Archive for the ‘Nuclear’ Category

Comparing apples with oranges

The Climate Group has posted an interesting story on its website and has been tweeting a key graph from the piece of work (below) with the attached text saying “From 2000 to 2012, wind and solar energy increased respectively 16-fold and 49-fold”.

Climate Group Image

The story is headed “Wind and Solar Power is Catching up with Nuclear” and argues correctly that the global installed capacity of these two new sources of electricity are catching up with nuclear. Although the article concludes with the sobering reality that actual generation from wind and solar are still just a fraction of that from nuclear, the headline and certainly the tweets are somewhat misleading.

Both wind and solar have very low on-stream factors, something like 30% and 20% respectively in the USA, whereas nuclear is close to 90%. This means that although 1 GW of solar can deliver up to 1 GW of output, this is highly intermittent, needs considerable backup and results in an average output of only 200 MW (with a low of zero half the time). By contrast a 1 GW nuclear power station is on stream most of the time and delivers about 1 GW 24/7 throughout the year. Therefore, comparing solar or wind capacity with nuclear capacity gives little insight into the actual energy being generated, which is really the point of any comparison in the first instance. The global generating picture actually looks like this (Source: BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2014);

Generation by source

Wind, but particularly solar generation are still only a fraction of nuclear generation, even with the global nuclear turndown following Fukushima. Interestingly, both wind and solar are only rising at about the same rate that nuclear did in the 1960s and 1970s, so we might expect another 30+ years before they reach the level that nuclear is at today, at least in terms of actual generation.

The comparison of capacity rather than generation has become a staple of the renewable energy industry. Both coal and nuclear provide base load electricity and have very high on-stream factors. Depending on the national circumstances, natural gas may be base load and therefore also have a high on-stream factor, but in the USA it has been closer to 50% as it is quite often used intermittently to match the variability of renewables and the peaks in demand from customers (e.g. early evenings when people come home from work and cook dinner). This is because of the ease with which natural gas generation can be dispatched into or removed from the grid. However, natural gas is also becoming baseload in some parts of the USA given the price of gas and the closure of older coal plants.

Capacity comparisons look great in that they can make it appear that vast amounts of renewable energy is entering the energy mix when in fact that is not the case, at least not to the extent implied. Renewable energy will undoubtedly have its day, but like nuclear and even fossil fuels before it, a generation or two will likely have to pass before we can note its significant impact and possibly even its eventual dominance in the power sector.

With the USA (at a Federal level) going down the regulatory route instead, the Australian Prime Minister touring the world arguing against it and the UNFCCC struggling to talk about it, perhaps it is time to revisit the case for carbon pricing. Economists have argued the case for carbon pricing for over two decades and in a recent post I put forward my own reasons why the climate issue doesn’t get solved without one. Remember this;

Climate formula with carbon price (words)

Yet the policy world seems to be struggling to implement carbon pricing and more importantly, getting it to stick and remain effective. Part of the reason for this is a concern by business that it will somehow penalize them, prejudice them competitively or distort their markets. Of course there will be an impact, that’s the whole point, but nevertheless the business community should still embrace this approach to dealing with emissions. Here are the top ten reasons why;

Top Ten

  1. Action on climate in some form or other is an inconvenient but unavoidable inevitability. Business and  industry doesn’t really want direct, standards based regulation. These can be difficult to deal with, offer limited flexibility for compliance and may be very costly to implement for some legacy facilities.
  2. Carbon pricing, either through taxation or cap and trade offers broad compliance flexibility and provides the option for particular facilities to avoid the need for immediate capital investment (but still comply with the requirement).
  3. Carbon pricing offers technology neutrality. Business and industry is free to choose its path forward rather than being forced down a particular route or having market share removed by decree.
  4. Pricing systems offer the government flexibility to address issues such as cross border competition and carbon leakage (e.g. tax rebates or free allocation of allowances). There is a good history around this issue in the EU, with trade exposed industries receiving a large proportion of their allocation for free.
  5. Carbon pricing is transparent and can be passed through the supply chain, either up to the resource holder or down to the end user.
  6. A well implemented carbon pricing system ensures even (economic) distribution of the mitigation burden across the economy. This is important and often forgotten. Regulatory approaches are typically opaque when it comes to the cost of implementation, such that the burden on a particular sector may be far greater than initially recognized. A carbon trading system avoids such distortions by allowing a particular sector to buy allowances instead of taking expensive (for them) mitigation actions.
  7. Carbon pricing offers the lowest cost pathway for compliance across the economy, which also minimizes the burden on industry.
  8. Carbon pricing allows the fossil fuel industry to develop carbon capture and storage, a societal “must have” over the longer term if the climate issue is going to be fully resolved. Further, as the carbon pricing system is bringing in new revenue to government (e.g. through the sale of allowances), the opportunity exists to utilize this to support the early stage development of technologies such as CCS.
  9. Carbon pricing encourages fuel switching in the power sector in particular, initially from coal to natural gas, but then to zero carbon alternatives such as wind, solar and nuclear.
  10. And the most important reason;

It’s the smart business based approach to a really tough problem and actually delivers on the environmental objective.

Two sides to every coin

As we near the middle of the year and therefore have, at least in the Northern Hemisphere (i.e. Germany), long days with lots of sunshine, renewable energy statistics start to appear in the media and the renewables distortion field enveloping much of Europe expands just that little bit more. The first of these I have come across was posted by a number of on-line media platforms and highlighted the fact that on Sunday May 11th Germany generated nearly three quarters of its electricity from renewable sources. Given the extraordinary level of solar and wind deployment in recent years, it shouldn’t be a surprise that this can happen. But it’s rather a one sided view of the story.

The flip side is of course December and January when the solar picture looks very different. The Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE use data from the EEX Platform to produce an excellent set of charts showing the variability of renewable energy, particularly solar and wind. The monthly data for solar shows what one might expect in the northern latitudes, with very high solar in summer and a significant tailing off in winter. The ratio between January and July is a factor of 15 on a monthly average basis.

Annual solar production in Germany 2013j

But wind comes to the rescue to some extent, firstly with less overall monthly variability and secondly with higher levels of generation in the winter which offsets quite a bit of the loss from solar.

Annual wind production in Germany 2013

The combination of the two provides a more stable renewable electricity supply on a monthly basis, with the overall high to low production ratio falling to about 2. One could argue from this that in order to get some gauge of the real cost of renewable energy in Germany, monthly production of 6 TWh of electricity requires about 70 GW of solar and wind (average installed capacity in 2013, roughly 50% each). By comparison, 70 GW of natural gas CCGT online for a whole month at its rated capacity would deliver 51 TWh of electricity, nearly a factor of 9 more than for the same amount of installed solar plus wind. But to be fair, some of that 70 GW of natural gas will have downtime for maintenance etc., but even with a 20% capacity loss to 40 TWh, the delivery factor is still about 7. For solar on its own it will be closer to 10 in Germany.

Annual solar + wind production in Germany 2013

But this isn’t the end of the story. Weekly and daily data shows much greater intermittency. On a weekly basis the high to low production ratio rises to about 4, but on a daily basis it shoots up to 26.

Annual solar + wind production in Germany 2013 by week


Annual solar + wind production in Germany 2013 by day

Fortunately, Germany has an already existing and fully functioning fossil fuel + nuclear baseload generation system installed, which can easily take up the slack as intermittency brings renewable generation to a standstill. But the cost of this is almost never included in an assessment of the cost of renewable power generation. In Germany’s case this is a legacy system and therefore it is taken for granted, but for countries now building new capacity and extending the grid to regions that previously had nothing, this is a real cost that must be considered.

This is perhaps an anti-leapfrog argument (being that regions with no grid or existing capacity can leapfrog to renewables).  The German experience shows that you can shift to renewables more easily when you already have a fully depreciated fossil & nuclear stock, and your demand is flat.  Otherwise, this is looking like a potentially costly story that relies on storage technologies we still don’t have in mainstream commercial use.


As a complete aside, but certainly the “flip side” of another issue, I came across this chart which highlights the flip side of rising CO2 levels in the ocean and atmosphere due to the combustion of fossil fuels – falling levels of oxygen. This is a very small effect (given the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere) and certainly not an issue, but it’s entirely measurable which is the interesting bit. The chart is produced by Ralph Keeling, son of the originator of the CO2 Keeling Curve.

Falling oxygen levels


“Show me the money” or CO2 mitigation at COP 19 ??

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After the first week of the Warsaw COP, an observer could be excused for wondering what exactly the thousands of delegates meeting here were actually discussing. The closest the assembled negotiators, NGOs, business people and UN staff came to seriously talking about CO2 mitigation was when Japan announced its new 2020 target, an increase of 3% in emissions vs. 1990 (but positioned as a decrease of 3.8% vs. 2005 emissions). The change in target by Japan is a consequence of their decision to stop all use of nuclear power following the Fukushima disaster.

Curiously, the Japanese announcement was criticized by China, with their climate negotiator Su Wei saying: “I have no way of describing my dismay” about the revised target. The European Union also expressed disappointment and said it expected all nations to stick to promised cuts as part of efforts to halt global warming. Christiana Figueres, the Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC told Reuters that, “It is regrettable.” Somewhat predictably, she forecast that Japan’s planned investments in energy efficiency and renewable power would prove that the target could be toughened.

The Japanese decision sent one other major ripple through the football stadium holding the COP, that being the realization that national pledges are wide open to correction and change as circumstances dictate. Given that “pledge and review” is the likely foundation of the global deal that negotiators are aiming for in 2015, the Japanese move brings into question if such an approach has any legitimacy at all. Had the original Japanese target been underpinned by carbon market instruments with the robustness that we expect of financial markets, they might have felt compelled to buy the difference, which would have at least financed equivalent compensating mitigation actions in other parts of the world (although that being said, Canada took no such action when it failed to meet its goals under the Kyoto Protocol, it just rescinded its ratification instead).

But Japan and CO2 was a momentary distraction from the real discussion, money. This has appeared in a variety of forms and is endemic within the process. There is endless questioning about the $100 billion pledge made in Copenhagen;

In the context of meaningful mitigation actions and transparency on implementation, developed countries commit to a goal of mobilizing jointly USD 100 billion dollars a year by 2020 to address the needs of developing countries.

. . . with the most often repeated phrase from many countries being akin to “Show me the money”. Of course, the intention of the Copenhagen Accord was never to have $100 billion per annum deposited in the Green Climate Fund by Annex 1 countries, but to develop approaches which would see at least $100 billion per annum in mitigation and adaptation investment flow to developing countries, leveraged by instruments such as the Green Climate Fund. Unfortunately this interpretation of the pledge is largely ignored.


Money also rears its head in the Loss and Damage discussion where agreement was reached in the dying hours of the Doha COP to agree a mechanism for this in Warsaw. The horrors appearing across the media of the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines has of course focused minds on this discussion. In their various opportunities to speak in the plenary sessions, many nations called for the Loss and Damage issue to be rapidly progressed in Warsaw. 

Even within the discussions on technology transfer there is a renewed call from some nations for the opening up of patents (money) on a variety of “climate friendly” technologies.

The other half of any COP is the side event programme and here CO2 mitigation didn’t get much of an airing either. There were many side events on financing and adaptation and those on energy primarily focused on energy efficiency and renewables, neither of which offer a direct path to measurable and sustained CO2 mitigation. By contrast, the few side events on carbon capture and storage were rather sparsely attended.

The rather sparsely attended but content rich GCCSI event on CCS developments.

The rather sparsely attended but content rich GCCSI event on CCS developments.

 Even the “Green Climate” exhibition in the Palace of Culture was principally focused on energy efficiency in buildings, solar PV and waste management. However, Shell at least kept the CCS flag waving with its novel CCS lift / elevator (something of a virtual ride to 2 kms below the surface where CO2 could be safely stored).

The Shell CCS “lift” in the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw.

The Shell CCS “lift” in the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw.

So to week 2 of the Warsaw COP, which will likely end in the usual rush to a declaration of some description at the end, although in the very last hours of Week 1 on Saturday night the collected negotiators came away with nothing agreed on FVA and NMM.

Over recent weeks one of the major Australian newspapers (The Melbourne Age) has asked readers to submit questions on climate change and at the same time opened a poll so that all readers could vote on the questions they most wanted to see answered. The newspaper pledged to investigate and attempt to answer the top ten questions. The poll closed last weekend and the questions are now in. As promised, The Age has started to answer them. Without getting too lengthy and also drawing on many previous postings (so excuse the links), here are some thoughts from me on the ten questions (with abbreviated questions as headings – but click here to see the full questions: 

1. Can Australia make a difference by taking action?

While it is true that Australian emissions are small on a global scale and that therefore even reducing them to zero wouldn’t be sufficient to affect levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, this isn’t a reason not to take action. Climate change is a collective issue, a tragedy of the commons, which requires collective action to solve. No one country, region or industrial sector can solve this unilaterally. Even if the big three, China, the USA and the major EU economies acted alone (with China reaching a plateau in the short term and then reducing by 50% by 2050 and the US and EU reducing by 80% by 2050), global emissions would plateau at best assuming that the rest of the world emissions grew by no more than 1.5% per annum over the next 40 years (in fact they have been growing at well over 2% p.a. over recent decades). So this issue needs a response from all nations, including Australia.


Will Australia inspire other nations? This isn’t the primary motivation of acting and in any case many nations around the world are beginning to move on this issue and take action. The responses still vary widely, but they are underway. For example, Canada is developing legislation to stop the further construction of coal fired power stations, unless carbon capture and storage is utilised. China is now very close to introducing a carbon price into some parts of its economy and California is starting up a cap-and-trade system. The list is long and growing, even though the sum total of global efforts fall short of the necessary level of ambition.

2. What about agricultural emissions?

There is no doubt that agricultural emissions are important. As such, they featured in some detail in a recent study released by WWF and Ecofys which looks at the feasibility of a near zero emissions world by 2050. Although the primary focus of the report is energy, there is much said about agriculture because of the growing interaction with the energy system. For example, see page 62 of the report for a series of recommendations that relate to food and agriculture.

3. Isn’t it true that the magnitude of future warming is not “settled science”, but in fact highly uncertain?

Climate change is all about uncertainty, but a great deal of work has been done in this field. The MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change focuses considerable effort on communicating the risk and uncertainty (The Greenhouse Gamble) related to climate change. But importantly it also demonstrates that a policy led approach to managing emissions can shift the risk and offer benefits over the long term.

4. Shouldn’t we just go nuclear?

At least for the time being, there is no single solution to this issue. We will need a broad range of solutions. Even in France where nuclear has grown to dominate (~80%) the electricity sector over the last 40 years, emissions have only fallen by 14% (from 435 MT to 374 MT from 1971 to 2008 according to the IEA).

5. Are climate skeptics funded by industrial concerns so as to maintain the status quo?

The origins of climate skepticism and the driving force behind it is examined in great detail by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway in their book “Merchants of Doubt”. This is an excellent read and turns up some surprising answers, linking those who question and challenge the issue of climate change with the same people and groups who challenged tobacco as a cause of cancer, acid rain and the destruction of forests, chlorofluorocarbons and the thinning of the ozone layer and so on.  

6. Why is there so little investigative journalism into the science and its flaws.

This is because the science isn’t flawed. Yes, there remains uncertainty, but new research is refining and improving our knowledge of the Earth’s climate system and how it is expected to respond to increasing levels of CO2. I discussed the science in some detail in a recent post.

7. Renewables are viable now, so why do we need coal and uranium for baseload power?

A number of renewable technologies offer a great deal of potential and some are being widely deployed, such as onshore wind. But there are limits to the rate at which these new technologies can be fully developed and deployed. As such, we will need a broad range of energy technologies for a long time to come. My colleagues in the Shell scenarios team wrote about these limits in an article published in Nature late in 2009 and I discussed it in a posting at that time.

8. Is it possible to have a fruitful debate on the science given existing belief structures?

As mentioned above, I discussed the science at some length in a recent posting. But we do seem to live in a world today that is becoming detached from science, despite our increasing dependency and love of technology. I wrote a post on this last year. Perhaps belief structures are getting in the way, an issue which is also discussed by Naomi Oreskes in the book mentioned above.

9. How do the Liberal Party’s policies compare with other centre-right policies around the world?

I don’t think there is such a strong link between political leaning and climate policy, despite the rhetoric on this subject. Policy approaches vary widely around the world as do the governments that set them. For example, in the EU where there are 27 Member States with governments covering a broad range of the political spectrum, including many centre-right governments, there is a comprehensive climate change policy framework now in place which includes emissions trading, long term targets and tough energy efficiency goals. This policy framework goes beyond any of the party proposals under consideration in Australia today, but equally it has been in development for nearly ten years. It started out very modestly. In North America where there has been little progress on climate legislation at the federal level, many US States and Canadian Provinces, again covering a broad range of the political spectrum, have implemented far reaching emissions management policies. In the United States it was the Republican Party (centre-right) which introduced cap-and-trade (emissions trading) to the world when they decided to use that policy instrument to manage sulphur emissions from power stations in the 1980s.

10. Why should we believe the science when there is no observed relationship between climate and atmospheric CO2?

There is really no question of a relationship between climate and atmospheric CO2. This was shown over 100 years ago and explains very clearly and without challenge why the surface of the planet is temperate where a simple heat / radiation balance calculation shows that it should be frozen. The issue is therefore how much more change will occur as we double or triple the level of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Could California suffer the EU-ETS problem?

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As I have noted in recent posts, the EU Emissions Trading System is suffering a decline in fortune. The price has been relatively low since the onset of the financial crisis, driven in part by a decline in industrial activity linked to the recession, but also to continuous overlaying of policy by both Member States and the Commission. Examples of the latter include the UK price floor proposal and the draft Energy Efficiency Directive from the Commission.

The next cab out of the ETS rank looks to be the California cap-and-trade system. Recently Point Carbon reported that:

 “California carbon allowances (CCAs) for 2013 delivery were bid at $16.75/t this week [NB: About 2-3 weeks ago] on news that companies would not have to surrender allowances to cover their 2012 emissions, market participants said.”

California emissions in 2008 (the last full GHG inventory) were as follows:

The total is 427 million tonnes against an allowance allocation in 2020 of 334 million tonnes. At least on first inspection there appears to be the necessary scarcity to ensure a robust carbon price

But California also has multiple policy approaches which operate in the same space as the cap-and-trade system. For example, by 2020 California is required to supply 33% of its electricity from renewable sources. In the transport sector, the Low Carbon Fuel Standard requires a 10% reduction in the carbon footprint of transport fuels by 2020, achieved through electrification, changes in the well-to-tank emissions of the fuel (e.g. through lowering refinery emissions) and substitution of gasoline with alternatives such as ethanol.

Many scenarios could play out here and the level of nuclear power will be critical, but these two policies alone could see emissions drop to 360-370 MT by 2020, removing much of the scarcity driving the carbon market.

Since the election of Governor Brown there is already talk of an even higher renewable energy requirement and there are other existing policies as well (Renewable Portfolio Standard, various energy efficiency standards, CHP requirements, vehicle efficiency measures).  In addition, what is not factored in here is California’s share of the overall drop in US emissions since 2008 as a result of the recession. But on the upside, at least from a carbon market perspective, is the compression of the whole trading period by one year as a result of the delay in implementation.

A back of the envelope analysis today indicates that the California system probably won’t see an allowance surplus through to 2020, nevertheless much of the apparent scarcity is removed by multiple policies operating within the cap-and-trade space. This means that the carbon market becomes a shorter term compliance mechanism rather than a longer term investment driver. It functions only as a check on the other policies.

Rather, investment is driven by mandates and standards on the back of a specific, predetermined design outcome for California’s future energy system – almost certainly a higher cost solution for the energy consumer, but with the same environmental outcome as the cap-and-trade would deliver if left to function on its own.

Energy impacts after Fukushima

It is hard to make any comment at all after the scenes of destruction that have been filling the airwaves since Friday. But as the immediate disaster starts to move into recovery, then rebuilding, the issue of energy supply in Japan will doubtless rise up the agenda. In a country with limited natural energy sources, security of supply has been the traditional energy source consideration, although more recently this has been augmented with greenhouse gas emission targets. In terms of primary energy demand for electricity production (see chart), data for 2008 from the IEA shows a 3+ way split – the key components being gas, coal and nuclear. Oil products (e.g. fuel oil) are a further important part, followed by much smaller contributions from renewables, waste, biomass and geothermal.

 The nuclear generated electricity comes from 55 operating nuclear plants (including those in Fukushima) for a total of about 51 GW of capacity. With rolling blackouts now underway on Tokyo as a result of the cluster of nuclear plants in the Fukushima area now out of action, it is clear that the grid is very dependent on nuclear power. In the short term all the other generating capacity will have to be maximized to make up for the loss of the Fukushima facilities. The load is likely to fall on coal, fuel oil and natural gas which will further stretch international supplies at a time of high energy prices and disruption to coal supply following the floods in Australia. With 10 GW in the Fukushima area now offline (or 20% of the national nuclear capacity), replacement with LNG would require some 8 million tonnes per annum against a global supply of about 230 million tonnes.

But in the longer term, what if Japan took the decision to phase out nuclear power? I am not proposing that it should or shouldn’t, but sometimes major events can have a profound impact on societal developments going forward. In terms of potential replacements, current technology points to coal and natural gas, although the latter has an advantage in terms of lower CO2 emissions.  Equally, a profound shock such as that experienced in Fukushima could be a catalyst for accelerating the development of solar PV and concentrated solar in Japan.

In 2008 Japan imported about 68 million tonnes of LNG, of which about two thirds was used for electricity production. In the same year electricity production from the nuclear power plants was about 10% less than that produced by natural gas, so replacing that with natural gas would require another 40 million tonnes of LNG imports per annum. By comparison, annual LNG production in Qatar, the world’s largest supplier, is some 80 million tonnes. As already noted, global production is now 230 million tonnes, but it is growing rapidly. For example, the Gorgon project in Australia which is now under construction will produce 15 million tonnes of LNG starting in 2014.

But the impact of Fukushima could be more profound. Arguably nuclear is undergoing something of a renaissance as nations grapple with the challenges of energy supply, diversity of supply and CO2 emissions. According to the World Nuclear Association there is currently more capacity proposed, planned, on order or under construction (609 GW) than is presently in operation (378 GW). Of this, 64 GW is actually under construction with 176 GW on order or planned. Reverting to coal, for example, even with modern efficient facilities, could result in an additional billion or more tonnes per annum of CO2 emissions by the end of this decade if 200 less nuclear plants were constructed than current expectations.

It is early days and emotions remain high, but balancing climate risk against nuclear risk looks certain to feature in the energy discussion for some time to come.