New Nuclear vs New Renewables
By Fergal McEntee
Head of Sustainable Energy at Sustain Europe | London
IMAGE: David Izquierdo
The consensus is clear, we have to decarbonise our energy sources and move away from coal and gas-fired power stations to lower-carbon forms of electricity generation. In many countries around the world, nuclear energy and renewable energy are the principal competitors for low-carbon electricity.
Many experts claim nuclear energy is necessary to deliver vast amounts of baseload power that is both low-carbon and cost-effective to produce. Construction of Hinkley Point C, the first new nuclear power plant to be built in Britain in over 25 years, started earlier this year. Scheduled to mark a new era of nuclear programmes in the UK, it has already been surrounded in controversy over costs and poor design.
On the other side of the fence we have many experts saying renewable energy is safer, healthier, more sustainable, and a quicker and cheaper means of supplying electricity. The UK now boasts the largest offshore wind industry in the world and can take pride in launching Hywind Project – the world's very first floating windfarm. This amazing engineering breakthrough is set to become operational later this year.
Let's examine both technologies in a little more detail and see if giant floating wind turbines can be a viable alternative to new nuclear technology.
The current situation - energy mix
In 2014, around 30% of UK electricity was generated by coal-fired power plants, 30% by gas, 19% by nuclear and around the same amount by renewables, according to the recently disbanded Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC).
The 2015 influential report from the Energy Technologies Institute (ETI): ‘Options, Choices, Actions – UK scenarios for a low carbon energy system transition’, has nuclear energy playing a major role in decarbonising the grid and even incorporating Small Modular Reactors (SMR).
In 2016, the United Kingdom government signed a 35-year deal with the Chinese and French Governments to fund and build new nuclear plants in Britain Hinkley Point C. Électricité de France (EDF), the French state-owned company has now started pouring concrete at Hinkley Point in Somerset, where it plans to have two reactors operational by 2025 which will provide an impressive 7% of British electricity demand.
Nuclear reactors cost a lot of money to build and the final bill for Hinkley is estimated at £24.5 billion, which will literally make it the most expensive building in the whole world on completion. This is a huge investment risk even for a state-backed company such as EDF.
The European Pressurized Reactor (EPR) design for Hinkley is known as third generation nuclear. It is designed to use less fuel, can run on mixed oxide fuel (MOX) – to use up weapons grade plutonium and additional safety designs to make it safer than previous nuclear plants. The power station is expected to provide up to 25,000 jobs during construction and once built will provide about 900 full-time jobs.
It seems good on paper, but so far the reactors being built in Finland and at Flamanville in France (and which use this technology) are 9 years behind schedule and billions of pounds over-budget.
Is nuclear baseload the right solution?
The former UK Energy Secretary, Amber Rudd, attempted to justify the decision to build Hinkley Point C nuclear power station on the grounds that “we have to secure baseload electricity.” But the question is, should we really be focusing on the traditional baseload grid in the first place?
Traditional baseload power plants, including nuclear and coal fired plants, do not change production to match power consumption demands. Daily and seasonal peaks in grid load are met with generating plants that may have higher fuel costs and are called into producing electricity for only a part of a day.
In 2015, the CEO of Nation Grid, Steve Holliday, stated that baseload is "outdated”, as micro grids would become the primary means of production, and large power plants relegated to supply the remainder.
With deployment and advances in energy storage, smart grid, peak-shaving technologies, including plug-in electric and hybrid electric vehicles; there is less point in building costly baseload power plants. You cannot simply switch a nuclear power plant on or off, and with renewables becoming more of a dominant energy source, a more flexible system is required.
Renewable energy sources that can provide baseload power include geothermal, hydroelectric, biogas, biomass, solar thermal with storage and ocean thermal energy conversion. One alternative is the ‘windgas’ recently advocated by Energy Brainpool. Windgas uses excess wind energy to produce hydrogen gas by electrolysing water and then converting the hydrogen to methane. The methane is used to fuel combined cycle gas turbine (CCGT) power stations.
In Japan, we have witnessed the country embracing energy efficiency and the introduction of a system in which citizens are encouraged to switch off devices when energy demand is at its highest. Guess what? It worked. Which is why more direct engagement with the general public on the future problems faced in energy supply is needed.
Uranium versus wind
Uranium is one of the heaviest of all the naturally-occurring elements and is used as the main fuel source for nuclear. It is found in abundance throughout the world in rocks and even in seawater. But the amount economically recoverable, in a form which is easily separated for those concentrations to be called 'ore', currently stands at 5.7Mt. This is enough to last for about 90 years at today’s consumption rate. More expensive uranium will certainly be mined, but at considerably higher cost.
Currently uranium is the only fuel supplied for nuclear reactors. New CANDU reactors can use thorium as a fuel source, but this technology is not of yet commercially available. It is estimated that thorium is about three times as abundant in the earth's crust then uranium.
Wind, however, is in abundance in the North Sea, and once the turbines and connectors are in place, it is essentially free to produce. It is a highly reliable but intermittent source of free energy.
Nuclear energy is not a zero-emissions energy source. Whilst its heat and electricity generating stages do not cause any greenhouse gas emissions, the upstream supply from the mining, transportation and preparation of uranium indirectly involves the emission of harmful greenhouse gases.
A study carried out by the nuclear physicist (and nuclear supporter) Manfred Lenzen found average life-cycle emissions for nuclear energy, based on mining high-grade uranium ore, of 60 grams of CO2 per kilowatt-hour (g/kWh) and wind of 10–20 g/kWh.
Lenzen highlights the fact that the World has only a few decades of high-grade uranium ore reserves left, and as the ore-grade declines, more fossil fuel (diesel) will be required to mine and mill the uranium, and so the resulting greenhouse gas emissions will increase to 131 g/kWh.
Nuclear safety and reliability
In December 2016, 13 of EDF’s 58 France-based atomic plants were offline. Some were down due to planned maintenance, but the majority were shut down by the nuclear regulator due to anomalies discovered in reactor parts. In June 2017, French Minister of Ecological and Solidary Transition Nicolas Hulot said that the government intends on closing some of EDF's nuclear reactors to reduce the share of nuclear energy in the power mix from around 75% to 50%.
On the safety side, there have been relatively few major nuclear accidents, but when they do occur there is the ridiculously huge economic cost of evacuating large swathes of territory around the broken plant. A 30km exclusion zone still applies at Chernobyl to this day. The Fukushima disaster of 2011 resulted in the evacuation of residents up to a 30km radius. Currently a 20km exclusion zone remains in place, which may be relaxed from next year.
In the unlikely, but nevertheless possible, event that an accident was to occur at Hinkley, then over a quarter of a million people would be affected. The Severn Estuary is prone to tidal surges, and there are plenty of other possible roads to a nuclear accident, not to mention the risk of rising sea levels and manmade earth quakes from proposed fracking sites. An area of 30km would need to be evacuated including Burnham-on-Sea (population 20,000), Bridgewater (41,000), southern half of Weston-Super-Mare (76,000) and Taunton and surrounding villages (109,883). The main railway line to the West Country and the M5 motorway both fall within the exclusion zones and would have to be re-routed.
The cost is so astronomical that we have yet to hear an estimate of cost of dealing with human evacuation on such a grand scale.
There is no solution to the problem of permanently storing high-level nuclear waste. All high-level waste is stored in temporary pools in sealed stainless-steel flasks and currently there is still not one permanent repository is operation anywhere in the world. The predicted 650,000 m3 of the UK's nuclear waste urgently needs a permanent solution.
Cost to consumers
EDF has negotiated a “strike price"– a guaranteed fixed price – for electricity from Hinkley Point C of £92.50/MWh which is indexed linked to inflation during the construction period and over the subsequent 35-year tariff period. This is about twice the average current cost of electricity of £44/MWh. Many argue that this is an extremely bad deal for customers, as all it does is guarantee that we will have to pay more for our electricity in the future than we currently have to.
Onshore windfarms are now the cheapest way for a power company to produce electricity in Britain, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF). The windfarms can produce electricity at £64 per MWh on average, which when compared with the combined-cycle gas and coal-fired power electricity generating costs of £86/MWh, certainly represents value for money. The problem in Britain and across many parts of Europe is adequate space to deploy wind farms, and of course local planning opposition.
Floating wind potential
The UK currently has the world’s highest off shore wind capacity with over 4GW installed and a further 4.8GW in the works. In 2014, over 9.4% of UKs electricity was supplied by wind. If offshore wind deployment reaches 40 GW, the ETI expect that 8-16 GW of this could be provided by floating wind technology, the majority of which would be based in Scottish waters.
Wind potential in Europe
The potential for generating electricity in Europe from floating wind turbines is an impressive 4,000GW – enough to meet EU’s electricity consumption four times over. Over half of the North Sea where water depths are between 50m and 220m is suitable for floating wind and is technically possible, according to the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA).
The EU target for offshore wind is 40 GW by 2020 and 150 GW by 2030. These targets are expected to be achievable by using conventional fixed-bottom foundations in water depths under 50m. However, by using floating technology; offshore wind capacity in Europe could reach 460 GW by 2050.
Floating wind turbines
Statoil have deployed the first commercially viable floating wind farm in the Buchan Deep, 25 km off the north-east coast of Scotland. The 30 MW Hywind Scotland Pilot Park array consists of five 6 MW turbines and will connect to the local grid through an onshore converter station.
The floating turbines are designed to be deployed in deeper waters of more than 100 metres, where winds are stronger. A giant buoy forms the floating component which is large enough to carry the weight of the turbine as well as withstand waves up to 20 metres high. The buoy is filled with 8,000 litres of sea water and ballast to make it stay upright and maintain its equilibrium.
The technology is gaining traction. France, Germany, Spain, USA, Japan and Norway all have plans in place for new floating wind farms, whilst Portugal's WindFloat Atlantic is set to open 2018-2019. Currently over 30 floating wind concepts are under various stages of development. Each with their own respective strengths, and each dependent on factors such as the water depth, seabed conditions, local supply chain, local infrastructure, and site conditions. It is expected that only a handful of the prototypes will ever make it to the commercial-scale deployment stage.
Advantages of offshore wind
Wind is a free, inexhaustible, environmentally-friendly source of energy and can provide utility scale energy at a very competitive price. Offshore wind resources have higher and steadier wind speeds than near shore. Also, wind turbulence is lower offshore which means turbines have a longer life. Power increases with the cube of the wind speed and these are 50% higher offshore. Being off shore, of course, there tends to be no visual objections from home owners.
With future increases of CO2 emissions resulting from shortage of nuclear fuel, the problems dealing with the hazardous waste produced, uncertainties over cost, lengthy decommissioning processes and the catastrophic consequences of dealing with nuclear meltdown caused by natural disasters and climate-related events; simple common sense tells us that we should be moving away from nuclear and putting all of our efforts and resources into deploying safer alternative sources of energy generation.
The facts speak for themselves. Renewable energy technology does not have expensive or difficult waste to manage and dispose of, nor are there lengthy and expensive decommissioning processes to have to deal with. Certainly, renewables are at a much lower risk of causing very serious lasting damage in the worst-case scenario.
Floating wind is still in its infancy, and further R & D work is required to make it both financially and technically feasible on a large scale. Floating wind does has the potential to be a secure, cost-effective, and safe low-carbon energy source of the future. With an expected levilised cost of energy of less than £85/MWh from as soon as the mid-2020s, floating wind is both a realistic alternative to nuclear and deliverable on a much shorter timescale.
Despite the intermission of supply, renewable energy still offers the better solution. But in order to rely on renewables, we are going to have to change our energy habits, move away from the baseline energy concept and focus more on delivering energy efficiency improvements throughout our communities. We have to switch to smart grid technology that can fluctuate with demand, and we need to work on alternative energy storage to be able to store excess renewable energy.
We have a very short window of opportunity to decarbonise the world in the safest manner possible and every resource should be directed to this as a priority and adequate Government policy needs to be in place to fully support this. Once we grasp the belief that the impossible is indeed possible, only then can we accept our responsibility to face this challenge and make it possible.
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