jobs, renewables beat nuclear any time.
Washingon DC-based author and speaker Dennis Wamsted writes about the tight corner the US nuclear industry finds itself in. He notes that the Nuclear Energy Institute, a lobbying organisation, “has worked tirelessly to broaden support for the industry by touting the technology’s importance in providing carbon-free electricity”.
This campaign has achieved success in (oh irony) the very Democratic State of New York, which is one of the very few States in the US that has decided to bail out its nuclear sector. New York has adopted a zero emissions plan designed to keep three upstate nuclear reactors “operating well into the future despite their current inability to compete on price.” In other States, one after the other nuclear plant is being closed down.
Apparently, the nuclear sector realises it may be in for a rough time. As Wamsted writes, on 15 November, Maria Korsnick, the new head of the Nuclear Energy Institute, gave a television interview in which she said: “I’ll tell you, this new administration is going to be a big part of my leaving my mark on this new NEI because we’re going to have to look at different messaging to get the nuclear message out. As you said, we’re going to have to be not all about climate. Although climate’s a good point, that’s not going to be what we’ll be leading with. So we’ll be looking at rebranding NEI and new messaging about nuclear.”
If the nuclear sector faces an uncertain future in the US, what about the coal industry? During his election campaign, Donald Trump has gone out of his way to promise he would save the beleaguered US coal mining and coal power industry. The problem is, like the nuclear industry, the coal sector is simply being outcompeted – by cheap natural gas. And Trump has also promised he would not stand in the way of increased shale gas and shale oil production. Does this mean he will keep the coal industry alive with subsidies? If so, again, what is wrong with subsidising renewables in that case?
Analyst Gregory Brew, who has written an article about the problems Trump will run into if he tries to revive the US coal industry, raises another interesting point. What if Trump’s opposition to global free trade leads to economic instability and declining demand? That would mean greater pressure on commodity prices, making life even harder on the fossil fuel sector.
We can’t ignore biofuels for transport – but are they any good for the climate?
November 18, 2016
One energy sector that has long been generously subsidised in the US is that of biofuels. The ethanol program in the US started at the time of the 1973 oil embargo, long before anyone thought about the climate. Nowadays, however, the climate argument is all that can really justify public support for biofuels. After all, the import dependence argument has lost its force with the US shale oil and gas revolution.
But how climate friendly are biofuels really? There has been debate about this question for many years now in academic circles. The latest to weigh in on this is John DeCicco, a research professor at the University of Michigan Energy Institute, who has written a no-holds barred critique of the idea that biofuels are “climate neutral”, as their proponents claim.
Biofuels release CO2 of course when they are burned, but they have first sequestered this CO2 from the air, so that would make them carbon neutral. But according to DeCicco this is too simplistic. His research team “examined crop data to evaluate whether enough CO2 was absorbed on farmland to balance out the CO2 emitted when biofuels are burned. It turns out that once all the emissions associated with growing feedstock crops and manufacturing biofuel are factored in, biofuels actually increase CO2 emissions rather than reducing them.”
Oops, that’s not what the biofuel industry would like to hear of course. But according to DeCicco there is no way around it. He writes that the corn and soybeans planted to produce biofuels replaced other crops, and hence led only to a small net uptake of CO2. This does not compensate for the amount of CO2 released when they are burned. Then there are the emissions that are the result of fertiliser use, farm operations and fuel refining which should be added in.
His overall conclusion: “Once carbon has been removed from the air, it rarely makes sense to expend energy and emissions to process it into biofuels only to burn the carbon and re-release it into the atmosphere.”
Not everyone has as yet come around to this point of view of course. Paul Deane of the Environmental Research Institute at University College Cork has written an article arguing that electric vehicles (EVs) will not be able to deliver the CO2 emission reductions needed in the European transport sector. If the EU wants to meet its renewable transport targets, it can’t do without biofuels, at least not for the next few decades, writes Deane.
Modelling by the Commission under the recent EU reference scenario shows electricity in road transport reaching only 1% (of energy in transport) by 2030, notes Deane. And transport is one sector that is urgently in need of measures to reduce emissions. Bioenergy is especially relevant for the areas of transport which are difficult to electrify such as heavy transport, vans, public transport, aviation, and shipping, he adds. In all, these modes represented 42% of energy demand in the EU in 2015.
Deane warns that “post-2020 the policy landscape for renewable transport is uncertain. There will be no binding renewable energy EU targets at Member State level after 2020, however Member States will have binding emissions reduction targets for transport/heat/agriculture in the so called Non-ETS (EU Emission Trading System) sectors.” This will force Member States to have a closer look at emissions. They will discover they can’t ignore biofuels, writes Deane.
Engie and EDF: two visions on energy innovation
November 18, 2016
It is quite instructive to compare French energy giant Engie (annual revenue €70 billion) to that other French energy giant EDF (€75 billion in 2015).
EDF, the largest electricity company in Europe, relies strongly on its nuclear power fleet, which is currently in very dire straits. (See this week’s Energy Watch for more on that.) It is diversifying into renewables, and its innovation is centred on advanced nuclear power, solar PV, digitalisation, electric mobility and above all storage.
Engie, formerly GDF-Suez, has a different history: it is a merger of a gas company and utility company. This is reflected in its strategy. As Innovation Director Stephane Quere explains in an interview with Energy Post, its priorities are: solar, storage “and all the software needed to manage that”, mobility, “home comfort”and also hydrogen in all its applications.
In other words, both companies have embraced the tradition to decentralised renewables and are trying to engage with end consumers, but one has a nuclear research arm and the other is into hydrogen.
Another important distinction is that Engie is one-third gas (mainly transport, distribution and sales), one-third electricity (mostly production and sales) and one-third services. The latter sector is “key today”, says Quere: “We offer services to industry, cities and individuals. These include district heating and cooling, but also facility management, services for buildings, security systems, lighting, mobility solutions in the context of urban planning, systems management and so forth.”
Engie is also more international and diverse than EDF, with a presence in 70 countries. Internationally, EDF relies on a combination of renewables and nuclear, but if its nuclear effort fails, it will be in a vulnerable position.
Engie is probably less vulnerable, although its diversity may also turn out to be a weakness. What emerges from the interview with Quere is that this is a company, as interviewer Sonja van Renssen writes, “that seems to do it all, everywhere … It offers everything from gas and electricity to facility management, lighting and mobility plans.” And it does this all over the world.
Engie even regard themselves as an IT company: “Some IT companies come to us to help them better understand how a city or region is working,” says Quere. “Last year we won a prize for the most digital company in France.”
Articles on EDF:
“The future belongs to decentralised renewables not centralised nuclear or hydrogen”
November 18, 2016
How we envision the future of our energy systems is important as our visions tend to drive our policies and decisions. For example, if you don’t believe in renewables, you will not them give a chance. If you don’t believe in nuclear or the hydrogen economy, the same applies of course.
Australian Professor John Mathews, a prolific author (his best-known book is “The Greening of Capitalism”) and specialist in China’s energy transformation, has written a fascinating article about what he regards as one ideologically motivated energy vision which has long informed decision-makers at the highest levels. He traces this vision back to influential researchers at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), in Austria, a joint US-Soviet initiative started in the 1970s.
According to Mathews, scientists at IIASA, in particular visionary physicist Cesare Marchetti, developed a theory with “a marked techno-bias towards giga-scale nuclear power and the hydrogen economy as well as a marked disdain for present trends towards solar, wind and renewables generally.” As a result of this influential view, for many years scientists and political decision-makers tended to look down on renewables as a hobby for green activists.
However, Mathews argues that reality is proving them wrong. China in particular has embarked on a very different course, one based on large-scale deployment of renewables. In his article, he supplies a strong defence of renewables, arguing that their advantages far outweigh their limitations. He notes they are zero-carbon, non-polluting, inexhaustible, cheap, diffuse, decentralised, scalable, benign (without major risks) and – best of all – the product of manufacturing rather than extraction of resources. This means any country anywhere can develop its own renewable energy industry.
The limitations of renewables, such as their intermittency, can be quite easily overcome, Mathews writes. An important vision of the future!