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Advocating for nuclear power – the time is right

We live in strange times.  Globally, populism is growing in response to a deep-seated anger with so-called liberal elites.  Experts are no longer respected over louder voices that support peoples’ strongly held views.  There are no facts, only beliefs.

While most of the world continues to support the Paris agreement on climate, there is a reluctance by some to include nuclear power in the tool-kit to help meet this global challenge.  There is wide spread belief that Germany is going down the right path as it eliminates nuclear from its mix and drastically increases its use of renewables.  The only problem is that fossil fuel use is also increasing and emissions are not going down.  This has not stopped other countries like France, which has one of the lowest emissions in Europe due to their nuclear fleet, setting out a policy to reduce reliance on nuclear.  And now Korea seems to be going down the same path even though it would probably be hard to find another country that has benefited more through successfully implementing its nuclear program.

Does this mean that nuclear power is getting ready to move over and cede the future of energy supply to a fully renewable world?  Not even close.  With 58 units under construction there are now more new nuclear units coming into service each year than in the last 20 years.  The UAE is nearing completion of its first units, a four-unit station as it becomes the newest entry into the nuclear club.

On the other hand, in the USA units are struggling to stay in service in de-regulated states and one of two new build projects has been stopped in the face of Westinghouse bankruptcy.

In the midst of all of this apparent chaos, there is a bright light.  People are standing up saying – don’t close my nuclear plants.  People are recognizing that removing large low carbon emitting stations from the energy mix is no way to improve the climate.  And most of all these people are ready and willing to fight.  In the more than 35 years we have been in the nuclear industry I don’t remember a time when there were strong vocal pro-nuclear NGOs.  Yes, that’s right – there are those who are not directly in the nuclear industry who have taken up the fight for nuclear.  Not because they have any great passion for the technology, but because (as we discussed in May), they see nuclear plants as the ultimate solution to important issues.  They want to save the environment.  They want plentiful economic energy and they know that nuclear is an important part of the solution.

                  More vocal pro-nuclear NGOs today than we have had in 35 years

These organizations include a growing list of environmentalists such as Environmental Progress, Energy for Humanity, Bright New World and Mothers for Nuclear – to name a few (this list is not meant to be exhaustive so if your organization is advocating for nuclear power, please comment with your name and a link).  What they have in common is an understanding that nuclear power is not the evil that some think it is and that in fact it can help to make the world a better place.  And of more importance they are willing to advocate for it.

The way I look at it, there are two types of advocacy.  First there is the broader objective of securing public support; and then there is the more targeted advocacy that fights in the trenches to get political support for specific projects and actions.   It is this second approach that I want to focus on here.  These pro-nuclear groups consist of many who have spent their lives advocating for what they believe in; and therefore, bring a knowledge of how to influence decision makers and raise the profile of their cause.  I have talked before about Meredith Angwin’s wonderful book on how to be a nuclear advocate.  It’s a “how to” on getting out there and taking action.  Or take the case of the nuclear bus – old fashion grass roots activism.

As was once explained to me, it is always easier to be against something than to be a supporter.  It is anger about things that people believe is wrong in the world that ignites passion and brings them to the streets; supporters often stay at home and discuss these projects with their friends over a glass of wine.   That is in part why there is so much passion about stopping the closure of existing nuclear plants.  It is easier to be against closing them with the impacts to emissions and our communities than to argue in support of building something new.  This is the beginning.

Because after all, it is a numbers game.  200 anti-project protesters can get a lot of press even though there may be 2000 who support the project but who stayed home.  It’s about getting people out – politicians want to do the will of the people and they need to see this will.  Supporting continued operations of a plant or even a new build is much easier if the preponderance of the people speaking at public hearings are in favour of the project.

The word we use today is “social license”.  But what does this really mean?  If it means securing significant local support for something then it is a laudable goal.  However, most anti-nuclear (or anti-anything) groups take it to the extreme and mean that they have to agree with proceeding; which is something they will never do.  As stated so eloquently by Rex Murphy in his piece on the efforts of the new NDP government desire to develop oil in Alberta – “Notley [the Premier] missed the central point of social licence: its preconditions can never be met, and are not meant to be. It is an obstructionist tactic, designed to forestall and delay.”

So why are countries ignoring the potential benefits of nuclear power as they strive to feed their energy hungry citizens with low carbon economic energy?  There are many reasons as we and others have discussed before.  We certainly believe that the overriding issue is fear.  But we can also see that when people become supporters based on nuclear power being a solution to issues of importance to them, they do their homework and are able to resolve their fear.  So we need to ask ourselves are people really that afraid, or is this also a remnant of the past where environmentally conscious groups were synonymous with being anti-nuclear?  Are we seeing the last vestiges of a generation that fears nuclear power at all costs?  Do we now have the opportunity to start to change the minds of a new generation that is willing to stand up and advocate for nuclear power?   It may well be.

One thing is for sure, we all need to get out there and advocate for what we believe in.  The time for talk is over – it is time to act.  We need to organize and be sure to be out there every opportunity we can to support the decisions that we believe are necessary to achieve our goals.

So,

  • if you believe that climate change is a threat and that fossil fuel use is the main culprit; or
  • if you believe that access to economic reliable energy is essential for progress and is critical to lift people out of poverty; or
  • if you believe that high quality jobs and technological innovation is good for our communities and our economies; or
  • if you want a future for your children and grandchildren with abundant plentiful reliable economic and low carbon energy to support them as they create their own future;

Then the answer is clear – and that answer is nuclear power.

This is a call to action.  We all need to work together to advocate for what we know is right.  We have been involved in this industry for close to 40 years and still are passionate supporters –  because we truly believe we can leave the world a better place than when we started.

Want to minimize radiation from power generation – build more nuclear

Yes, you read that right.  For years, there have been efforts to demonstrate that people who live near nuclear plants or work at nuclear plants are getting sick from all that darn radiation they are receiving.  Over the years these stories have been debunked as study after study has shown that there is no impact from radiation from living near or working at a nuclear plant.

But now a study has been done that shows that of most of the options to generate electricity, nuclear actually releases the least amount of radiation.  This is documented in UNSCEAR’s, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, most recent report to the United Nations General Assembly, on its study to consider the amount of radiation released from the life cycle of different types of electricity generation.

The Committee conducted the comparative study by investigating sources of exposure related to radiation discharges from electricity-generating technologies based on nuclear power; the combustion of coal, natural gas, oil and biofuels; and geothermal, wind and solar power. The results may surprise some, especially those that strongly believe that nuclear pollutes the earth with radiation, coal with a range of air pollutants and carbon, and that solar and wind are environmentally wonderful.

solar-panels-and-wind-turbines

Coal generation resulted in the highest collective doses to the public, both in total and per unit energy.  Coal radiation emissions result from coal mining, combustion of coal at power plants and coal ash deposits.  The study also considered occupational doses to workers.  Here is the biggest surprise.  As stated “With regard to the construction phase of the electricity-generating technologies, by far the largest collective dose to workers per unit of electricity generated was found in the solar power cycle, followed by the wind power cycle. The reason for this is that these technologies require large amounts of rare earth metals, and the mining of low-grade ore exposes workers to natural radionuclides during mining.”  It is important to note that in all cases these levels of exposure are relatively low and have little impact to public health.

This study only addresses normal discharges during the lifecycle of the station.  Possible larger releases as a result of nuclear accidents are not considered and we recognize that many will argue it is accidents and their consequences that create the largest fear of nuclear power.

So why talk about this?  The reality is that this information is not likely to change even one single mind on whether someone supports nuclear power or fears it.  We live in a world where facts no longer matter – the only truth is the one that any one person believes.  Well, we believe that scientific study remains the best way forward to establish truth and that studies such as these are part of the path forward.  No one electricity generation technology is perfect.  Coal is cost effective and technically strong, but is also a strong emitter of a range of pollutants (including radiation); renewables such as solar and wind are clean but their resource is intermittent and they have issues with both their front end (mining of rare earths) and disposal at the end of their life cycle.

Nuclear power continues to have a good story to tell, with respect to its economics, reliability, environmental attributes and the many good jobs it creates for local economies.  Concerns about nuclear relate mostly to one major issue – fear of radiation.  And fear is a strong emotion that is not easily changed.  But at least what we have here is another study to show that radiation emissions from normal operations of the nuclear fuel cycle is not something to fear – and in fact if you really want to minimize the collective dose to the public, nuclear power remains the option of choice.

Dreaming of a future with abundant clean reliable energy – then dream about nuclear

When we look to the future, people the world over are hopeful for an era of abundant reliable electricity supplying all of our energy needs; all at a reasonable cost and with little to no impact to the environment. Unfortunately, in many western countries the politics of electricity planning has become largely a case of exploring the depths of our imagination with no real path to achieving this essential goal.

As stated by Malcolm Grimston at the World Nuclear Association (WNA) Annual Symposium last month in his brilliant talk “Sclerosis at the heart of energy policy” (in advance of a book he has coming out), we have become so accustomed to reliable and cost effective electricity supply that we can no longer ever consider a scenario where this can be at risk. He noted we even use the less than frightening phrase “keeping the lights on” when talking about reliability which greatly understates the importance of reliable electricity supply to our modern society. (As he said, he turns out his lights every night without concern – certainly a large scale disruption to our energy supplies would be much worse than having the lights go off.)

Given we can’t imagine electricity reliability to be at risk; and given we have relatively slow growth in most western advanced economies there is a major reluctance to take decisions to protect and invest in our infrastructure for the future even while we want to work towards decarbonizing the system. Yes electricity demand growth is modest, but our lives depend more on reliable electricity supplies than ever before. Without electricity society quickly becomes paralyzed with no ability to communicate, travel, maintain our food supply, sanitation, deliver health care and so on…in fact it is very difficult for us in all of our modern comfort to imagine how severe the consequences would be. Therefore in our great complacency we continue to do nothing because we all expect that the next great technological breakthrough is just around the corner. All we need to do is wait and advanced renewables will be available so we can have clean limitless energy forever. And so goes the narrative.

Ben Heard in his excellent WNA presentation “World without Nuclear” quotes Naomi Klein as she spoke to the media against the nuclear option in South Australia – “What’s exciting about this renewables revolution spreading around the world, is that it shows us that we can power our economies without the enormous risk that we have come to accept”. She said the latest research showed renewables could power 100 per cent of the world’s economies. “We can do it without those huge risks and costs associated with nuclear so why wouldn’t we?” she said.

But of course if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Ben’s presentation goes on to review 20 studies that suggest that a world powered by 100% renewables can be a reality. However, in his review he rates most of these studies as poor. Overall he concludes that there is actually scant evidence for 100 % renewable feasibility while the literature affirms large dispatchable, i.e. guaranteed 24/7 supply is indispensable. His final conclusion is that global decarbonization requires a much faster-growing nuclear sector.

Fast Decarbonization

Reproduced from Agneta Rising Presentation at the WNA Annual Symposium 2015

But how can we have more nuclear when it has this perception of huge risks? We have written extensively on the issues associated with the perception of nuclear as a dangerous technology when in reality it has the best safety record of all technologies out there so we won’t talk about that again now. In his presentation Malcolm Grimston places much of the responsibility for this public perception squarely on the nuclear industry noting that the industry “spends half of its time implying that it is the new priesthood, with superhuman powers to guarantee safety; and the other half of its time behaving as if radiation is much much more dangerous than it actually is.” While it is hard to know what comes first, the fear or the industry reaction to it, we certainly agree that Malcolm makes a good point.

Then there are those that say nuclear power is way too expensive to be part of our future electricity system even though there is no doubt that wind and solar power are clearly the more expensive options. The most recent edition of “Project Costs of Electricity”; an important report that is now in its 8th edition from the IEA and NEA looking at the costs of various forms of electricity generation has just been published. (This report is a must for anyone seriously looking at trends and costs of electricity generation around the globe.) While the report acknowledges the huge gains made by renewables in reducing their costs, it also demonstrates that nuclear power is one of the lowest cost options available depending upon the scenario. Of more importance, the report notes that the belief that nuclear costs continue to rise is false stating that, in general, baseload technologies are not increasing in costs and specifically “this is particularly notable in the case of nuclear technologies, which have costs that are roughly on a par with those reported in the prior study, thus undermining the growing narrative that nuclear costs continue to increase globally”.

We will have more to say about this report in upcoming posts. But for now, let’s all do more than dream about a future of abundant, reliable, clean and yes, economic electricity; let’s make this dream a reality by making sure that the electricity system of the future includes highly reliable 24/7 nuclear power.

Reliability means being connected – we need a strong integrated electricity system with nuclear generation as its workhorse

It was with great fanfare that Tesla launched its home battery recently.   Headlines like “Tesla launches Powerwall home battery with aim to revolutionize energy consumption” were the norm as the public read about this revolutionary jump forward in energy storage. A recent article on where famed author Margaret Atwood is investing says it all …. “if [Tesla CEO] Elon Musk was putting his Powerwall on the market, I would certainly buy a piece of that. My feeling is that, once that becomes affordable, everyone is going to do that. I think that’s definitely the wave of the future.”

After all, this is the dream isn’t it? We can all generate our own electricity with clean energy efficient solar panels and store enough on our home batteries to keep us going when the sun goes down. What can be better for our common future?

Well, in fact, just about everything.

It must be my age and my years in the energy industry that remind me of what are the real essential attributes of electricity supply. Reliability and Economics. Yes, that’s right. For anyone who works in a modern electricity utility, that is what they focus on; delivering cost effective reliable electricity to users. And in today’s energy intensive world where we need electricity for every aspect of our hyper active and energy intensive lives, this is even more critical. We have all experienced temporary blackouts and know well the negative impact it has. The problem then with renewable energy generated at home is that, at least for now, it is neither reliable nor economic. Since the announcement from Tesla there have been a number of articles that explain this in detail, but of course supporters will just say that in time all problems will be solved. And frankly they may be right.

solaratnightv1

So let’s step back and ask ourselves a more important question – are we trying to solve the right problem? Most people have no idea what it takes to generate and deliver the electricity (the so-called “grid”) we take for granted in the modern world. In fact, many just think electricity is something that comes out of the wall outlet. What we all want is that when we turn on the switch, or plug in our phones, it just works. We are not in any way prepared for a world in which we say – oh, it’s cloudy so we better not charge our iPhone today! I love the recent TV ads where BMW is explaining how they build their new I3 electric car in wind powered factories. Yet, do any of us really think that on days when it is not windy, these factories sit idle? No, of course not.

In most advanced economies around the globe we have achieved a high level of reliability in electricity supply. In fact this is one of the measures that makes an economy ‘advanced’. The problem is that much of our electricity is generated with fossil fuels; primarily coal. (Coal continues to be the largest source of Germany’s electricity where BMW has its factories, at nearly 50% of total supply). And along with this comes both pollution and a high level of carbon emissions. Therefore, the only way to address these environmental issues is to reduce the use of fossil fuels, not to eliminate an integrated grid.

Just like being connected to the internet improves our lives, so does being connected to a reliable electricity grid. Do we really want to live a life where if it is cloudy for a few days and our batteries run dry we do without? Of course not. Just imagine how much excess battery capacity we would each need to avoid this possibility. Even Elon Musk notes that his battery is currently for emergency backup – not for daily use – and yes it would be great to have some amount of reasonably economic backup for when we experience an outage. But as is starting to be seen in California where there are numerous discussions of the “duck curve”, people want it all – they want to generate their own electricity when they can believing this is the best approach, but they also want the system to be there just in case they need it; and at a moment’s notice. The result – higher costs all around. The less the grid system is used, the more it costs to keep the infrastructure in place to make up the shortfall when needed.

The answer is simple, let’s take what works and make it even better.  That is a large interconnected grid that includes large scale reliable economic generation based on nuclear power, and hydro where available, supplemented by wind and solar depending upon the local availability of these resources. To be reliable and cost effective, a system needs generation that can run all the time, not just when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining. As storage technology improves, it can then contribute to both help manage the intermittency of renewable generation as well as flattening the demand curve to enable an even larger share of nuclear generation.

Remember, our economy, and in fact our very way of life, is completely dependent upon the availability of reliable, clean and economic electricity. So while we may dream of not needing the grid as we each generate our own electricity, what we really need is a strong well interconnected grid made up of reliable economic nuclear power as its work horse, with wind, solar and other forms of generation contributing when they can; all coupled with new forms of large scale storage to both even out demand and supply. Now this is more likely to be the system of the future.

The challenge of financing nuclear plants – financing energy requires huge investment

 

Quite often we hear about the problem of attracting financing to support new build nuclear projects. In fact financing will be a topic of major interest at a number of upcoming nuclear conferences. While it is easy to agree that financing nuclear projects is a big challenge, in my view difficulty securing financing is not the issue – rather it is a symptom of a number of other very important issues that are the root cause. Necessary conditions to secure financing for any project is first and foremost, an economically viable project. Next comes the project structure – or to state it more simply – ensuring the risks are managed in a way that can satisfy investors that they will receive an adequate return for their investment. These concepts will be discussed further in a future post.

For today, I will look at the $40 trillion energy industry and consider nuclear’s share of the overall expenditure needed for energy over the next 20 years. I would like to put some context on the issues related to financing nuclear plants by looking at a recent IEA report called the “World Energy Investment Outlook” or WEIO. I found this report of interest because it provides useful data on global funding required to support energy. Or as stated in the Forward to the report “…. data on today’s investment flows have not been readily available and projections and costs for tomorrow’s investment needs are often absent from the debate about the future of the energy sector.”

We often talk about the large size of nuclear projects and how they require huge amounts of funds. Nuclear projects are very capital intensive and have relatively long project schedules; both important issues when trying to secure financing. When we talk about large, a good first step is to try and understand how much funding is required for nuclear projects relative to the rest of the energy industry. And for this we turn to the WEIO.

With annual spending in 2013 of $1.6 trillion rising to about $2.0 trillion by 2035, meeting global demand for energy requires an enormous amount of money. This excludes another $500 billion or so per year to be spent on energy efficiency to try and moderate this growing demand.

Of even more interest, the report specifies that less than half of the $40 trillion dollars required to meet energy demand between today and 2035 goes to meet demand growth; the larger share is required to offset declining production from existing oil and gas fields and to replace power plants and other assets that reach the end of their productive life.

WEIOinvestment for replacement

A staggering statistic – more than $20 trillion is required over the next 20 years just to stand still. And of course, most of this investment is in fossil fuels that continue to emit carbon as the world tries to find a way to turn the corner and find alternatives.

WEIOtotalinvestment by sector

If we drill down and focus on the electricity sector, we can see that of the above $40 trillion about $16.4 trillion is investment in the electricity sector. The largest component of this investment (about 40%) is in transmission and distribution. In the developed world this essential infrastructure is ageing and requires significant investment to meet growing needs. In the developing world, there is a huge need to build up the infrastructure for a population hungry to enjoy the benefits of using electricity.

WEIOglobal Power sector

Looking further we can see two important facts.   First, nuclear power only needs about 6% of the funds for the electricity sector; this is assuming the very modest growth for nuclear in the WEO New Policy Scenario. The other is that renewables are demanding a very large share of the available funds as more and more markets turn to these forms of energy to meet their growing energy needs while trying to curb carbon emissions.

What can we learn from this high level look at the funding requirements for the energy industry? On the one hand, nuclear projects require only a very small portion of the total funds being invested today and for the next 20 years in energy. The main uses of funds are to replace existing depleted fossil fuel reserves – usually at a cost higher than the resources they replace; to invest in critical T&D infrastructure, in part due to the need to expand transmission to be able to accommodate renewable energy generation; and the investment in renewable energy generation itself, virtually all of this last investment subsidized by governments to encourage growth.

On the one hand, there is tremendous competition for funds in the energy industry meaning nuclear projects need to be an attractive financial proposition to get its share of these funds. And on the other hand, much of the competing technologies are being supported by governments with subsidies based on policy decisions.

So what is it that makes nuclear plants so difficult to finance? As I said at the start of this post, there are a number of issues that need to be discussed. These include project economics, energy market structures, poor project construction performance in a number of markets; and of course, public perception that skews the risk profile of nuclear projects in a way not seen in other industries. But a discussion of these factors will have to wait until another time…….

Note:  all figures above are from the IEA World Energy Investment Outlook.

As a solution for climate change – nuclear power is falling behind

Recently, the 2014 edition of the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) Energy Technology Perspectives (ETP) was issued. The ETP is issued on a two year cycle; the current edition takes the World Energy Outlook 2013 forecasts and looks to the longer term out to 2050. With climate change now becoming even more pressing I thought it would be interesting to see the progress over the last two years (I wrote about the 2012 edition back in June of that year). According to the report, as an important contributor to meeting climate requirements going forward, nuclear power is falling behind.

On the positive side, the IEA sees the opportunity by which “policy and technology together become driving forces – rather than reactionary tools – in transforming the energy sector over the next 40 years.” The report looks to balance energy security, costs and energy-related environmental impacts. But in the end it concludes that “Radical action is needed to actively transform energy supply and end use. ”

Why is radical action required? Of all the technologies required to meet the 2D target (this scenario sets a target of only 2 degrees C change as compared to 6 degrees in the status quo scenario), the IEA suggests that only renewables are on track while pretty much every other clean technology is not moving fast enough. Two important technologies not meeting targets are Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) and Nuclear Power. To no one’s surprise, CCS has yet to be proven and become a viable commercial option to de-carbonize fossil fuel emissions. As for nuclear power; after the Fukushima accident, growth has been slower than previously predicted and is expected to be 5 to 25% below the level required by the 2D scenario in 2025.

This leaves much of the burden on renewables to meet the need for lower carbon emissions. Surprisingly, in the hi-renewables scenario, solar becomes the dominant source of electricity reaching 40% penetration by 2050. Realistic or pipe dream? I don’t know. One thing is certain, (see chart below), with almost half of future electricity generation coming from variable renewables, compared to almost nothing today, the IEA is demonstrating the need for a huge technology transformation in how the world generates electricity.

IEAETP2014ElectricityGenerationbyTechnology

The following chart is the most telling of all. Over the past 40 years carbon intensity (the amount of carbon emitted per unit of energy supplied) has barely budged. Almost no change at all. Yet now we require the carbon intensity to be cut in half in the next 35 years (meaning less than half as much carbon produced per unit of energy supplied). This requires a complete change in how energy is delivered.

IEAETP2014CarbonIntensity

The reason is simple. Fossil fuels still represent 80% of global electricity generation and most of the energy used for transport. To disrupt the curve requires going off fossil fuels to cleaner alternatives. To achieve the 2D scenario, electrification is paramount given the option of generating electricity with clean alternatives. Fossil fuel use must then be cut in half to about 40% of electricity generation and much of the remainder makes use of CCS to reduce its carbon footprint. The report notes that gas must only be a bridging technology to support renewables in the short to medium term as gas still represents a major carbon source. So what’s left? Solar and wind to replace fossil fuels and CCS to make them cleaner.

Of course nuclear power is an obvious candidate to make a larger contribution. It is a mature technology and already is an important source of low carbon energy. Given its energy intensity it is certainly feasible to implement more nuclear power on a very large scale. And even with recent set-backs, there are now clear signs of renewal as the industry puts the Fukushima accident behind it.

For example, China continues to expand nuclear power at an ever increasing pace. Japan has reconfirmed its commitment to nuclear although restarts are slower than anticipated and the ultimate level of nuclear in post-Fukushima Japan remains unknown. Russia is increasing its commitment to nuclear and, of most interest, is becoming a major exporter offering innovative risk and financing structures that have not been seen in the market to date. Other markets are also starting to move; the latest being Hungary which has just approved a new plant for the PAKS site. However some other important nuclear markets are having challenges. Korea has cut back its long term plans and France is looking to limit the contribution of nuclear power in the future.

While nuclear power has challenges with public acceptance, this report notes the commercial issues – economics and implementation risk. As can be seen in the following chart, the IEA estimates nuclear to be the most expensive option after off-shore wind. I have not had time to delve into the details and review the numbers. However, taking this at face value, we know that some projects in the west are not doing as well as they should be. On the other hand, standardized series-build in countries like China and Russia are demonstrating a strong path to lower project costs and risks.

IEAETP2014economics

There is no hi-nuclear scenario in this edition of the report. That is quite unfortunate as a strong renewed commitment to nuclear power is a very good way to help move this plan to achieve a 2D future become a reality. By stating that nuclear power is not meeting expectations, the report lays out a clear challenge. Now it’s time to show the nuclear industry is up to it. If we really want to bend the carbon intensity curve, then more than ever, the world needs more nuclear power as an important part of a low carbon future.

When it comes to our need for electricity, reliability is essential.

As we come to the end of another year, it is not a nuclear issue that I want to discuss but rather the broader issue of our need for reliable electricity.  Last month I started with a quote from the IEA’s World Energy Outlook 2013 highlighting how important energy has become to our society – affecting the economics of nations and our environment as well as our daily way of life.

Over this holiday season in North America the importance of electricity to our very survival has become more evident.  On the Friday before Christmas the northeast United States and Canada were hit with a massive ice storm.  Hundreds of thousands of people lost power.  The cause was primarily due to power lines being affected both directly by intense icing as well as by debris from trees and other items that fell onto the lines as they became heavy with ice causing the lines to fall.

PJT-Icestorm-18.jpg

And here we are days after Christmas and while most households have had their power restored (many after more than 5 days without), thousands continue to wait.  This is different from other extreme weather events such as hurricanes that have been responsible for mass destruction of homes and infrastructure.  This ice storm, while also an extreme weather event, has only caused power loss as its lasting effect.  The result is we are able to specifically see the importance of electricity to our modern societies.

So what is the impact of a prolonged loss of electricity?  Frankly it is very difficult for those without – especially for those most vulnerable – the elderly, the sick and those without friends or family nearby to take them in.

Living a large city in a cold climate, just imagine your home without heat in subfreezing weather, no power for the refrigerator or freezer (although outdoors can work), no water to flush the toilet or bathe or even more importantly drink; and you have the makings of a catastrophe – people freezing and hungry without the basics required for survival.  And to make matters worse it is over the holiday season when most had plans to be with family.  In some cases large family holiday meals were no longer possible as the emphasis was on finding ways to stay warm.  The added downside of the season is that on Christmas almost everything is closed, no supermarkets, very few restaurants; no services of any type.

On the positive side, the number of people without power is now in the minority so there are many options for them to seek help and get warm.  But others continue to struggle.  The news has recently reported on police and fire departments having to visit large apartment buildings and take elderly sick residents down numerous flights of stairs to safety.  These people have been stuck in their cold apartments for days without food or water.  With no one to check on them, their lives were at risk.

As stated earlier, the cause of this mayhem is related to the transmission and distribution system failing in the weather, not generation.  But the point to be made is that without electricity in our cities; it would only take days until the population would need to find ways to feed and warm themselves on mass.

So it is pretty obvious that we need to have reliable electricity supply to keep society working.  And reliable supply means robust generation and distribution.  Our aging infrastructure can no longer be left to decay further so that with every extreme weather event, we take days or weeks to recover.  After the major blackout in the North American northeast a decade ago, the focus was on ensuring system reliability.  The rules changed and all North American utilities now adhere to these rules, making our system better.  But here we are a decade later and the issue has changed.  It is no longer about reliability in general, but the ability to withstand extreme weather events.  And most of all our ability to recover when the system is damaged during such events.

And of course we have the issues associated with individuals that oppose what is necessary to keep our system running.  For example, power lines have fallen when tree branches have damaged them.  While simple measures like pruning may be the cost-effective way to protect power lines, it can carry a public-relations price. As stated by the CEO of Toronto Hydro “You can imagine … our arborists show up on the curb and knock on the door and say ‘We’re here to cut your branches down.’ They’re not necessarily a welcome news,” he said. “So it’s really finding that right balance.”  This shows that no matter what the issue, there are always those opposed (as with those opposed to nuclear power); but these are also usually the first to complain when they lose power and need their lines restored.

So while this is not directly about generation or nuclear power, it is important to remind ourselves of the importance of reliable supply as we continue the debate on how we want to generate our electricity going forward.   Robust, reliable baseload electricity is important.  And this is where nuclear power plays a very important role. We also talk about economics and environment.  Both essential – so how can we meet the challenge of  having reliable, economic and environmentally benign electricity?

As we prepare to enter a new year, let’s remember that fossil fuels like coal and gas are reliable, can be economic, but impact our environment.  Renewable sources like wind and solar are good for the environment but can be costly and unreliable.  Nuclear Power is an important source of electricity that can provide large amounts of clean, reliable and economic electricity to keep our society moving.

I hope that all power is restored to those without as soon as possible so they can enjoy what is left of the holiday season.

Wishing you all a very happy and healthy 2014

Meeting the energy needs of the 21st century – is it time for a real nuclear renaissance?

As I started to read this year’s World Energy Outlook (WEO 2013) from the International Energy Agency (IEA), it was the very first line in the executive summary that caught my interest.  The report starts out with “Many of the longheld tenets of the energy sector are being rewritten.

It then goes on to explain: “Major importers are becoming exporters, while countries long-defined as major energy exporters are also becoming leading centres of global demand growth. The right combination of policies and technologies is proving that the links between economic growth, energy demand and energy-related CO2 emissions can be weakened. The rise of unconventional oil and gas and of renewables is transforming our understanding of the distribution of the world’s energy resources. Awareness of the dynamics underpinning energy markets is essential for decision makers attempting to reconcile economic, energy and environmental objectives. Those that anticipate global energy developments successfully can derive an advantage, while those that fail to do so risk making poor policy and investment decisions.”

What is clear is that energy is important!  Most of all there is change in the air – ignore it at your peril.  And with change comes opportunity.  This is where I want to focus my discussion this month.  But before I go on, I think it is useful to summarize the key points from the report to further clarify the paragraph above. The WEO 2013 is concluding the following:

  • The centre of gravity of energy demand is switching decisively to the emerging economies, particularly China, India and the Middle East, which drive global energy use one-third higher.
  • As the source of two-thirds of global greenhouse-gas emissions, the energy sector will be pivotal in determining whether or not climate change goals are achieved.
  • Large differences in regional energy prices have started a debate about the role of energy in unleashing or frustrating economic growth.
  • Energy price variations are set to affect industrial competitiveness, influencing investment decisions and company strategies.
  • Countries can reduce the impact of high prices by promoting more efficient, competitive and interconnected energy markets.
  • A renewed focus on energy efficiency is taking hold and is set to deliver benefits that extend well beyond improvements in competitiveness.
  • Enhancing energy competitiveness does not mean diminishing efforts to tackle climate change. Renewables account for nearly half of the increase in global power generation to 2035, with variable sources – wind and solar photovoltaics – making up 45% of the expansion in renewables.
  • Coal remains a cheaper option than gas for generating electricity in many regions, but policy interventions to improve efficiency, curtail local air pollution and mitigate climate change will be critical in determining its longer-term prospects.
  • Market conditions vary strikingly in different regions of the world, but the flexibility and environmental benefits of natural gas compared with other fossil fuels put it in a position to prosper over the longer term.

So there you have it.  The fastest growing economies have the fastest growing demand, high energy prices are slowing growth in some markets and giving an economic advantage to others with lower prices; and climate change is having an impact on energy decisions.

The above makes it sound as if the path to a low carbon future is built on more renewables and gas.  But is it really?  Looking at the following chart we can see that in the OECD countries where demand growth is modest and electricity supply is already robust, gas is the go-to fuel both due to cost and as a cleaner alternative to coal; and renewables are the supposed clean generation of the future.  Not surprisingly in the non-OECD countries where demand is growing much more quickly (read mostly China!), they are doing everything they can to develop all kinds of supply – including more coal, more gas, more renewables and yes, more nuclear.

IEAWEONov2013a

So what does this mean for nuclear power? According to the IEA, “Nuclear power generation increases by two-thirds in the New Policies Scenario, reaching 4,300 terawatt-hours (TWh) in 2035. Demand is driven heavily by expansion in just a few countries: China accounts for around half of the global increase; Korea experiences the next largest increase over the projection period (the only OECD country to see appreciable growth), followed by India and Russia. Overall, non-OECD economies see their share of global demand for nuclear power jump from less than 20% to nearly 45% in 2035. While prospects for nuclear power at the global level are now less uncertain than they were two years ago, there are still key issues that remain unclear. These include the possibility of further changes in government policy, implications of the ongoing safety upgrades for plant economics and public confidence, and the impact of increased competition from shale gas.”

It should not be a surprise that those countries with the largest demand growth see a large benefit from increasing the use of nuclear power.  They need clean reliable baseload and nuclear meets this need.  In the more advanced OECD countries, many of these already have significant nuclear fleets (80% of current nuclear capacity is in OECD countries), have lower baseload growth and can (or at least they think they can) look at other alternatives.  Gas is replacing coal as a cleaner fossil option so long as it remains competitive and the challenges of new nuclear coupled with low demand growth put it more on the back burner.

IEAWEONov2013b

But is this the right path?  As I said last year when I reported on the WEO 2012, it is important to remember the WEO is not a forecast per se; rather it is a projection of how existing and potential government policies would look once implemented.  And what we still see one year later is a world investing heavily in fossil fuels to protect the status quo while also investing in renewables as a token path to the future.  Of more importance, the WEO shows a path to meet climate change goals that is based on efficiency to lower demand, movement from coal to gas and CCS technology to clean up some of the coal and then more renewables.

What goes unsaid is how this is fantasy.  Not that the world will continue down the path of burning fossil fuels for our electricity, but rather that we can do so and meet climate goals. The 2013 WEO New Policy scenario “leaves the world on a trajectory consistent with a long term average temperature increase of 3.6C, far above the internationally agreed 2C target”.   In their 450 scenario where the target is 2 degrees, there is more renewables, more conservation, more technology to clean fossil fuels and yes, a little more nuclear.

Given the need to decarbonize the electricity sector and the limits to using wind and solar (about half the renewable additions), it should be obvious that nuclear be a stronger option.  Yes, currently in North America low gas prices are challenging its competitiveness while in Europe, green ideology has a larger impact.  There is a onetime carbon improvement as coal is replaced by gas; but then gas becomes the largest carbon producer on the system – so where do we go from there?  And renewables will remain intermittent and likely costly for some time to come.  Nuclear power is clean, reliable and in most cases, economic; but of most importance – abundant.  Yes, in a resource constrained world, the amount of electricity we can potentially generate with nuclear power is almost limitless.  So why don’t we see more of it in the developed world?

The answer is that we still don’t have the political will.  And that comes from lack of public support.  Just this week the World Bank reiterated its policy that they don’t support nuclear power – even though they support all other forms of electricity generation.  Continued negative press about the status of Fukushima keep the public on edge.  For example this past month TEPCO started to remove the used fuel from the Unit 4 spent fuel bay.  This should have been a good news story yet most stories made it seem like a horrifically dangerous undertaking (and of course it is not).

The WEO makes the case that government support is what drives nuclear.  “The rate of expansion of nuclear power continues to be mainly policy driven. It expands in markets where there is a supportive policy framework, which in some cases actively targets a larger role for nuclear in the mix in order to achieve energy security aims. But policy frameworks can also hinder or eliminate nuclear power, often as a result of public opposition: even where there is no explicit ban, long permitting processes, such as in the United States, can significantly hinder development by increasing uncertainty about project completion and increasing costs.”

I was listening to a radio interview this past week with climate change scientist Richard Peltier.  [Interview starts at about 31:40 in the link].  He makes a strong case for getting the message out about scientific consensus.  While he notes that between 95 and 98% of scientists agree on the science of climate change, the press reports make it seem there is much more disagreement than there really is with the result that the public is confused.  The answer is to get out and speak at the grass roots level. Governments will not strongly support policies that battle climate change until the public believes it is necessary.  The same is true for nuclear power.  Governments will not strongly support increasing its use until the public are in agreement that it is safe and necessary.

We are seeing some progress.  In Pandora’s Promise, five environmentalists are now convinced of the advantages of nuclear power and they are actively advocating its use.  This past month four other environmentalists have released an open letter calling on world leaders to support development of safer nuclear power systems. In their letter they state, “As climate and energy scientists concerned with global climate change, we are writing to urge you to advocate the development and deployment of safer nuclear energy systems. We appreciate your organization’s concern about global warming, and your advocacy of renewable energy. But continued opposition to nuclear power threatens humanity’s ability to avoid dangerous climate change.”

Some governments are also taking on the challenge.  In the UK there is pretty much political unanimity that new nuclear is required to meet their climate goals.  The result is strong political support for nuclear new build.  A recent quote by Hergen Haye, Head of New Nuclear & Strategy, Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), UK government “To replace Hinkley alone, we have to build 6000 wind turbines. Nuclear will help us to cut costs and to face the other environmental challenges. We cannot do without nuclear because renewables will not do things alone without making electricity bills rise.” (21 November 2013 in Brussels).

In France, after pandering to the greens and committing to close Fessenheim, the French government is finally saying that there will not be more closures. We see strong political support where nuclear is needed most in China, Russia and India although Korea is wrestling with their future plan due to recent scandals.

I come back to the first line of the WEO 2013, “Many of the longheld tenets of the energy sector are being rewritten.  This is a time of great opportunity.  So let’s make sure nuclear power is playing its increasingly important role by providing clean reliable generation to support economic growth and a brighter more secure future for us all.

The changing face of global energy – Is nuclear power being left behind?

I have just done my first pass of the Word Energy Outlook 2012 issued by the IEA this November.  Many of you will have seen some of the headlines – one of the most intriguing is that the US is expected to become the world’s largest oil producer by 2017 exceeding the output of Saudi Arabia.  With headlines like that how can you not want to read this report?

The trouble with trying to read and write about this report is that, as was the case with the Energy Technology Perspectives (which I talked about earlier this year), there is just so much in it to make you think that, agree or disagree, the report is full of interesting information that is worth discussing.

I have been a bit stuck on what perspective to take in this post.  Ultimately I decided to focus on some general points this month (of course with the outlook on nuclear as the key talking point) and then I will undoubtedly use the report for future discussions on more focused topics.

Reading the Executive Summary the report starts off with “The global energy map is changing, with potentially far-reaching consequences for energy markets and trade. It is being redrawn by the resurgence in oil and gas production in the United States and could be further reshaped by a retreat from nuclear power in some countries, continued rapid growth in the use of wind and solar technologies and by the global spread of unconventional gas production.”

When it comes to global energy production, this short phrase pretty much sums it up.  Strong North American oil production, more coal, less nuclear, more renewables and much more gas.  And not surprisingly, this  translates into more difficulty meeting climate change objectives.  It continues, “Taking all new developments and policies into account, the world is still failing to put the global energy system onto a more sustainable pathSuccessive editions of this report have shown that the climate goal of limiting warming to 2 °C is becoming more difficult and more costly with each year that passes. Our 450 Scenario examines the actions necessary to achieve this goal and finds that almost four-fifths of the CO2 emissions allowable by 2035 are already locked-in by existing power plants, factories, buildings, etc. If action to reduce CO2 emissions is not taken before 2017, all the allowable CO2 emissions would be locked-in by energy infrastructure existing at that time.”  Another testament to the continuing lack of progress on meeting the world’s climate change challenges.

And finally when it comes to the future of nuclear power it recognizes the changes in some countries to cut back while others continue to move forward.

“The anticipated role of nuclear power has been scaled back as countries have reviewed policies in the wake of the 2011 accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station. Japan and France have recently joined the countries with intentions to reduce their use of nuclear power, while its competitiveness in the United States and Canada is being challenged by relatively cheap natural gas. Our projections for growth in installed nuclear capacity are lower than in last year’s Outlook and, while nuclear output still grows in absolute terms (driven by expanded generation in China, Korea, India and Russia), its share in the global electricity mix falls slightly over time.

I am showing all of the above quotes because in a few words from the Executive Summary, the report says so much.  The figure below shows the key changes in projected energy use from the 2011 WEO.  In summary, as I read this report we can conclude that:

  • Fossil fuel use is thriving.  Clearly North American policies to increase both oil and gas production are very effective.  Coal use is up again globally from the last WEO even with a larger increase in (mostly unconventional) gas use.  Fossil fuel subsidies continue to be the largest of any energy source estimated at $523 billion, more than 6 times that for renewables and a 30% increase from 2010.
  • Renewables use continues to grow without any real demonstration that increasing renewables to that extent is feasible.  Subsidies are at $88 billion and rise to $240 billion in 2035
  • Nuclear is being left behind as the 6% reduction in nuclear compared to 2011 is the largest single change in the new WEO New Policies Scenario.

And this path is taking us down the road to being unable to meet the 2 degree climate change scenario.  After trying everything else in past reports, this year they try to demonstrate that increased efficiency is a potential path to delaying the inevitable and make time for more policy change to support the environment.  This has the potential to extend the 2017 date for lock-in to 2022.  However we can also ask, without a real and substantive global commitment to reducing carbon emissions, what will these extra few years actually achieve?  Most likely – nothing!

So let’s look at the nuclear case in a bit more detail.  Compared to the 2011 scenario, nuclear use is decreasing in those countries with the most to lose, Japan, Germany, Switzerland and even France, while being economically challenged in North America; and rising in the more rapidly growing economies of the east led by China.  This leads to an important question.  Is nuclear power becoming a transient technology that helps countries develop and then once there, can be phased out over time by a policy shift to renewables?  This seems to be a possible theme going forward but in practice nothing can be further from the truth.  It is interesting to note that this past week was the 70th anniversary of the first sustained criticality at CP-1 by Enrico Fermi.  And here we are today with the countries named above all having substantial nuclear programs providing a large and important part of their electricity generation (Japan 30%, Germany 30%, Switzerland 40% and France 75%).  Clearly, with this much nuclear, replacing it is not trivial and will have significant impacts.   Even the WEO acknowledges that “shifting away from nuclear power can have significant implications for a country’s spending on imports of fossil fuels, for electricity prices and for the level of effort needed to meet climate targets.”

And that is what we are seeing today as Germany and Japan wrestle with these impacts as they try to reduce the use of nuclear very quickly.  Based on hysteria following the Fukushima accident, the politicians in these countries (even France) seem to have forgotten what they have achieved since that famous date 70 years ago and why they built such large nuclear fleets in the first place.  Building a successful nuclear program is a major undertaking requiring investment in regulation, infrastructure and industry.  Germany, Japan and France have all benefited from this investment as they developed significant technology, know-how and industrial capability with the result being, in all cases, a very large portion of their electricity generation being economical, clean and reliable.  Reducing its use as a result of a misguided view on nuclear safety will result in a large negative impact to industry and their economies.  In Germany, utilities are suffering financially and in Japan, there is the risk of losing capability and business to the new nuclear powers of Korea and China while having staggering increases in imported fossil fuels and a devastating impact to the local economy.

In fact, looking at the following figure from the WEO shows the bigger story.  Just compare the capacity bar with the energy bar in each case and one thing is clear.  Nuclear power is a key workhorse of the global energy system.  It is by far the most efficient investment as every GW of capacity produces more GWh of energy than every other type of electricity generation.  As I stated in my earlier post on the ETP, one of the reasons for the enormous investment in renewables is that you have to build about three times as much capacity as nuclear to get anywhere near the same energy output – and of course even then this energy is not dispatchable.  But even looking at the use of more tradition fossil fuels, because nuclear fuel costs are very small, they are dispatched before more expensive coal and gas plants and, as the figure shows, 3 times as much coal capacity and almost 4 times as much gas is projected to each only generate twice the energy as nuclear.

It is important to remember that the WEO is not a forecast per se; rather it is a projection of how government policies would look once implemented.  And what we see is a world investing heavily in fossil fuels to protect the status quo while also investing in renewables as a token path to the future.  The fall in nuclear power use in developed countries is an important testament to the ongoing impact of the Fukushima accident on government policies in the west.

While the 2012 projection is less than 2011, nuclear power does continue to grow and in 2035 it is projected to supply 12% of world electricity (13% in 2011 projection).  Yes, it is being left behind relatively but, as I see it, this report clearly demonstrates the importance of nuclear power as a clean, efficient and reliable source of non carbon electricity going forward.  Implementing policies that reduce its use is folly as it definitely will result in expanded fossil use, higher costs, trade imbalances  and higher carbon emissions; all leading us down an unsustainable path.

Therefore the policy answer is not to limit and reduce the use of nuclear energy, but to expand its use because even a small expansion in capacity results in a relatively large increase in energy generated.  And that means that we need to work harder to address the issues resulting from the Fukushima accident in the developed world and remind those governments who are reacting to short term pressures why they went nuclear in the first place; and of the consequences of reducing its use to their societies so they can rethink potential policies that may move them away from this very important part of our global energy mix.

Climate change or peak oil – does it really matter?

Has it been that long since my last blog entry?  Been extremely busy this winter and of course, busy is good!  But on the other hand, I have a set of topics piling up that I would like to write about.

Earlier, I blogged when I read Jeff Rubin’s book “How the World is going to get a Whole lot Smaller”.  When I posted the blog, I had good feedback.  I was told that if I read this book, then I should definitely read “The Long Emergency” by Jeff Kunstler.    Having been written in 2005 it is getting a bit dated.  This makes it even more interesting because as you read, reality can be compared to the author’s predictions over the last 5 years.

I really did enjoy the book. The concepts are similar and predate Jeff Rubin.  In summary, Jeff Kunstler is convinced that the age of peak oil is upon us and that the world is going to be a very different place sooner rather than later.  A number of his predictions have come to pass including the housing crisis and the very deep economic recession that we are just coming out of.  Unfortunately the book then goes on to predict doom and gloom- basically the complete collapse of society as we know it.  While he may be right, and I hope not, the trouble with this is that it discourages readers from paying attention to the main message.  And this message is an important one now being put forward by Jeff Rubin as well.

I do believe him when he says that we are at or near peak oil.  I also believe that there is no magic bullet to replace oil and that those who postpone decisions to adapt on the basis that “technology will save us” tend to be somewhat deluded – or in reality are just avoiding the issue.  On the other hand, I don’t believe that the world will come to an end and I do believe that there is technology that will help us delay the large scale effects to give us even more time to adapt.   But remember, adapting means changing behaviour. 

For example, look at one industry.  Publishing. How much carbon is used in the manufacture and distribution of books, magazines and newspapers?  Look at the business model.  Books are published in a big print runs.  They are then transported to book shops where they are to be sold, generally on consignment.  If not sold, the books are returned (more transport) to be destroyed.  While I don’t have the numbers I can assume the carbon costs to be significant.  So why am I talking about this?  Well, along comes technology – an e-reader or now an Apple IPad and what happens?  Millions of books, magazines and newspapers no longer have to be distributed in hard copy, but can now be distributed electronically thus reducing the carbon footprint of this one industry by a huge amount.  Now I don’t want to get into the discussion about the merits or e-readers here – and in fact I do want to blog about it at a later date – but just assume that it does come to pass.  Then assume there are other industries that can also do the same.  You see where I am going.

So now let’s bring climate change into the equation.  I am one who certainly does believe that the carbon we are putting into the atmosphere is having an impact on our climate.  But even if you don’t, then focus on peak oil.  If we take action to curb climate change then we can put in place policies to reduce oil consumption before the natural economics affect us too drastically.  i.e by implementing carbon reduction policies to reduce carbon, we must price it and thus try and reduce use.  Bacuase as we all know from the recent events, nothing is as effective in changing behaviour than changing costs.  This artificially pushes us to the same situation that would come naturally once peak oil has come and oil becomes scarcer.  Of course people like Jeff Kunstler believe we are already too late!

This is why Copenhagen was such a big disappointment,  In a sense it re-enforces  the views in the Long Emergency that our dependence on oil is so great that we just don’t have the political will to go in the right direction.  Very discouraging.

As we saw from this last recession, when demand drops so does the price of oil. In fact what we see is that it doesn’t really take that much of change to impact the price quite dramatically.  With the price risking to almost $150/bbl in early 2008, it dropped to less than $50 by the end of 2008 and has continued to rise modestly since then.  Now at over $80, once again there is fear that high oil prices will impact the economic recovery!  Therefore the only policy is to price carbon and keep the price of oil from dropping by adapting the carbon price as necessary.  Anything else will just lead to short term change and then back to the status quo.

One thing is certain.  Oil is a finite resource. Yes we may find more but yes it will be more expensive to exploit.  At some point we are gong to have to accept that we need to start to shift to a less oil dependent economy. And given oil’s uses outside of energy doesn’t it make sense to use alternatives?  So I will conclude by suggesting that climate change is our warning – start to act now to save the environment or wait until the oil is well past peak and have no plan to save society.

What do you think?