Friday, January 18, 2008

The nukes are coming...

Just over ten ago, I happened to work for a short stretch on an office automation IT project alongside a number of British nuclear power engineers – not a nuke project, I stress. Twas an eye-opener, let me tell you, because each and every one of those engineers were avid nuclear energy advocates. Oh, of course they were! The fact that I wasn’t one of them, and, to be honest, that I was fairly open about my own grave misgivings as to their whole industry mattered not one jot with them: they waxed prolific, evangelised, mitigated this or that safety and sustainability problem, and generally did their utmost to convert me to their way of thinking.

Why so? Probably because outside of that office, they were as close to social pariahs as makes no difference. "What do you do?", they’d be asked at a party; but they’d have to be very careful as to the answer in case it triggers a major argument next to the beer fridge; "Erm, I work in the energy industry…" I was a captive audience, on their patch, and by gad I’d have to listen to them, sir. And I did - anything’s more interesting than IT, and say what you will about the nuclear industry, but no one can accuse it of being disinteresting.

In a limited fashion, their efforts to indoctrinate me succeeded just a tad: I stopped shaking my head whenever reading newspaper articles about this or that Sellafield expansion. I stopped mentally positioning the nuclear industry as an unnecessary offshoot of the Cold War. I loosened up, and opened my mind and weighed the risks. But there still remained the thorny issues of radioactive waste, massive upfront capital costs, impossibly long lead times (ten years plus being a typical project duration), and the patently uneconomic operating costs – all that hassle to generate expensive electricity? Why bother, thought I, when a gas plant was cleaner, quick and cheap to build, and as cheap as chips to operate? Gas is the thing, I thought… and, ten years ago, I was quite right. Gas was indeed the thing.

Well, here we are: Global Warming’s on everyone’s lips. Oil, gas and (most especially) filthy coal are collectively considered a major threat to the well-being of the entire planet, and the name of the game’s finding a way to wean the earth off its dependence on fossil fuels.

How can the nuclear industry help?

Well, here’re some 2006 statistics as to the various sources of the world’s consumed energy, including power plants, car engines, shipping, aircraft, space rockets, everything:

Oil 38%
Gas 23%
Coal 26%
Hydro 6%
Nuclear 6%
Renewables 1%

Which adds up to a 100% of a very large number – 15 TWe of capacity, they tell me on Wikipedia. Dunno what that means, really, but it's probably oodles.

So, on the surface nuclear energy doesn’t make much on an impact. However, if you consider only mains electricity (about a third of the world’s consumed energy is mains electricity), then nuclear power leaps up to about 16% of the world’s generating capacity. And that’s a huge amount. The USA generates as much as 20% of its electricity by nukes. And Europe’s ahead of even that, at 30% - although Europe’s skewed by France at about 80% of mains electricity, and Switzerland's at 40%.

Basically, nukes are already here, and they’re already a very big deal – and apart from the petrol consumed driving their workers to and from the reactor plant, they’re basically carbon neutral. Yes, the problem of irradiated waste and a host of other safety and practical concerns remain, but somehow they don’t seem to be quite as scary as a bleak future of melting icecaps, a redirected Gulf Stream, and massive floods and famines. I’m certain many of those nuke engineers I knew are currently smirking into their glowing test tubes – they think their time has come, and so do many other people.

I decided to do some back of envelope calculations on the current nuclear generating capacity: lemme see, we have 440 reactors worldwide with 372,000 MWe of capacity. Some are 1,450 MWe plants, and others are (comparatively) weedy 500 MWe plants, but it averages at about 850 MWe a pop. So, that means (trust me) we’d need a total of 2,750 similar reactors to convert our mains electricity to nuclear, or 7,333 reactors (trust me again) to convert all of our energy needs to nukes – assuming we have a 100% efficient way of getting that electrical energy to drive our cars, ships, aeroplanes and rockets, which we don’t – but that’s another post.

That’s an awful lot of planning permission requests. A heck of a lot of concrete. A lot of protests, banners, controversy, water-cannons, hubble-bubble, trouble and strife.

But hang on, modern nuclear designs such as France’s so called European Pressurised Reactor (EPR for short) generates a cool 1650 MWe. So I suppose if we’ve got to go through all the inconvenience of building a reactor and putting up with the arguments and kerscuffles at the building site gates, then yer might as well build yerself a whopper. In total, ‘just’ 1,400 EPR reactors converts the planet’s entire current electricity generating capacity to nuclear. 3,750 EPR reactors could, in theory, generate enough power to fuel humanity’s entire energy needs - of course, those energy needs are growing all the time, but again that’s another post.

Suddenly, the numbers don’t seem quite so insurmountable. Just very very large.

Let’s do some further refining; as 6% of the world’s energy’s already generated by nukes, then that can stay as is, and we’ll leave the hydro-electric industry (another 6%) to carry on with its carbon-neutral stuff. And let’s grow the alternative energy industry from its current paltry 1% up to a hopefully realistic target of 5% - nah, let's push that up to 8% to make the numbers easier. That covers 20%, leaving us with the dreaded oil/coal/gas fossil fuels at 80%. Calculations show that we need a further 1,125 EPRs to nuke our mains electricity and 3,000 for all energy needs.

Do I really suggest we use nukes to generate 80 odd percent of the world’s energy needs? Erm, nah. Even France can’t do that, and that's not for want of trying. They’re at 80% of mains electricity, so even our friends across the Channel (actually, just across the Jura mountains from where I am in Switzerland) are ‘only’ serving approximately 30% of their energy needs by nuke.

But neither can I imagine a carbon-neutral world where nuclear energy doesn’t take a significant role in world energy production – and by significant, I mean something like 50%. And that would need 1,650 new EPR reactors on top of the mixed bag of 440 reactors we have now. And suddenly, a four to five fold increase in the world’s nuclear reactor count doesn’t seem such a stretch after all. There are, after all, 250 new reactors either being constructed as I type, or at least being very seriously planned - more often than not, right next door to their earlier relatives 'cos planning permission comes easier that way.

The nukes are coming in a big way. I know it, you know it now, and for sure your government knows it - England's just voted to build another 10 reactors. But - with the exception of France who doesn’t give a buggah’s what anyone thinks - the western governments are playing their nuclear power cards very close to their chests. They’re wary of decades of anti-nuclear sentiment, and unsure where public opinion currently lies on the subject. I’d say public opinion’s on the cusp right now.

What would you say?

Monday, January 07, 2008

Going solar...

There's a secret revolution in progress, at least it's secret to the majority of the world: solar energy, or more specifically, solar heating and photovoltaics are finally coming on, and they're coming on fast.

"Photovoltaics" is the direct generation of electricity from solar energy, and not to be confused with other solar technologies such as "solar thermal", i.e. water heating. Yer photovoltaic engineer would snub a solar thermal engineer at a party, although they're highly unlikely to attend the same social event – few photovoltaic engineers speak mandarin chinese for starters.

Now it just so happens that the Chinese have pretty much sewn up the solar heating industry over the last decade or so. How so? Well, recognising that their own fast growing economy is going to need oodles of power over the coming decades, and looking sadly at their coal reserves and the price of imported oil, the Chinese have been tweaking the local bylaws in sunny places such as Shandong province to try to encourage installation of solar thermal towers onto the roof top of every home and apartment block – ideal for heating water. And the amazing thing is that once certain tax breaks and other incentives against electrical boilers (or disincentives, if you will) have been taken into account, the 'extra' cost of the solar towers is pretty much on par with the replacement cost of the traditional boiler after all. And from then on, apart from routine maintenance and a bit of spit and polish, the water gets heated for free. And few have failed to notice that China is fast becoming the manufacturing centre of the world, so the mass production of the millions of solar towers needed to heat the entire nation's domestic water is clearly within their reach – and that's one fifth of the planet's population.

Oh, and another two fifths of the planet lives right next door in Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Pakistan, etc etc, so while some solar heating tower may well not appear on your London or New York apartment block roof anytime soon, there're reasons to be optimistic that such towers will spread like wildfire across the Far East.

And here's the main point of this post – government incentives to adopt a new technology can work well, if those incentives are aimed at making the whole idea economically feasible. And those incentives have to be economic for government and for industry and for the end user. While the Chinese are just as concerned as anyone as to whether their children's children have an atmosphere to breathe in, or indeed a square patch of dry land to stand upon, they're not in the economic position to be able to pay a premium for their 'clean' energy – not yet anyway.

Meanwhile, here in the West it's photovoltaics that are the thing; only this time it's rarely an economic decision – global warming, carbon footprints, alternative energy, all of these are pretty much part of every thinking person's vocabulary.

Now the trouble with photovoltaics is that the solar panels are expensive due to the high precision to which the inner gubbins needs to be manufactured in order for the overall efficiency to be high enough to be worth the material cost – most solar panels are a combination of silicon semi-conductor laid upon a glass substrata (backing, to you and me) with yet more glass on top to keep the rain and bird poo out. And last time I heard, silicon of the levels of purity needed for use as a semi-conductor is at a price premium driven by the, ahem, computer industry. So, all that expensive material needs to be justified by higher efficiency, hence the careful precision in which a layer of silicon is carefully laid of a particular thickness, and that extra precision needs special tools, hi-tech processes and expertise which are still more expensive. And round and round we go in a sort of arms race between material costs, efficiency targets, and processing costs. Oh lord, I think I've lost you…

Long story short? Electricity generated from a 'farm' of photovoltaic panels is roughly twice as expensive as electricity generated from a stinky and environmentally disasterous coal power station. And those solar panels you see here and there on the rooftops of new houses? More like three times or even more. And the majority of those extra costs are simply because those solar panels are so very expensive to manufacture.

The Chinese, again, are carving themselves a huge slice of the photovoltaics panel market - Suntech Power, for example, has grown into a multi-billion dollar corporation almost overnight. But in this case I'd argue that this is more of an extension of their steady absorption of the world's manufacturing base – they've likewise cornered (or are working to cornering) just about every technological market, regardless of greenie aspirations, simply because business is business. This is very much at odds with their approach to solar heating, where there's a domestic policy in place at the highest levels.

So why am I pessimistic about photovoltaics in the near future?

Simply because although countries like Germany and Spain are offering guaranteed 'buy back' incentives to force the local energy companies to pay you anything up to 50 cents for any excess electricity generated on the roof of yer house, the reality is that photovoltaics electricity still has pay back economics of five years (yeah right, if yer house is in the centre of the Sahara maybe) or more realistically ten to fifteen years. Basically, the economics are right on the knife edge in 'buy back' countries, and well on the wrong side elsewhere. And there's a loser is the incentives (the power generating companies) and thus all that's really happening is that the bad economics are being pushed around from end-user to the encumbant power companies. Good intentions, I agree, and ones that have caused the photovoltaic market in Germany to explode; but not the best way to move a million households to solar. Nor a billion.

So why am I optimistic about photovoltaics in the medium term?

Well, there's a new generation of photovoltaic panels in the offing based on cheaper materials; some sort of chemical compound laid on what looks to me like tin foil. Ahem, one hopes that's not too technical for yer. There's a Silicon Valley company (Silicon Valley! Oh, the irony…) called Nanosolar that's getting the attention at the moment, because their so called 'thin film' panel is claims to cost somewhere between a fifth and a tenth of the equivalent glass and silicon panel. On what basis those claims are made, I don't know, but one imagines that the new panel has that desirable combination of cheaper materials, a slightly cheaper process, but sacrifices efficiency on a per square metre basis. Fair enough, because the world I live in has oodles of flat surfaces tilted 'just so' to the south. Think home or factory roof tops, think motorway or railway verges, think hillsides… although the best southerly hillsides around the area I live in are used for growing grapes for the vineyards – there are some sacrifices that are unthinkable.

And the 'buy back' guarantees that are so in vogue at the moment? Well, they'll be hastily revised downwards as and when cheap and cheerful photovoltaic panels become so ubiquitous that the country's power generating companies start bleeding real money.

Of course, solar heating and photovoltaics are only smallish parts of an overall global solution to clean, limitless and economic energy – what happens when the sun sets? Or in Finland during a particularly cloudy winter? Lots more to say anon, but that's enough for now.