In one of my articles published a while ago, I commented on the trend of using natural gas, instead of coal, to back up the intermittent wind power (WP) and solar power (SP) for the grid in many countries. So, the news from BBC over the last weekend of September highlighting the soaring energy costs in Europe, with special attention to natural gas and electricity, attracted my attention.
Additional sources, including the latest edition of EURACTIV MEDIA NETWORK BV, showed, among other things, that wholesale gas prices had increased by 250% as of September, 2021. The carbon price in Europe reached 50 Euros for the first time, and it is expected to increase further, while electricity production from WP has been under-performing.
The energy ministers in the EU held a special meeting on the 22nd of September, 2021 on record of the high-power prices and in order to agree emergency measures to cushion the increasing financial burden of electricity for consumers. Under normal circumstances, they would have used that meeting to strategize how to revitalize their post-COVID economic growth, especially in the build up to Christmas eve, and of course, the long cold months of winter ahead.
The dire consequences of the energy crisis are more severe in the UK due to a shortfall of approximately 100, 000 experienced lorry drivers, which is attributed directly to Brexit. This shortfall has seriously affected the economic activities in the UK with increasingly empty food shelves in shops and long queues at filling stations.
The Reason for the Inaction of the Climate Change Leaders
Over the last 2 weeks ending Friday 1st October, 2021, I’ve heard a crescendo of warnings that mankind is accelerating towards the verge of irreversible destruction of the earth. Hence many world leaders have urgently called for steep transition to green energy or low-carbon technologies. The former technology, which is mentioned more often than the latter, certainly does not include NP.
In fact, in the last two weeks, I have only heard or read about NP in connection with climate change on three occasions: 1) John Kerry, the former US Foreign Secretary, and currently the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate Change mentioned NP in a speech; (2) Emmanuel Macron, the French President and six other Heads of State in the EU are likely to bring up NP for discussions, and (3) Jennifer Granholm, the U.S. Energy Secretary, who was quoted as saying: “The climate crisis presents a market opportunity for carbon-reduction technologies such as NP”.
It is also relevant for our discussions to appreciate that some 400 young climate change activists from about 180 countries were at the pre-COP26 meeting in Milan, Italy on the 1st of October, 2021. The Italian Prime Minister, Mario Draghi, pledged that the world leaders would heed to their demands at the upcoming COP26 meeting in Glasgow, Scotland in November 2021. The main concerns of these young activists are the inaction of world leaders at climate change meetings; they have not seen any results or action from these talks in the past.
We have previously discussed that WP and SP have been the fastest growing energy technologies, but with little to no show, because they are the most diluted out of the five practical renewable energy sources, which include, hydropower, biomass and geothermal.
Furthermore, WP and SP are variable and intermittent, hence they are not dispatchable, which simply means that they are not reliable for the grid. The better way to utilize electricity generated by intermittent sources is to store it and use it as and when necessary. Since there is still no suitable energy storage for large scale application, WP and SP are supported mainly by dispatchable energy sources, such as coal and natural gas to make them useful for the grid. That is why we are seeing increased levels of CO2 emission in tandem with the installation rate of WP and SP.
Nuclear Power: The Most Effective for Decarbonizing Energy Sector,
It is important re-emphasize that NP is the most cost-effective option for producing clean, reliable, affordable electricity more abundantly than any other option, simply because it is the most concentrated energy source as depicted by Albert Einstein equation, E=mc2, where ‘m’ is the mass of the fuel, and ‘c’ is the speed of light, which is about 300 000 000m/s.
To appreciate the enormity of nuclear energy, let’s compare in practical terms, fuel requirements for coal, oil and nuclear power plants of the same wattage of 1000MW. This coal plant requires daily about 9000 tons of coal, while the oil-fired power plant may require 40 000 barrels of oil every week. An operating 1000MW nuclear power plant requires every 18 months about 30 tons nuclear fuel to replace one-third of the core fuel that has been in the core for 3 cycles or about 54 months. The used fuel, which contains about 95% of useful fuel, is reprocessed and used in a few countries.
Certain innovative nuclear reactors under development, will be fuelled by nuclear used fuel. That will significantly (1) increase the economic competitiveness of NP, (2) lessen the proliferation risk of used fuel, and (3) reduce the burden of managing used fuel.
The attached Fig1, which shows that the EU and Japan, without any endowed rich energy sources like Canada, Russia and the USA, derived most of their electricity from NP during the time of their brisk economic activities up to the beginning of this millennium.
It is very interesting to take a close look at Fig2 with 2 pie-graphs showing installed capacities of pumped storage or pumped storage hydroelectricity (PSH), renewables (RES), NP and fossil fuels in the left one, and their corresponding electricity generated in right one respectively. Note that the installed capacity for RES and NP are 20% respectively, while their corresponding generated electricity are 13 and 32% respectively. If the RES had been only hydro power, HP, its generated electricity would have higher than 13%, and much lower if the RES had been only SP. Out of all standard energy for power generation, SP is the most diluted option, followed by WP. It is clear from Fig2 that NP is the most concentrated energy source. Hence it generates reliable and affordable electricity more abundantly than any other option.
The Litmus Test for NP vs. WP + SP
After the Fukushima nuclear accident in March 2011, Germans vowed to replace NP with WP and SP as stated in their Energiewende (Energy Transition), and immediately reduced the installed capacity of NP from about 20.3 to 12.0GW. I took this action as a litmus test to compare the potentials of WP and SP on one side with that of NP (see table in Fig3). So installed capacities and corresponding generated electricity for WP, SP and NP for 2010 and 2014 are reproduced in the table for close comparison.
In 2010, for example, NP, WP and SP with installed capacities of 20.3, 27.2 and 17.9GW, produced respectively 140.0, 37.8 and 11.7TWh of electricity. Note that in 2014, WP and SP with total installed capacity of 77.4GW generated 87.4TWh of electricity, less than 91.8TWh, generated by NP with installed capacity of only 12.0GGW. This is sufficient and necessary proof that NP produces electricity more abundantly than WP and SP. While NP produces dispatchable electricity for the grid, the intermittent electricity from WP and SP needs a back-up, often a coal power, to make it useful for the grid.
Since WP and SP are not dispatch-able, a certain fraction of their electricity is produced when it is not needed, or overlapped with the backup systems. When installations of WP and SP began to surge from the second half of 2011, all the problems associated with the integration of variable and intermittent WP and SP on the grid were fully manifested leading to challenges of maintaining the stability of the grid. Despite substantial rate of installation of WP and SP, the Germans had to re-commission their old coal plants.
In 2013, Der Spiegel, one of Germany’s leading newspapers, reporting under the heading ‘Paying Big for Nothing’ stated that: “This year, German consumers will be forced to pay €20 billion ($26 billion) for electricity from solar, wind and biogas plants — electricity with a market price of just over €3 billion.” This paper made it clear that investments in WP and SP had enriched several homeowners who received generous returns from their investments, but have, at the same time, impoverished many Germans to become ‘energy poor’.
The following year, another German paper, Der Zeit, stated that: “CO2 levels in Germany have been increasing in the last three years despite the government spending nearly $140 billion (100 billion Euros) on the green energy since 2005.” The emissions were still increasing in 2017, – a serious issue for many environmentalists at the COP23 in Bonn, Germany in November, 2017.
Their concern was that Germany, the leader in climate change affairs could not achieve its much-touted emissions reduction target by 2020. Angela Merkel at the COP23 showed her concern when she said: “Now at the end of 2017, we know we are still a long way off achieving that [emissions reduction target].” Despite Germany’s best efforts as leaders of green technology, even they have been obliged to review their solutions to address social issues such as affordability of energy and jobs.