Day 042 – Perrygrove Railway…

Just got back from an entertaining day out at Perrygrove Railway, near Coleford, in the Forest of Dean, just to the West of Gloucester. Lots of little steam engines to see and carriages to ride on, through dense forest areas.

Perrygrove Railway 23.06.13 - 16 Perrygrove Railway 23.06.13 - 28

Anyway, great for the kids and a good Sunday out.

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Correcting the world’s wrongs…

Very interesting article on a few levels from the Guardian.

This article points to a number of the central themes of the climate change and renewable technology agenda. Ideas such as industrialised countries fighting against the prevailing world trend and actually lowering carbon emissions, the take up of renewable energy technologies within a framework of investment and remuneration (FIT), and the ever-present threat of dependence on the dirtiest fossil fuel energy sources, even in the face of vast renewables potential in all areas of the world.

Last, but certainly not least, is the reference to the main reason why Germany (and Germans) have embraced the concept of sustainability to the extent they have.

But despite the problems, Germany remains committed to its green agenda, driven, some say, by the need to correct the world’s wrongs – a sentiment that goes back to the second world war and the postwar generation who challenged their parents afterwards for just standing by.

“That has led to a very strong environmental and anti-nuclear movement,” says Green party MP Hermann Ott. “It ultimately led to the foundation of the Green party and made us very strong. If something goes wrong, you have to speak up and do something otherwise your children will ask you in 20 to 30 years, ‘Why didn’t you do anything?'”

Why didn’t you do anything? A powerful question and one which millions of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people are already asking the industrialised western countries and one which many millions more will be asking countries such as India and China in the decades to come. One of this generations (and many to come) biggest problems, set against past tragedies. An example of what not to do can be very powerful.

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Getting rid of fossil fuels…

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As news of weather stations reading beyond the 400 parts per million of Carbon Dioxide comes in, I ask when and how will we be able to leave fossil fuels behind and therefore be able to avoid runaway global climate … Continue reading

Shale gas: the new energy hope or massive global warming…?

Shale gas… A new and untapped sustainable energy source for future generations or a disasterous enterprise which is 20% worse than coal and which will raise global temperature by 3.5C degrees?

Cornell University research…

Robert Howarth – Shale gas & methane

‘US researchers found that shale gas wells leak substantial amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. This makes its climate impact worse than conventional gas, they say – and probably worse than coal as well.

“Compared to coal, the footprint of shale gas is at least 20% greater and perhaps more than twice as great on the 20-year horizon, and is comparable over 100 years,” they write in a paper to be published shortly in the journal Climatic Change.

“We have produced the first comprehensive analysis of the greenhouse gas footprint of shale gas,” said lead author Robert Howarth from Cornell University in Ithaca, US.

“We have used the best available data [and] the conclusion is that shale gas may indeed be quite damaging to global warming, quite likely as bad or worse than coal,” he told BBC News.’

And another article citing different (but related research)…

‘Natural gas is not the “panacea” to solve climate change that fossil fuel industry lobbyists have been claiming, according to new research from the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Gas is likely to make up about one-quarter of the world’s energy supply by 2035, according to the study, but that would lead the world to a 3.5C temperature rise. At such a level, global warming could run out of control, deserts would take over in southern Africa, Australia and the western US, and sea level rises could engulf small island states.

Nobuo Tanaka, executive director of the IEA, told a press conference in London: “While natural gas is the cleanest fossil fuel, it is still a fossil fuel. Its increased use could muscle out low-carbon fuels such as renewables and nuclear, particularly in the wake of Fukushima. An expansion of gas use alone is no panacea for climate change.”

At the end of page 9 of the Cornell University research paper, there is a very clear and very disturbing piece of information…

‘…methane emissions of only 2% to 3% make the GHG (green house gas) footprint of conventional gas worse than oil and coal. Our estimates for fugitive shale-gas emissions are 3.6 to 7.9%.’

Essentially, their research, based on very conservative data, suggests that even at the very low end of methane* emissions from the process of extracting (the main source of leaks – drill out of wells and flow-back of fluids) and delivering standard gas, this energy source is worse than coal and oil – themselves already known to be the worst possible type of energy sources in terms of green house gas emissions.

If the estimates of a 3.9% to 7.9% range of emissions is correct, this obviously makes shale gas far, far worse than any other fuel source.

* Methane (AKA natural gas) is the strongest green house gas (some 25-30 times more potent than CO2), meaning even very small amounts are highly significant.

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Lost in energy 2 – carbon footprints…

The last post which I published about this subject mainly dealt with energy output and costs associated with wind and nuclear power. The other major side of the equation is the carbon footprint of the various technologies. The carbon pumped into the atmosphere and absorbed into the oceans is having a direct and significant impact on every person on the planet, with the poorest people suffering huge economic and physical hardships.

There are many sources of data on both the operating and life-cycle footprints, but i’ve found a few which show the relative differences in different ways.

The first is from the parliamentary Office of Science and Technology…

carbon footprint of electricity generation – oct 2006 (POST)

This deals with the operating carbon footprint of the various technologies. It shows that nuclear has the lowest operating carbon footprint, at only 5 grams per KWh, compared with just over 5 grams for wind, or 1,000 grams for coal.
The thing that really pushes nuclear up (to around 85 grams per KWh) is the pre and post energy production stages, including mining of the uranium ores, enrichment and fuel fabrication. 35% of the total is made up of decommissioning the power plant and constructing and maintaining the waste stroage facilities.
A good ‘answers’ article has a good summary of the comparitive figures…
‘Early studies of the carbon footprint of nuclear power seem not to have included the construction, decommissioning, and waste disposal, which are always included in a total carbon footprint. Waste disposal is a particularly difficult area to deal with because no one know how it will be done, so no one knows what figures to use for carbon footprints.
So estimates from studies dated 1998 to 2003 at the carbon footprint were all in the range of 11-13 grams of CO2 equivalent per kilowatt hour (g. CO2e/kWh). Four studies in 2004 and 2005, two of which agreed with the earlier estimates, produced an average figure of 43.5 CO2e/kWh. Five studies in 2006 produced an average of 84 CO2e/kWh. And three studies in 2007 produced an average of 93 g. CO2e/kWh for nuclear power.
Since the earlier studies were clearly not addressing the total carbon footprint, and the later ones were, we can probably use a figure of 85 g. CO2e/kWh. An article by Benjamin Sovacool arrives at 65 g. CO2e/kWh, averaging the early and late numbers, but the earlier numbers are clearly wrong, despite the fact that they are much quoted. To put this into context, the following are average estimates of total greenhouse gasses by production type with numbers of grams of CO2e/kWh:
1000 – coal
900 – oil
750 – open cycle natural gas
580 – closed cycle natural gas  (closed cycle natural gas combined with co-generation might bring this down to 400 g. CO2e/kWh)
500 – coal plant burning 50% coal with 50% miscanthus
110 – old solar photovoltaics
95 – biomass from miscanthus
85 – nuclear
40 – concentrated solar thermal with thermal storage
35 – new solar photovoltaics
25 – biomass from gasification of wood chips (used to fuel conventional natural gas turbines)
21 – wind
15 – hydroelectricity
<10 – geothermal doublet
These numbers come mostly from the Wikipedia article cited below. The figure for nuclear is extracted from the Sovacool article cited by using only studies dated after 2004. The figures for solar come from current solar literature as solar technology has changed a lot in the last ten years. The figures for biomass come from the UK Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. This places the carbon footprint of nuclear as 400% to 1600% of wind, hydro, solar, but about 15% of natural gas, and 8.5% of coal. Bear in mind that some estimates for the nuclear are much higher.’ http://wiki.answers.com/Q/What_is_the_carbon_footprint_of_nuclear_energy#ixzz1NMp2O6Nb

Another article from Nature Reports Climate Change…

Nature reports climate change – nuclear energy (Sept 24 2008)

So, nuclear is pretty clearly better than any of the fossil fuel technologies. The Uranium mining and quality issue is important and relying on what are finite resources isn’t a good idea. However, the POST report has the following conclusion:

‘Some analysts are concerned that the future carbon footprint of nuclear power could increase if lower grade uranium ore is used, as it would require more energy to extract and refine to a level usable in a nuclear reactor. However, a 2006 study by AEA Technology calculated that for ore grades as low as 0.03%, additional emissions would only amount to 1.8gCO2eq/kWh. This would raise the current footprint of UK nuclear power stations from 5 to 6.8gCO2 eq/kWh (Fig 3). If lower grades of uranium are used in the future the footprint of nuclear will increase, but only to a level comparable with other ‘low carbon’ technologies and will not be as large as the footprints of fossil fuelled systems.’ (POST – carbon footprint of electricity generation)

Recycling and reprocessing existing waste will provide some releif, but still only part of the answer. The waste storage question for me is the single biggest problem. Reprocessing seems to be the answer, but will come with a cost. This seems a better solution than 100,000 years of bedrock storage, which just hides the problem and doesn’t deal with it.

Both forms of nuclear power, fission and fusion, have an important property: the nuclear energy available per atom is roughly one million times bigger than the chemical energy per atom of typical fuels. This means that the amounts of fuel and waste that must be dealt with at a nuclear reactor can be up to one million times smaller than the amounts of fuel and waste at an equivalent fossil-fuel power station.(http://www.inference.phy.cam.ac.uk/withouthotair/c24/page_161.shtml)

Time-scales are often cited as another reason that nuclear power stations shouldn’t be built. Well, taking an average of 10 years for a nuclear power station, this is equal to the estimated time taken from start to finish for the Thames Estuary wind farm project (not yet completed). If you want very large amounts of electricity to be generated, it takes time to provide the systems.

France added 48GW of nuclear capacity – equivalent to more than half of our entire electricity system – in just 10 years. (Committee onClimate Change)

Base load is also often talked about. Nuclear provides this non-stop background energy, 24 hrs a day, 365 days a year. Solar and wind do not. These renewable systems have to be supported by non-renewable systems, often based on fossil-fuel technology. The large wind farms operate at around 70% and there has to be major energy production means for the other times.

The latest George Monbiot blog makes some interesting points. He questions why we are looking at the energy issue in terms of either renewables OR nuclear, instead of both together. He cites the Committee on Climate Change recommendations. The CCC is an independent body which advises the UK government on setting and meeting carbon budgets and on preparing for the impacts of climate change.

The Committee on Climate Change recommends an energy mix of 40% Nuclear, 40% renewables, 15% carbon capture and storage and up to 10% gas without carbon capture.

In terms of the issue of supply of uranium for nuclear power…

“Although there is a finite supply of uranium available, this will not be a limiting factor for investment in nuclear capacity for the next 50 years.”

What’s the answer? Well, I believe that nuclear power has vast potential to fill the 30 to 40 year gap from now until the time when renewables are realistically able to take up the very significant energy demand. Renewables just aren’t ready yet and cannot provide guaranteed power supplies. The solar PV panels on my roof are great, but only supply 50% of our electricity and not much at all during the winter months.

I also believe de-centralised power systems are the way forward, given the inefficiencies of the national grid (8% of total energy lost through heat from cables and transformers). Utilising locally produced energy, from renewable sources is the logical approach.

What will certainly be part of the solution up to the point renewables take over is an increasing emphasis on energy saving measures and renewable projects. You can’t just jump from our fossil-fuel dependent world to a clean and sustainable world overnight. It’s this bridge which is the real issue. No-one thinks renewables can’t offer a long-term energy solution, it’s just the process of moving from fossil-fuels to renewables which will be the real challenge. This won’t be a quick process and it won’t be without serious conflicts.

“Saving civilization is not a spectator sport.” Lester R. Brown (President, Earth Policy Institute): time for plan B

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Wind vs nuclear & coal – lost in energy…

So, what is the future source of electrical power?

The candidates are coal, oil, gas, nuclear, wind, solar, hydroelectric and tidal. There are other smaller options, such as biomass, but these are the main ones.

Since Fukushima, there has been a lot more of an open debate, and increasing public awareness, of the issues surrounding future energy provision. The key issue has obviously been about nuclear power, but there are equally important questions about other sources of power. If nuclear is not considered an appropriate contender, what will take it’s place?

So, according to Wikipedia, the UK’s existing nuclear output is 10,982 MW, which is 16% of the total consumption in the UK.

A comparison can easily be made with wind power, which is probably the front runner for the UK. The large off-shore wind turbines produce roughly 5 MW each (max. output) and this type of wind power seems to be the trend right now, given less planning restrictions and economies of scale. Approximately 2,196 of these 5 MW wind turbines would be needed to replace the existing nuclear output.

A few recently developed offshore wind farms give an indication of what’s possible right now.

Thanet (off the coast of Kent) is the UK’s largest wind farm and comprises 100 of the 5 MW turbines, for a total of around 300 MW (3 MW per turbine due to inefficiencies). The UK would need 36 of these (100+ turbine) schemes to equal the present nuclear output!

Greater Gabbard wind farm = 500 MW from 140 turbines, at an estimated cost of £1.5 Billion. That’s £3,000,000 (£3M) per MW produced.

London Array scheme in the Thames Estuary = 1000 MW when built, at a cost of £2.2 Billion. That’s £2,000,000 (£2M) per MW produced. This will be the biggest anywhere and will also be the most cost-efficient, due mainly to the economies of scale.

In terms of a comparison with the nuclear option, the Olkiluoto nuclear power reactor being built right now in Finland, will produce 1500 MW and is costing a fixed price of €3 Billion (£2.6 Billion), although there appear to be cost and time over runs! That’s £1,733,000 (£1.73M) per MW produced.

So, the latest nuclear power station being built produces a third more power at a lower cost per MW.

Coal in another major world power source and is the default option for any country, given the vast reserves found in many areas of the planet and the relative cost efficiency of coal. There are 12 coal power stations (over the 100MW output level) in UK, which equals approximately 23,000 MW output. This is more than double the nuclear output.

There is an apparent need to get these off-line as quickly as possible, due to their huge environmental impact (air pollution, radiation, carbon dioxide, acid rain). If all of these were to be taken off-line, this would equal another 76 (100 turbine+) wind schemes.

So to replace just the existing coal and nuclear output with wind, it would need more than 115 wind farms, each of over 100 turbines. This would be more than 11,500 turbines, at 3 MW average each.

This is one of the main problems at the moment. The cost of installing and maintaining completely new grid systems for the wind farms to feed into is massive. This is another reason why conventional land based power stations are more efficient, as they tie into existing grid infrastructure.

Add to this the energy demand of the ‘cost’ of switching every car to electric, rather than petrol, to reduce then eliminate the pollution and carbon from the transport sector. A quote from George Monbiot’s blog on this subject.

The case against reducing electricity supplies is just as clear. For example, the Zero Carbon Britain report published by the Centre for Alternative Technology urges a 55% cut in overall energy demand by 2030 – a goal I strongly support. It also envisages a near-doubling of electricity production. The reason is that the most viable means of decarbonising both transport and heating is to replace the fuels they use with low-carbon electricity. Cut the electricity supply and we’re stuck with oil and gas. If we close down nuclear plants, we must accept an even greater expansion of renewables than currently proposed. Given the tremendous public resistance to even a modest increase in windfarms and new power lines, that’s going to be tough. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/may/02/environmental-fixes-all-greens-lost

A major consideration concerning the roll out of any number of nuclear reactors is the cost of processing the nuclear waste and the long-term storage of that waste. The example from Finland also includes the world’s first (very) long-term, purpose built nuclear storage site, 3 miles from the Olkiluoto power station. Named Onkalo, it will house all of Finland’s nuclear waste, for the next 100 years. It will then be back-filled and sealed for 100,000 years.

A recent documentary on this facility, titled Into Eternity (by Danish director Michael Madsen), explores the process which the Finnish authorities went through in deciding to give permission for this facility, as well as the construction itself. I’ve just ordered this film from Amazon so will do a review once I’ve watched it!

An alternative method of dealing with the nuclear waste, and one which I fully support, is to reprocess and recycle the waste. There are many ways to do this and the conclusions to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s, ‘spent fuel reprocessing options’ report includes re-processing as an important part of the process. The report also concludes multi-national fuel centres, operating within an independent international framework, are needed.

IAEA – spent fuel reprocessing options – aug 2008

‘The design of advanced reprocessing methods must deal in a comprehensive manner with (1) safety, (2) the control and minimization of plant effluents, (3) minimization of the waste generation, (4) the production of stable and durable waste forms, and (5) economic competitiveness. International collaboration on the development of advanced reprocessing methods, considering the magnitude of the challenges, is essential to facilitate the future deployment of these technologies.’

The significant other side to the whole energy debate is the need for energy conservation and lifestyle changes. This is the tricky part, given it involves billions of individual decisions by members of the public. There is some scope for Government intervention in this issue but, call my cynical, the majority of people really don’t care, let along even accept there is a problem. Hardly furtile ground for a mass uprising towards the necessary clean and sustainable future!

Unless people, companies & organisations are forced by law into it, they generally won’t, unless it’s part of a marketing strategy. The motivated few will not make a big difference, unless that is, you happen to be a senior policy maker in whitehall, and your boss also happens to be that way inclined, and most of the Cabinet are too… etc etc.! They are not getting strong signals about this from the general public and so will be less inclined to act.

The next time you turn on your microwave, tv, computer, ipad, ipod, radio, dishwasher, wireless router, washing machine, blender, kettle, toaster, grill, clothes dryer, hair dryer, camera, fridge or freezer, oven, mobile phone, calculator, lights, car, DVD/CD player, stereo, shaver, clock, bike lights  – think how hard it’s going to be to alter billions of people’s lifestyles and reduce our reliance on these things, in an age of dependence on computers and technology.

Changing people’s perceptions, attitudes and choices is the hard, and I would say, unrealistic path to the solution. How many people still smoke, even with overwhelming evidence which says it causes cancer? Nicotine, like modern electric-eating technology is addictive. Consumerism is addictive. The internet is addictive. No wonder 4 Billion people in the developing world want to experience what we have had in the ‘west’ for the last few decades.

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Nuclear monbiot…

This is getting scary… This is the third article in as many days from George Monbiot which i’ve agreed with!

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/georgemonbiot/2011/mar/16/japan-nuclear-crisis-atomic-energy

This article is basically how I see the nuclear debate. Renewables over nuclear but with a massive pinch of realism thrown in. I started counting the number of coal power plants in China, on the Wikipedia page but lost the will to live after 180! There were at least twice that number in all (in terms of capacity over 1KW).

If either commercial nuclear power or far more efficient renewables technology isn’t brought forward very soon, it won’t matter about the debate. Countries like Russia, China, Brazil, USA who have access to huge coal reserves will just concentrate on that. The other avenue to explore is ‘clean’ coal, but this is even less appealing than nuclear!

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Monbiot on nuclear…

I’ve just read 2 George Monbiot articles (1 from March last year, and the article linked), and I actually agree with both of them! Normally I hate his aggressive style but he seems to be turning that down a bit more recently.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/mar/21/pro-nuclear-japan-fukushima

A good article, which puts forward a lot of realistic points, such as many people and groups exaggerating the dangers of radiation, the batteries which are needed to store the electricity that the renewables produce are still far off where they need to be, base load still needs to be established and nuclear had less impact than fossil fuel sources.

The first fossil fuel which countries are already turning to (or sticking with in many cases) is coal. I’ve read some estimates that there are over 300 years of world coal reserves, based on present usage. It is the most abundant fossil fuel and produces are large energy output. The infrastructure and technologies are already in place to exploit coal. It is also fairly cheap to extract and to process (certainly more than nuclear). All this leads to it being the top choice for many countries.

I said in the previous post about the latest nuclear technologies potentially being a solution. I’m still not convinced but it’s far better than coal or oil. Gas is also a poor choice, given it’s relatively limited reserve and the fact that natural gas is made up mostly of methane, which as a green house gas is more than 20 times as damaging as CO2.

The solution is to develop a mix of sources, with a continued emphasis on developing the renewable technology. The combination of solar and improved battery technology can work, it will just needs more time and investment.

If nuclear is ACTUALLY less polluting than coal, oil or gas, it should be seriously considered, particularly as renewable technology is not at the stage where it can contribute to the majority of the country’s power needs – I wish it could and hope one day it will be different!

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* since I posted this: not sure how I missed the reference but Monbiot’s article title… ‘Why Fukushima made me stop worrying and love nuclear power’, is a reference to Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb’! A nod to humour there and I don’t believe he actually does ‘love’ nuclear.