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The political decision to power ahead with Hinkley Point C nuclear power station is the energy equivalent of appointing a tone deaf musical director to the London Symphony Orchestra. How much more evidence do Cameron and Co. need? A short litany of anti-Hinckley arguments should suffice.
In a case of economics speaking truth to power, the OECD’s 2010 World Energy Outlook quietly increased the average lifetime of a nuclear power plant to 45-55 years, up 5 years from its 2008 edition.
Even today, in the first half of the twenty-first century, thousands of villages in Africa and Asia (mainly in India) remain off-grid and have no access to electricity. Ever since a three-month stay in Kenya and Tanzania in 1985, I have dreamt of bringing solar lighting to the smallest villages on these two continents. In Kenya I was astounded to see that, as early as 1985, a few rural families had bought individual solar panels connected to used car batteries to power a single light bulb and the occasional television set. They did this because they had no hope of access to grid electricity in their lifetimes. It’s even more astounding to think that in affluent countries today, the majority of people who drive $ 20,000 cars consider solar power unaffordable without government subsidies. No wonder the world is hotting up! Such economic calculations show how skewed our thinking is.
Of course it was obvious that this journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Less obvious was what this first step should be. Mhairi made the first step on a recent (November 2015) visit to a village on the outskirts of a tiger sanctuary in Rajasthan. She made contact with the owner of a handicrafts shop on the edge of the Ranthambore national forest and tiger reserve who helps village craftswomen earn a living by marketing the beautiful tiger paintings, patchwork quilts with mirror designs and appliqué fabrics they make. Dharamveer was thrilled to hear about the idea of installing solar lighting for the nearby villages. He immediately took us to visit three of the 10 surrounding villages. These villagers have limited or no access to electricity. Even the few homes connected to the grid have power only 2 or 3 days a week, so they end up spending 2 to 3 hundred rupees a month on electricity bills or on kerosene for inadequate lighting with lamps. The proposal to pre-finance solar lamps for each household in the village was met with much enthusiasm. They were quite willing to pay 200 to 300 rupees a month for reliable solar lighting. And they were delighted to hear that, at a price of just 499 rupees (US $ 7 at current exchange rates), the lamps would belong to them within three months. Apart from the environmental costs of burning kerosene, the biggest drawbacks are cost and inadequate light for children studying or doing homework.
The idea we propose is quite simple. We plan to finance around one hundred of these solar lamps initially, to be distributed to a number of households in the ten target villages. Presumably they will be paid for in 3 months from the money the villagers save from their kerosene and electricity bills. We will request voluntary contributions for another 2 months and use the extra money to expand the circle of recipients till all households in the villages are covered. After which one can think of more elaborate systems, for example, like the model shown here that costs 7000 rupees or US $ 100 at today’s exchange rates. Greenlight is a for-profit company started in the US by three engineers, two American and one Indian. Their products have received good reviews in the international press.
We have decided on Greenlight’s Sun King model range, based only on our own internet research and news reports. Readers of this blog are invited to give feedback or share their own experiences with different models. I can envisage offering a range of different systems based on cost and reliability. I look forward to hearing from you.
For more by this author, see his Amazon page here.
Four recent reports on new breakthroughs in renewable energy generation and storage technology reinforce the promise that was once made for nuclear power: abundant energy for all, including the poorest in society, even though it may never be “too cheap to meter.”
High Performance Flow Batteries The promise of renewable energy technologies will be fully realized when battery storage becomes reliable enough and cheap enough to even out intermittent flows. Today the problem is partly solved by feeding energy from rooftop panels into the grid and then receiving compensation from the energy utility for the power supplied either in cash or in the form of reduced electricity bills. Looking at a typical electricity bill in Euroland (my own) I see the following charges. The unit price (per KWh) is between 6.5 and 7.3 Eurocents, but after grid charges, network costs and taxes are added, I pay 26 cents per KWh. Ironically, bulk consumers (factories, office blocks and large companies) pay lower rates, around 8 to 15 cents per KWh, depending on level of consumption. Now the whole picture is changed with the advent of low cost storage systems that make home batteries affordable and economical. Imagine home systems that can deliver electricity for all your needs at no cost for twenty to thirty years, once installed, barring the onetime cost of the system. Coming soon, to an affordable home near you.
Silicon cones inspired by the architecture of the human eye. The retina of the human eye contains photoreceptors in the form of rods and cones. Rods in the retina are the most sensitive to light, while cones enhance colour sensitivity. Modelling photovoltaic cells based on the makeup of the retina, researchers have been able to enhance the sensitivity of solar cells to different colours in the sunlight that falls on each cell and thereby increase electricity output by “milking the spectrum” closer to its theoretical maximum. Increasing efficiency of the average rooftop PV cells from the current 18-20 to 30% would make such systems cheaper by far than grid electricity mostly anywhere in the world, even in temperate countries. Coming soon, to a rooftop near you.
Modular biobattery plant that turns biowaste into energy. Biogas plants are old hat. They have undeniable benefits, turning plant, animal and human waste into energy (methane) while leaving behind a rich sludge that is excellent fertiliser. However, good designs are not common and they are sometimes cumbersome to feed and maintain. Now comes an efficient German design that promises to be modular and economically viable even at a small scale. In another development, the University of West England at Bristol has developed a toilet that turns human urine into electricity on the fly (pardon the pun) and the prototype is currently undergoing testing, appropriately enough, near the student union bar. Coming soon, to a poo-place or a pee-place near you.
New electrolyte for lithium ion batteries. Lithium ion batteries using various electrolytes have already become the workhorse of the current crop of electric cars and for medium-sized storage requirements. New electrolyte chemistry discovered at PNNL Labs shows that reductions of upto ten times in size, cost and density are feasible and various electrolyte/electrode combinations are being further tested for production feasibility. Coming soon, to a battery storage terminal near you.
So what should you do, as a concerned global citizen, until you can lay your hands on one of these devices (or all of them) for your own use? Tread lightly on the earth, don’t buy bottled water, reduce energy use, walk when you can instead of driving your car (your arteries will love you for it), buy local produce, eat less meat (your grateful arteries again), think twice before flying off to that conference (think teleconferencing), buy an electric car if you need a new one, and remember that every liter or gallon of petrol you fill into your old one not only fuels your car but potentially also the conflicts in the Middle East and/or lines the deep pockets of Big Oil which definitely does not want your energy independence.
Scroll backwards in time to the early 1970s. US President Richard Nixon appointed the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to produce a study of recommendations on “The Nation’s Energy Future” based on advice from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Requesting the AEC for energy prognoses is akin to asking a tiger for dietary recommendations; there will surely be no vegetables on the menu! Dr. Dixy Lee Ray, chair of the AEC, predicted in her summation of the report that “solar would always remain like the flea on the behind of an elephant.” In the early 1980s I knew another eminent researcher, Dr. Thomas Henry Lee, a Vice President for research under Jack Welch at General Electric, who often stated that nuclear power would produce “energy that is too cheap to meter,” essentially free.
The AEC study, when it was published, proposed a $10 billion budget for research and development with half going to nuclear and fusion, while the rest would be spent on coal and oil. A mere $36 million was to be allocated to photovoltaics (PV). Dr. Barry Commoner, an early initiator of the environmental movement, was intrigued that the NSF had recommended such a paltry amount for solar. In the 1950s he had successfully lobbied for citizen access to the classified results of atmospheric nuclear tests and was able to prove that such tests led to radioactive buildup in humans. This led to the introduction of the nuclear test ban treaty of 1963.
Dr. Commoner’s own slogan (the first law of ecology is that everything is related to everything else) prompted him to question the AEC’s paltry allocation for solar PV, especially since he knew some of the members of the NSF panel who advised on the recommendations. He discovered the NSF panel’s findings were printed in a report called “Subpanel IX: Solar and other energy sources.” This report was nowhere to be found among the AEC’s documents until a single faded photocopy was unexpectedly discovered in the reading room of the AEC’s own library. The NSF’s experts had foreseen in 1971 a great future for solar electricity, predicting PV would supply more than 7% of the US electrical generation capacity by the year 2000 and the expenditure for realising the solar option would be 16 times less than the nuclear choice.
Clearly, the prediction of 7% solar electric generation has not yet happened, but current efficiency improvements in photovoltaics and battery storage technologies point the way to an energy future far beyond what the NSF predicted in 1971. Fifty years from now, it is nuclear power that is likely to be the flea on the behind of a solar elephant.
The story of oil begins more than 2,500 years ago. Reliable indicators show that in China people were drilling a mile deep with bamboo pipes to recover natural gas and liquid hydrocarbons that were used as a source of fuel for fires. This was before the start of the Han dynasty in 400 BC. See this fascinating slide presentation on the progress of drilling technology by Allen Castleman, a self-confessed oil redneck.
The modern oil age is popularly considered to have started in the 19th century with the use of internal combustion engines for everything from pumping water to transportation. A glorious age, but now it’s time to move on (pun intended) to other fuels. As Saudi oil minister Sheikh Zaki Yamani predicted more than three decades ago, “the Stone Age did not end for lack of stones, and the Oil Age will end long before the world runs out of oil;” a statement at once prescient, rueful and flippant. In today’s lugubrious world, they don’t make oil ministers like that any more.
As a reminder that the world turns and turns and comes full circle in more ways than one, here’s a parting thought; an article from the Guardian of 30 January 2014. In 2013 alone, China installed more solar power than the entire installed capacity in the US, the country where the technology was invented. There is a caveat to the article that some of this newly installed capacity is not yet connected to the grid but, once installed, connections are only a matter of time.
It has been fashionable in green circles to portray oil companies as a major part of the multinational axis of evil that feeds global warming, contributing to the destructive exploitation of our planet, driven by their greed for profit. This blogger has been of the opinion that, ironically, oil companies are among the best equipped to handle the technological challenges that face large scale deployment of renewable energy technology. Compare the technical challenges of setting up large offshore wind farms or drilling from a deep-sea oil platform; installing ocean energy conversion devices, wave generation or tidal flow streams in rough coastal waters; think of the setting up of large scale solar thermal plants or solar PV farms under Saharan conditions. All of these ventures require a high degree of engineering skills and huge amounts of capital; all of which are in plentiful supply at oil companies.
There are visionary leaders among the oil companies who see that the transition to lower carbon fuels was inevitable. BP for one, under the leadership of John Browne, briefly tried to recast itself in the late 1990s as a company “Beyond Petroleum,” but the initiative was defeated by market forces, the world’s insatiable demand for more and bigger cars, and the success of the oil companies themselves in finding ever more efficient ways of secondary and tertiary recovery of oil from wells that had long been considered pumped dry. And now another development to slow the adoption of renewables, the plentiful availability of natural gas through fracking. In addition to being awash in natural gas, the US is set to overtake Saudi Arabia as the world’s second largest oil producer, behind Russia.
Despite all these seeming setbacks to renewables, it is increasingly accepted by research and advisory groups within the oil companies themselves that the large-scale transition to renewable sources of energy is inevitable. BP notes in its 2012 annual report that oil demand has fallen in six of the last seven years, as has coal. Here is a link to several scenario studies by Shell that postulate what the transition could look like. The energy output from renewables worldwide today has reached the level forecast for the year 2025 by the International Energy Agency in 2000, I would similarly argue that Shell’s renewables forecast for the year 2070 will probably be achieved by the year 2050, if not earlier. Predicting future developments is always uncertain, of course, but it is the strength of our collective beliefs and actions today that will determine our tomorrows.
For those who despair at the daily news reports of record-breaking summer temperatures and the inexorable onset of global warming, take heed and take hope from the following numbers. The total installed generating capacity of photovoltaic (PV) solar worldwide in 2012 equalled 100 GW, or roughly the equivalent of 100 nuclear power plants. Solar PV is a silent, reliable technology (as long as the sun shines, but see Intermittency below for more on that) with no moving parts and a life expectancy of 20 – 40 years. This currently installed generating capacity uses PV cells that convert sunlight to electricity at efficiencies ranging from 9 to 14 percent, around 10 percent on average.
But there are a number of new generation PV cells in the works in dozens of countries around the world that have achieved efficiencies of 40% under laboratory conditions. These are mostly multi-junction PV cells coupled with a layer of light-focussing elements. These cells are currently too expensive for everyday use but have proved their worth in satellites and at remote research locations. As mass production techniques for each of these new technologies evolve, the price of such systems will come down within a decade to the affordability range of the current crop of monocrystalline cells that are the most commonly used worldwide.
Mass production in China has reduced the prices of monocrystalline cells so much in the past few years that they are now being used in rural areas in India. For a more detailed report by someone active in rural electrification efforts, see the link below.
Intermittency: Solar power is great as long as the sun shines, but what about after dark? Well, there’s wind, for one, but that is intermittent too. The evolving answer to that is storage technology (see my blog of 22nd June: Renewables – 13 next-generation battery designs). Link below
The bottom line is: systems are not perfect, and if anyone wishes to poke holes in an argument, they can and will. So in the end, choice of energy systems comes down to attitudes, opinions and habit. This fact lies at the heart of the renewable energy debate. Proponents of business-as-usual, nested comfortably as they are in a carbon-based economy that has reached a high degree of organizational efficiency over a century, see no need to change, and dismiss all thought of powering the world with renewables instead of coal, oil and gas as it is now. As Carl Jung pointed out nearly a century ago: Attitudes are more important than Facts, so a proponent of nuclear energy is likely to insist on the relative safety of nuclear technology (an argument that is statistically correct) until the day his own family is forced to shift from their home forever because of uncontrolled radiation release.
For anyone looking for more details on the PV technologies mentioned above, I can recommend the blog postings of the indefatigable Dave Elliott at http://blog.environmentalresearchweb.org/2013/08/17/solar-cells-1/
Here’s 13 rare battery startups working on next-generation manufacturing, chemistry and printing technologies. These battery companies could create innovation that could revolutionize electric cars, the power grid and how we charge up our gadgets and cell phones. See the report by Katie Fehrenbacher at the link below.
Interesting and positive to note that Big Oil is investing in some of these companies.
Here’s another simple idea in the works for undersea energy storage of the intermittent power generated by renewables. See article and video at the New Scientist link below.
This report is a year old already and I don’t know yet if it has proven to be a cost-effective storage option in practice. But the point of this posting, and the next one on 13 promising battery technologies, all of which are currently in development and working with a mix of venture capital and public funding, is to show how thousands of entrepreneurial people are at work with potential breakthroughs imminent.
Alternative Solutions to intermittent renewable power are in the offing. Here is one potential solution. See the link below for a non-technical description.
Due to its higher capacity factor and proximity to densely populated areas, offshore wind power with integrated energy storage could satisfy > 20% of U.S. electricity demand. Similar results could also be obtained in many parts of the world. The offshore environment can be used for unobtrusive, safe, and economical utility-scale energy storage by taking advantage of the hydrostatic pressure at ocean depths to store energy by pumping water out of concrete spheres and later allowing it to flow back in through a turbine to generate electricity. The storage spheres are an ideal complement to energy harvesting machines, such as floating wind turbines (FWTs). The system could provide near-base-load-quality utility-scale renewable energy and do double duty as the anchoring point for the generation platforms. Analysis indicates that storage can be economically feasible at depths as shallow as 200 m, with cost per megawatt hour of storage dropping until 1500 m before beginning to trend upward. The sweet spot occurs when the concrete wall thickness to withstand the hydrostatic pressure provides enough ballast mass, and this will depend on the strength of used concrete and reinforcement. In addition, the required concrete would use significant amounts of fly ash from coal-fired power plants, and the spheres can serve as artificial reefs.
Proceedings of the IEEE (Volume:101, Issue: 4, April 2013)
Authors: Slocum AH et al.