Thursday, 2 January 2014

What are the most efficient forms of energy.. at a local level?

The debate about what is the most 'efficient' form of energy is pretty intractable:

One issue has been solar vs nuclear, with the matter very much unsettled:

Posted in MovementsResearch by Kate Archdeacon on August 24th, 2010
Source: Worldchanging

The sunshine of North Carolina, a state on America’s Atlantic seaboard, has long been a draw for tourists seeking a little southern warmth on the region’s beaches. But holiday companies are not the only ones trumpeting a good local deal. The price of the state’s solar-generated electricity has fallen so far that it is now cheaper than new nuclear power, according to a report published in July by researchers at the state’s Duke University. The authors say their figures indicate a “historic crossover” that significantly strengthens the case for investment in renewable energy – and weakens the arguments for large-scale, international nuclear development.

Solar power is usually branded as a clean but expensive energy source, incapable of competing on economic grounds with more established alternatives, such as nuclear. The outspoken pro-nuclear stance adopted by a raft of iconic environmental figures – James Lovelock, Stewart Brand, Patrick Moore – has helped to instill in policy making circles the sense that this is the only power source that can restructure our energy supply at the pace, scale and price required by the pressures of rapid climate change. This study, which was co-authored by former chair of Duke University’s economics department John Blackburn and commissioned by NC Warn, a clean-energy NGO with a firm anti-nuclear bent, challenges that view. “This report should end the argument for risking billions of public dollars on new nuclear projects,” says Jim Warren, NC Warn director.

Another issue considered has been the viability of hydroelectricity... and nuclear
With possible projects in Sidmouth: 
On the River Otter:
And beyond:

But George Monbiot has warned against over-reliance on it:

The damming and weiring of British rivers for watermills was small-scale, renewable, picturesque and devastating. By blocking the rivers and silting up the spawning beds, they helped bring to an end the gigantic runs of migratory fish that were once among our great natural spectacles and which fed much of Britain: wiping out sturgeon, lampreys and shad as well as most seatrout and salmon(Callum Roberts, 2007. The Unnatural History of the Sea. Gaia Thinking, London.)

Is nuclear therefore the option for the UK? And yet, Germany is demissionining all its nuclear power stations:

More fundamentally, is nuclear power an option at a local level? 

From Rob Hopkins of the Transition Town movement:

If we have to live closer to our energy sources, would we rather they were wind, solar or fracking?  Or perhaps one of Stewart Brand's community scale nuclear power plants (which he once told me could be about the size of a postbox and funded through a community share option).  We need to decide one way or another, rather than just rejecting them all out of hand.  

The technology for small-scale looks good: from the Observer November 2008: 

Nuclear power plants smaller than a garden shed and able to power 20,000 homes will be on sale within five years, say scientists at Los Alamos, the US government laboratory which developed the first atomic bomb. 
The miniature reactors will be factory-sealed, contain no weapons-grade material, have no moving parts and will be nearly impossible to steal because they will be encased in concrete and buried underground. 
The US government has licensed the technology to Hyperion, a New Mexico-based company which said last week that it has taken its first firm orders and plans to start mass production within five years.
'Our goal is to generate electricity for 10 cents a kilowatt hour anywhere in the world,' said John Deal, chief executive of Hyperion. 'They will cost approximately $25m [£16m] each. For a community with 10,000 households, that is a very affordable $2,500 per home.'

However, at £16m a time even for a smaller-scale model, the cost of nuclear does seem to be a problem: 

The economics of new nuclear power plants is a controversial subject, since there are diverging views on this topic, and multi-billion dollar investments ride on the choice of an energy source. Nuclear power plants typically have high capital costs for building the plant, but low direct fuel costs.
In recent years there has been a slowdown of electricity demand growth and financing has become more difficult, which has an impact on large projects such as nuclear reactors, with very large upfront costs and long project cycles which carry a large variety of risks.[2] In Eastern Europe, a number of long-established projects are struggling to find finance, notably Belene in Bulgaria and the additional reactors at Cernavoda in Romania, and some potential backers have pulled out.[2] Where cheap gas is available and its future supply relatively secure, this also poses a major problem for nuclear projects.[2]
Analysis of the economics of nuclear power must take into account who bears the risks of future uncertainties. To date all operating nuclear power plants were developed by state-owned or regulated utility monopolies[3][4] where many of the risks associated with construction costs, operating performance, fuel price, and other factors were borne by consumers rather than suppliers. Many countries have now liberalized the electricity marketwhere these risks, and the risk of cheaper competitors emerging before capital costs are recovered, are borne by plant suppliers and operators rather than consumers, which leads to a significantly different evaluation of the economics of new nuclear power plants.[5]
Two of the four EPRs under construction (in Finland and France) are significantly behind schedule and substantially over cost.[6] Following the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, costs are likely to go up for currently operating and new nuclear power plants, due to increased requirements for on-site spent fuel management and elevated design basis threats.[7] 
As of July 2013, economist Mark Cooper has identified some US nuclear power plants that face particularly significant challenges to their continued operation due to regulatory challenges by local politicians.[129] These are Palisades, Fort Calhoun, Nine Mile Point, Fitzpatrick, Ginna, Oyster Creek, Vermont Yankee, Millstone, Clinton, Indian Point. Cooper said the lesson here for policy makers and economists is clear: "nuclear reactors are simply not competitive".[129]

The nuclear industry is hugely expensive. The construction and generating costs of nuclear power are greater than most renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies. Added to these are costs associated with dismantling nuclear stations and waste disposal. The clean up costs for the UK’s existing nuclear industry and its waste have alone been estimated at up to £100bn.

“EDF will not be able to finance new nuclear in Britain on its own balance sheet. It will be relying on at least an implicit guarantee from the French and UK Governments to lower its cost of capital. If this is not forthcoming, raising the £25billion that will be needed for Hinkley and Sizewell will prove very difficult. Indeed, many independent commentators in the City are already deeply sceptical.” 

But there is an issue which is rarely considered – and this impacts on the whole notion of what we mean by 'efficiency' - whether nuclear or fossil fuels:  
This is from Greenpeace back in July 2005:

The debate over the UK’s energy future routinely overlooks an issue that is key to our rising emissions – the huge wastage inherent in our centralised electricity system. Because we generate electricity in large power stations far from our cities, almost two-thirds of primary energy inputs to the system are wasted – partly from the wires that transmit the electricity around the country, but mostly in the form of waste heat from the power stations themselves...

22% of primary energy input is eventually used in the home – the rest is lost in the current centralised system and wasted through domestic energy inefficiency

The actual problem is that governments worldwide have been actively intervening for decades to prevent the market from banning nuclear power. Precisely because the stakes are so high and there’s so much room for unforeseen things to go wrong, nuclear power is uninsurable on the private market. 
Nuclear power would be a no-go if 1) private industry had to put up its own money, or 2) it wasn’t guaranteed a profit.

Here is a more detailed consideration of the arguments:

Nuclear Power and Centralised Energy Production


Only a decade ago the nuclear energy industry was dead in the water. The high costs of building and decommissioning nuclear power stations, the impossible task of safely disposing of nuclear waste, and the human and environmental catastrophes of Chernobyl, Tokaimura and Three Mile Island (among many others) made nuclear energy a highly undesirable form of electricity production. A number of European countries made plans to phase out nuclear power altogether.

But recently, in a stroke of strategic genius, the nuclear industry have constructed for themselves a lifeline out of climate change. Within the framework of the international climate negotiations, ruthless lobbyists are pushing nuclear energy as a low-carbon climate solution. Over the past four years they have sucessfully forced nuclear energy back onto the European energy policy agenda in what has been branded a 'nuclear renaissance.'

But nuclear energy is neither efficient nor effective in cutting CO2 emissions; is not a renewable energy source, and it is equal to, if not worse than, fossil fuel energy in the devastation it wreaks from mining through to waste disposal and decommissioning.

But it's not only about greenhouse gases. Like coal and oil, uranium is extraced from the lands of indigenous peoples across the world; the uranium mining, nuclear power and nuclear weapons industries are resposible for human rights abuses and displacement of indigenous communities in Southern Australia, Arizona, New Mexico, India, China and across Africa. The indigenous people whose land and communities are destroyed are also the same people who have been employed in the process, unaware of the biological hazards of working with radioactive materials. At the end of 2006 indigenous peoples from around the world, victims of uranium mining, nuclear testing, and nuclear dumping, issued a global ban on uranium mining on native lands.

Depleted Uranium (DU) is nuclear waste left over after enrichment activities for the nuclear power industry. DU is expensive and hazardous to store, so it is sold at a very low cost to arms manufacturers. Both industries profit greatly from the deal. Estimates of DU munitions expended run to 280 tonnes in the Gulf War of 1991 by US and UK forces and 14 tonnes in the Balkans in the latter half of the 1990s by NATO. There was further large-scale use in the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and also in Afghanistan in 2001.

But another crucial aspect of the argument against nuclear energy that is often ignored – and one reason why this dangerous technology has been enthusiastically adopted by governments in preference to localised renewable energies – is that it is simply a convenient replacement for centralised, industry-owned, technocratic and highly profitable energy production, at a time when fossil fuels are fast becoming socially unacceptable.

Modern societies have created elaborate socio-technical systems that link production, distribution, and consumption in coherent patterns. The current energy regime is characterized by large, complex, centralized, and hierarchically managed systems that position 'energy users' as 'energy consumers,' purchasing from an energy system whose internal structure is of no particular public concern. Centralised power production serves to centralise political and economic power, disconnects communities from responsibility and control over energy and creates a vast, wasteful system. Currently, almost all discussions about the future of low-carbon energy make the basic assumption of centralized generation by large-scale systems.

Even wind power is promoted with images of massive wind-farms. Geothermal, nuclear, hydropower, hydrogen and bioenergy, the main low-carbon systems, are all large-scale projects based upon a centralized production system. But the development of such energy systems, promoted as climate-change solutions, change only the inputs to the system, continuing the social and political characteristics and the political economy of our current fossil-fuelled infrastructure, strengthening authoritarian and capitalist social relationships. Any discussion of our social relationship to the production and consumption of energy is sidelined or altogether ignored. If we are to recover democracy, a key element must be democratizing power production.

Such centralised, large-scale and privatised energy production is exactly opposite to the reduction and localisation of energy production that is evidently necessary to tackle climate change. Nuclear energy represents only a simple switch of inputs from fossil-fuels to uranium, side-stepping any challenge to the current social, political and economic organisation of energy production and consumption and the relationships and power dynamics that such organisation creates and enforces. It also happens to be expensive, dangerous, carbon-intensive, finite and its waste is a cheap and convenient raw material for depleted uranium weapons of war.

There are several positive arguments for producing energy more locally:

> Consumers are becoming more frustrated with ‘big energy’:

> ‘Nimbyism’ is on rise: 

Ministers have risked opening a Pandora's Box in picking out one energy technology for special treatment through the planning system. Green groups have already pointedly asked whether people will be given "vetoes" and offered similar levels of community benefit payments when they are asked to host fracking wells, nuclear power plants, or new runways. In fact, pretty much every kind of development begs the same question: where is my community benefit payment to compensate for the loss of amenity caused by new housing, new roads, new pylons, and, of course, new power stations?

> People are asking what sort of power generation they are prepared to have in our own back yard, again from Rob Hopkins:

In the past, energy generation and extraction is something that tended to happen 'out there': out in the North Sea; in distant nuclear power stations; in mining communities.  One of the features of how rapidly our energy situation is changing is how energy generation is coming closer to home.  If we have to live closer to our energy sources, would we rather they were wind, solar or fracking?  Or perhaps one of Stewart Brand's community scale nuclear power plants (which he once told me could be about the size of a postbox and funded through a community share option).  We need to decide one way or another, rather than just rejecting them all out of hand. 

>And users of energy are becoming more responsible in terms of sourcing
uranium for example:
John Pilger's damning new film about indigenous Australia
Making the world a more dangerous place - the eager role of Julia Gillard

> It is very much a question of scale
A single wind turbine is a very different proposition to a large wind farm:

Industrial-scale wind farms have aroused the anger of millions of people up and down the country. But a single turbine, built on the initiative of local people and sited on their own land, is a different story. 

> Greenpeace put together this diagram in 2005:

> Woking has been very innovative with 'local sustainable energy systems' over the last ten years:

> And now the UK government is showing more interest in community energy:

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