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Energy for the 21st century, part I: fossil-fuels, renewables and nuclear

ScrobySandsWindFarmWith the exception of Arthur Scargill, most on the Left agree that the days of fossil fuels must soon come to an end. We all know that it would be environmental catastrophe to revive the coal industry. We have to wean ourselves off coal and other fossil fuels but what will take their place?

The dream answer is renewable energy, but, as I will argue, this is no more than a dream. Jeremy Corbyn has promised 65% of electricity from renewables by 2030, rising thereafter to 85%. It is said that this will create 300,000 jobs in the renewable energy supply chain. This chimes well with the Green New Deal advocated by progressives since the financial crisis of 2008.

But there are two problems. First, some sectors (such as agriculture, steel, and concrete production) would be difficult or impossible to decarbonise. So we must have greater reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from electricity than 65%, or even 85%. In effect it will need to be 100% to be achieved as quickly as possible. Second, even a target of 65% renewable electricity is not achievable for Britain.

To date, the following types of renewable energy have found extensive use: hydroelectric, wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass. Hydro, geothermal, and biomass energy are able to provide stable, base-load energy supplies. Hydro-power is the best-established technology and provides the vast bulk of electricity in Norway and parts of Canada. Unfortunately, taking geographical factors into account only a few hundred megawatts of new hydro capacity could be built in England and Wales. Scotland has more potential, with a theoretically possible few gigawatts of new capacity, but only a fraction of this would be viable. Furthermore, it is still only a few percent of the UK’s 50-60 gigawatt peak power consumption. The potential of geothermal energy in the UK is unclear: a renewable industry group estimates that it could provide up to 20% of the country’s current electricity needs and be used very effectively to heat homes, while others have suggested that it is an impractical power source for Britain. Even in the former case, however, other energy sources will be needed. Either way, it still does not come close to meeting all energy needs. Biomass power (mainly burning wood-chips) is expensive and of doubtful environmental benefit. It is only carbon neutral on a time scale that is too long to meet the global warming crisis and it can release more GHGs than fossil fuels.

That leaves solar power and wind. Given the relatively high latitude of the UK, general cloudiness, and fact that energy consumption is highest at the times of year with the least sunlight, solar panels are massively unfit as an energy source in this country. Furthermore, solar and wind are intermittent energy sources since their output varies, often unpredictably. In an electricity system with other energy sources that can be turned on and off, intermittent energy sources could provide a significant but minor part of the supply. However, as their share grows, so would the risk of voltage drops in the power supply leading to the need to both build excess generating capacity and storage capacity. Then, when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing, some of the energy can be set aside for when it’s dark and calm. Unfortunately, at present, we do not have technologies capable of economically delivering storage on the scale needed nor, given the vast scale of the problem, are we likely to have such technologies in the foreseeable future.

Another response is the suggestion of building a Europe-wide smart-grid. While this may help to even out the most severe troughs it would still be insufficient. When the wind isn’t blowing much in Italy, it also won’t be blowing much in Denmark, Germany, the UK, or anywhere else on the continent. The net result is that for wind energy to be a major component of the electricity supply, massive amounts of more reliable generating capacity are also needed. The eye-catching headline about Germany generating most of its electricity from renewables on a day in July missed the point that it failed to do so on most other days.

Given that renewable energy won’t be able to power Britain on its own, some pin their hopes on carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology to extend the life of fossil fuels. But the problem is how we go about ensuring that the captured CO2 stays where we put it. Usually it is suggested that it be stored underground, but were it to leak then it would undo all of our work capturing it in the first place. In many ways this is a more concerning problem even than nuclear waste, since the latter is solid—making it much easier to contain than a gas—and needs to be stored for only a finite time. That said, some CCS will be needed to deal with carbon emissions from chemical reactions involved in producing steel and cement.

Rethinking nuclear power

This leaves nuclear power. Nuclear power is, today, almost universally reviled by the left (with the notable exception of the French Communist Party). It is viewed as dirty, dangerous, and expensive. The truth is, it need be none of these things.

Much of the fear around nuclear power comes from not understanding the science and risks of radiation. The fact of the matter is that the extra radiation experienced by people living near a nuclear power plant is insignificant in comparison to background radiation.

The threat of accidents needs to be carefully evaluated. The major cases are Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. The consensus among peer-reviewed studies is that the Three Mile Island accident led to few or no deaths. The causes of the accident have been thoroughly investigated and reactor design and operating procedures have been improved as a result. Chernobyl, far and away the worst of these incidents, was the fault of a uniquely bad reactor design and a poorly executed experiment. RBMK reactors, such as the one at Chernobyl, are known to be unstable, had a control rod design which initially increases the reaction rate, are surrounded by flammable graphite, and lack the containment buildings seen in all other nuclear power plants. A Chernobyl-like accident would not be possible with the types of reactors used in the West.

Fukushima is the most recent of these and has resulted in a renewed backlash against nuclear power. It is important to remember that this event was initiated by a 13m-15m tsunami resulting from a magnitude 9 earthquake, neither of which are events which can strike Britain. Furthermore, the private operator TEPCO had been cutting corners in terms of disaster preparedness. Clearly, strong independent oversight is needed for nuclear power and reactors should be in public ownership to make corner-cutting less likely. However, Fukushima is not an indictment of nuclear energy per se. No one died from radiation poisoning and any increase in cancer deaths looks set to be very small (even when using pessimistic models) and difficult to separate from background rates. As with Chernobyl, mental illness is a bigger threat to the effected population.

Obviously every death is tragic, but no energy source is without risks. Despite its scary reputation, nuclear power has the lowest or second lowest number of deaths per gigawatt-hour of any energy source. When things go wrong, they tend to do so in a big, scary way, which misleads people as to the threat. New reactor designs (and, indeed, some older ones such as the CANDU) include “passive safety” features which do not depend on human or electronic intervention, making accidents like those at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima physically impossible.

The other big argument against nuclear power concerns its waste. We can keep the waste in dry cask storage indefinitely as we look for longer-term solutions, so unlike GHG emissions this is not a pressing issue. Ultimately, burying nuclear waste deep in dry, geologically stable regions looks to be a viable solution. The volume of high-level waste produced is relatively small; if all of Britain’s current energy needs were met by nuclear for 100 years (by which time better alternatives such as fusion or space-based solar power would hopefully be available), then a waste facility of only a few square kilometres—the size of a small airport—would be needed to store it. Encouragingly, Generation IV reactor designs promise to be able to use existing nuclear waste as fuel and produce much lower volumes of their own, shorter-lived, waste.

Is nuclear energy more expensive? New reactor designs have been known to go over-budget. On the other hand, while results of studies examining energy costs vary greatly (see the Wikipedia article), they tend to show that overall nuclear is of comparable cost to other energy sources. Studies claiming that renewables are cheaper do not seem to take into account storage requirements and changes to the electricity grid. Nuclear power plants have large capital costs and low operating costs. Therefore building them in the private sector requires expensive subsidies. Nuclear-dependent France has middling to low electricity costs and demonstrates the savings which can be achieved by building reactors through a public sector energy monopoly to a standard design. In the future, small modular reactors could potentially be mass-produced, bringing prices down further. While no clean energy source is cheap, nuclear is likely to be the cheapest option for countries without hydroelectric or geothermal capacity.

It is only within a left-wing comprehensive economic plan that nuclear power can reach its full potential. The energy transition of France in the 1970s and 1980s shows what can be achieved by a state intent on transforming its power supply. For a country to prosper, it must have a clean, reliable, abundant energy supply and renewables alone will not provide this in Britain. If socialism is to bring prosperity, rather than a more equitable distribution of misery, our socialism must be nuclear powered.

(The reference to the “lowest number of deaths per gigawatt-hour” in the original article has been modified to the “lowest or second lowest number of deaths per gigawatt-hour” and the hyperlink has been changed. 14th February 2017)


  1. James Martin says:

    I don’t have a problem with nuclear power at all, but there are a number of immediate problems with expanding it further. First, the waste issue is one that can’t be ignored and the toxic legacy we are leaving for future generations is very worrying.

    But second, we have lost our national expertise in this area and are dependent on very expensive brought in foreign systems (be they French or Chinese). In the 1960s the nationalised atomic energy industry could build new nuclear power stations at the rate of one a year, now we couldn’t even build one a decade based on current problems.

    Of course there is another power source that has not been mentioned which is shale gas. Labour has aped the Greens in opposing this entirely in the UK, a mistake I think (as someone who lives nearby a current test rig), a nationalised publicly owned and publicly accountable shale gas operator working to the highest international safety standards has the potential to produce far safer energy than nuclear for many years to come and to allow a bridge between the current level of renewables and potential developments in the future.

    1. David Pavett says:

      I think that the reason why shale gas has not been mentioned is because it is another fossil fuel and would therefore contribute nothing to de-carbonisation. The point of the (series of) article(s) is to find an energy source that would enable the latter.

    2. C MacMackin says:

      David is right, that’s why I haven’t included natural gas. Some people argue that, as an intermediate step, we should convert coal fired plants to gas. Whether this would make sense depends on how long those power plants will continue to operate. My preference would be not very long at all. The other issue with gas is leaks. Methane (the main component of natural gas) is a really potent GHG. Some people have speculated that, accounting for the inevitable leaks, this makes gas power plants no better than coal. Also, gas is not safer than nuclear energy when you look at the statistics of deaths per terrawatt-hour, even leaving aside climate change.

      One thing which emerged when writing these articles is that I’m perhaps too intensely relaxed about nuclear waste. There are various things we can do to reduce the volume and there is some speculative research into transmuting it into something less dangerous. Ultimately, though, I suspect we’ll just want to bury it in some out-of-the-way place. I don’t think it’s completely unreasonable to fence off a few square kilometres and tell future generations not to dig there. It’s certainly more reasonable than leaving them with a broken climate.

      Yes, Britain has lost its expertise in nuclear power. The upcoming third and final part of this article discusses how to begin to regain it. To start with the UK would probably have to partner with another country’s reactor producer, such as CANDU Energy. The expense of Hinkley Point C has more to do with a bad design and the expectation of private-sector rates of return (15%) on investment than with the fact that it’s a French design.

      1. prianikoff says:

        Nothing exactly new here.
        I’ve worked regularly with stewards in the nuclear power industry and am not totally opposed to nuclear power.

        However there are too many “if’s” and technological science fiction for this article to be convincing evidence for the massive expansion of the industry.

        Whatever the proximate causes of the Chernobyl and Fukushima incidents were, dealing with their aftermath will be tasks for centuries to come.

        The Chernobyl containment building is hugely expensive and will eventually become irradiated and need replacement itself.

        All this adds to the real cost of nuclear power.
        As does, waste disposal, which as you admit is a technological problem which remains to be solved.
        Your (unproven) solutions simply sweep it under the carpet.

        Whether or not a Tsunami of the size which struck Fukushima could happen in Britain (who knows what future weather patterns and geological events could lead to), it should have been anticipated in Japan, but wasn’t.

        Poor specification is an almost insurmountable problem in technology.
        But the outcomes are far worse in a nuclear power station than a wind farm or solar array.
        The latter, being modular, can just keep going with minimal repair costs and zero environmental impact.

        I think the article is far too dismissive of wind and solar.
        There is no magic bullet, but the technology keeps advancing, disproving what the opponents of these renewable technologies say.

        Nuclear power is neither renewable, nor clean, unless you completely redefine the terms.
        The only renewable energy is solar and lunar.
        It’s called physics.

        1. John Penney says:

          The political cowardice ,and resulting power generator construction inaction, of Labour and Tory governments over the last 30 years has left the UK on the cusp of a severe power shortage crisis given a harsh winter. The lights will only be kept on, and industry running, by a huge current dependence on both hugely polluting giant back-up diesel generators, and the UK/Continent electricity interconnectors.

          This crisis will grow ever more severe as the last coal-fired power stations are steadily shut down (or converted to the subsidy scam and faux Greenhouse gas reduction targets compliance mechanism of wood pellet burning !).

          You can pin your hopes on the utterly unpredictable/unreliable subsidy-scam wind farm delusion, and doomed hopes for solar power in the UK’s geographic location, if you want, prianikoff. But in the real world the UK public will expect a credible government to keep the lights on – and that just has to involve a major nuclear component – and should involve major research funding and prototyping for better, safer, types of nuclear reactor, like thorium based ones.

          Your comment has added nothing useful to this discussion, but to illustrate yet again, the ideological reasons why the UK is currently approaching a severe electricity shortage on an unprecedented scale .

          The “physics” of Wind and Solar power generation in the UK will always condemn it to being a unreliable , marginal contributor to UK power needs. Yep, its certainly “renewable” ,but not much use to reliably provide the lions share of power supply to an advanced industrial society with 24/7 365 days a year needs.

          As it is, the long lead in time for any major new power generation systems, , never mind nuclear , even gas powered, is so long that the UK will have to get used to relying on those ridiculously polluting, expensive, huge back-up diesel generators and the continental interconnector in every forthcoming harsh winter. The middle class Green fraternity will also expect their ipods and tablets , and central heating, to keep functioning come what may !

          1. prianikoff says:

            As I said, I’m not totally against nuclear power, just the idea that it needs to be expanded drastically.

            You’ve not provided a technical case for this, just displayed your own prejudices against renewable energy.

            To start with the alleged “wind farm scam” you refer to;

            In 2015, the Tories ended subsidies for onshore wind farms (which are now the cheapest UK source of energy production)

            Amber Rudd also closed down the Renewables Obligation scheme for Solar PV of 5 MW and below.
            Small solar installations fell by 80% after this measure was annonced.

            The Tories also slashed £120 million in grants for CHP biomass developments after the Brexit vote.

            Whereas, coal, gas and nuclear power are all subsidised .

            Internationally fossil fuels received subsidies of $490 billion in 2014, compared to $112 billion for renewable energy. (FT July 26 2016)

            The Tories admitted that they were subsidising nuclear power when they announced the Hinckley deal.

            The strike price of £92.50 per megawatt hour they agreed with EDF (inflation-proofed for 35 years) means EDF could generate revenue of £100-160 billion over this period.

            The fact is that Wind and Solar are generating an increasing proportion of UK electricity and could generate much more.

            As to the “intermittency” question – no one is suggesting that there isn’t a need for back-up power for renewables.

            But the use of “diesel farms” isn’t obligatory, there are other less polluting alternatives, such as battery, EV to grid, pumped storage and tidal (lunar) power.

            An intelligent international grid using HVDC can balance out intermittency and should include North Africa. These are political, not technical questions.

            The Tories continue to dither over the Swansea tidal lagoon scheme, which could be a pilot for developments elsewhere in the country.

            Scandalously the UK hasn’t developed its own turbine production, or ship-building industry to support the installation of offshore wind farms.

            Thorium reactors might be a good idea as the waste products of the Thorium cycle have half lives of a century and are harder to use in bombs.
            But there aren’t any practical Thorium reactors yet.

            All the technologies I refer to already exist, they are safe, cheap and can be developed further.
            Not by using subsidies, but as part of comprehensive energy plan, based on publicly owned energy producers.

            I’d argue that this should include a ban on all imported coal and investment in UK pits using “clean coal technology”.
            (The Carbon emissions of UK coal are now relatively insignificant and can be mitigated elsewhere)

            The precise mix, technical plans and costings should be part of the LP’s next election manifesto.

        2. Mervyn Hyde says:

          Whatever anyone says about the Nuclear option, in reality it just means when they are built they generally offer stable supply.

          But that is it, the cost of construction, general maintenance, waste disposal, and decommissioning means they are totally unviable, unless of course you add in the benefit of bomb making.

          There are a plethora of technologies that we refuse to embark on due the petrol lobby and Nucists, and so rather than eradiating ourselves, or poisoning our atmosphere, why don’t we just play safe?

          The reason we don’t is power and money.

          We live in a fantasy world where opponents have described renewable options as ineffective without any justifying evidence to prove it, turning a blind eye to the devastation caused by the raping of our earth.

          1. John Penney says:

            The German Government did a big study of their existing wind sourced power a few years ago, and it found it to be a very unreliable major , rather than peripheral, supply source. We know from numerous studies that wood pellet power stations are a total scam that simply cream off subsidies without reducing CO2. Wave/tidal power is as yet unproven. Solar power will never be anything but marginal in the UK. There are others , but as yet underdeveloped.

            Your post makes very sweeping , emotional, statements about both nuclear power and the , unstated, “plethora of technologies that we refuse to embark on” . Yet you provide no evidence whatsoever , Mervyn. This might be OK when simply repeating the standard tenets amongst Green Lefties, but it is adequate for a discussion forum like this ? I think not.

          2. John Walsh says:

            A comment on a recurring theme – “Solar power will never be anything but marginal in the UK” (JP above and described as “massively unfit” by CM). Now, I’m not sure what the figures are for PV generated electricity in the UK and I’ll resist the ‘just google it’ fad as there will always be more to it than what is on wikipedia etc. Instead here’s an example of how ‘solar power’ can provide a difference to energy needs in houses.

            While it’s seems understandably intuitive to think that ‘in the UK, we’re too far north for solar power’, this isn’t the case when supplementing heating need in buildings with heat from sunlight. As is well known among ‘green building’ people (not to be confused with the Green Party!) because of the seasonal lag in air temperature, the further north you are (e.g. in England) the greater the potential to supplement heating need with solar gain. For example, in the Midlands (where I am), the equivalent day length and maximum sun altitude for the end of September is reached in the spring by March 12th. And whereas we never have the heating on at the end of September, we almost always require heating in mid-March. But, if we design the house to make use of solar gain we won’t actually need any form of heating by mid-March, we get it all from the sun (‘but it’s not always sunny’ – yes, that’s true and that’s been thought of too and there are other ways of significantly reducing heating need even when it’s cloudy in the spring).

            Aside form technical details, the important point for here, is, as JP often notes, the effects of goddamn neoliberalism. Back in 2005/6 there was a plan to make all new houses ‘zero carbon’ by 2016. This would have included redesigning houses to make use of solar gain (and thereby reduce heating need and electricity generation need). But oh no, the house building lobby, the Tories implementing austerity and most importantly the power of neoliberal ideological hegemony ensures that energy efficiency has been reduced to piecemeal measures, if thought about at all.

            I see the denigration of renewables in favour of nuclear as part of that hegemony – it’s not true, it’s what we’ve been taught to think and therein lies one purpose of policy debate …

          3. C MacMackin says:

            I can agree that there may be a use for solar in home heating. Certainly, clever building design can drastically reduce the need for a heating system. That is more or less the limit of my knowledge on that topic, I’m afraid. Mostly people talk about building homes this way–does anyone know how well the principles can be applied to large commercial buildings?

            It may also be worthwhile to use solar thermal panels to help provide hot water, although they would still need to be coupled with an electric hot water tank. I reference this in my second article, to be published today (I think). This article, however, was about ways of producing electricity and I really don’t think solar is a viable way to do that in the UK. If you have references to the contrary I’ll reconsider.

  2. John Penney says:

    An important and interesting article, C. Mack.

    No doubt space considerations precluded you looking in any detail at the issues of both alternatives to the current types of nuclear power stations , which are all originally based around the desire to produce bomb-making plutonium as a key end product, not just electricity. This is partly why the much less dangerous Thorium salt cycle reactors type has never had the research funding it merits. though much promising research, and prototype reactor-building, is now underway across the world:

    Liquid Thorium Reactors
    The liquid fluoride thorium reactor (acronym LFTR; often pronounced lifter) is a type of molten salt reactor. LFTRs use the thorium fuel cycle with a fluoride-based, molten, liquid salt for fuel.

    There is also still that non plluting, eternally abundant, “holy grail” of power generation, promised , but still not delivered , since the late 1940’s : ie

    Fusion Power
    Fusion power is energy generated by nuclear fusion. Fusion reactions fuse two lighter atomic nuclei to form a heavier nucleus. It is a major area of plasma physics research that attempts to harness such reactions as a source of large scale sustainable energy. Fusion reactions are how stars transmute matter into energy.

    And there still is major progress being made with forms of chemical carbon capture which doesn’t involve storing the carbon from coal fired power stations in old oil fields and other vast caverns underground:

    Carbon Capture
    The economics of mineral carbonation at scale are now being tested in a world-first pilot plant project based in Newcastle, Australia. New techniques for mineral activation and reaction have been developed the GreenMag Group and the University of Newcastle and funded by the New South Wales and Australian Governments to be operational by 2013.

    One thing is very clear, the Green Movement’s , almost religious belief that a futurel society can only be sustained on “renewables” alone is pure delusion. The Green view on energy production is too often premised on a much deeper, background reactionary, belief that “industrial society is bad” and we need to have a MUCH smaller global population, in the extreme Green view, returning to subsistence agriculture “to save the planet”. Greens may deny this, but that is the root ideological cause of their unwillingness to even consider massive research into carbon capture and Thorium reactors and fusion power.

    Socialists , in contrast to middle class Greenism, have to embrace sustainability and reducing pollution and Co2 emissions , BUT we have to also completely reject the reactionary Green ideological hostility to material abundance and advanced industrial society. That ideology has nothing to offer the mass of the world’s population – except an acceptance of eternal austerity/rationing . This is why the Green Parties across Europe ALWAYS end up colluding with Austerity, always.

    Socialists need to restate our belief in the as yet hardly tapped genius of our species, but organised as a rational socialist society, to technologically crack the now critical energy production/environmental balance problem, through vast allocation of research resources, and building a society of abundance for all, but massively less waste production, including war materials.

    1. C MacMackin says:

      I agree, I think molten salt reactors will ultimately be the way to go. They definitely deserve research and public backing. However, most people don’t seem to think we’ll be able to use them commercially until the early 2030s. In the meantime, we’ll need to use more conventional designs. My preference would be the CANDU. Admittedly, part of this may be nationalism (it’s a Canadian design), but it has numerous advantages. First, it is arguably the safest of existing reactor designs. Second, it supports online-refuelling which means it spends more of its time producing power. Third, I gather that the more recent iterations are fairly good at turning their power production up and down (unlike most other designs). Most importantly, they have a very flexible fuel cycle (although this is largely untested) which can use, e.g., unenriched uranium, plutonium from decommissioned bombs, thorium, and even waste from other types of reactors with minimal reprocessing. The CANDU 6 is also a well-enough established design that it can be built on time and on budget. The main disadvantage is that it requires very expensive heavy water, which leads to higher construction costs, although these are balanced out by the ability to use cheaper, unenriched uranium.

      Fusion is something which I don’t want to stake my hopes on. I’ve been told by friends involved that the ITER experimental reactor should finally produce a sustainable fusion reaction, but it will still be many years before we’d be able to commercialise it. One of the fundamental problems is that a lot of the energy is carried by neutrons which, because they have no electric charge, are difficult to control and extract it from. Maybe in 50 years we’ll have viable fusion power plants, but until then we shouldn’t plan on it.

      If we could chemically convert CO2 into rock then that would make CCS technology a lot more viable (and would be doing what happens naturally over millions of years). However, we still need to demonstrate that this is possible on an industrial scale. It is also quite energy intensive, reducing the effective output of coal power plants. Given that the economics of CCS compared to nuclear is dubious already, I wouldn’t get my hopes up too much. However, as a technology it still deserves research because we’ll need some way to store the carbon released in the production of steel and cement. It will also be necessary if, globally, negative emissions technology is needed. While it would be best to avoid needing negative emissions to meet our climate goals, that looks increasingly unlikely.

      I largely agree with your assessment of the green “left”.

  3. Richard Hull says:

    This article ignores the fundamental security problem of nuclear power. Both the generating facilities and the nuclear waste require intense security and hence a ‘strong state’. This is needed to guard against people either trying cause an explosion at a generating facility or to steal those types of nuclear waste which can be used to make a ‘dirty bomb’. I suggest reading the superbly balanced and informed book Edited by Dave Elliott, Professor of Technology Policy at the OU, published by Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

    1. C MacMackin says:

      As a socialist, I don’t have a particularly big problem with a “strong state”. We already have effective security at nuclear power plants. It would also be quite difficult to steal the nuclear waste. It is currently kept deep underwater (and getting close to it would kill you in minutes) or in many ton concrete “casks” which require heavy-duty equipment to move. It would take considerable equipment and expertise for potential terrorists to safely formulate the waste into a dirty bomb. Not to say that we shouldn’t guard against such things, but I don’t think this is an unreasonable risk.

      1. John Penney says:

        Yes indeed, C. Mack, This liberal “we can’t have nuclear power because it will justify a strong authoritarian state to safeguard the nuclear material” argument, is one which was very popular in the 1970’s – amongst liberals.

        It is an OK argument for liberal “shrink the state” middle class Green libertarian/anarchist types to posture with. But surely not for socialists ? There is nothing more likely to lay the basis for a social breakdown , and the emergence of a totalitarian state , than the “lights going off” . A currently looming danger , after 30 years of government dithering, because of a Green-created phobia about all possible forms of nuclear power – rooted more in the underlying Green Movement hostility to advanced industrial society per se, than a reasoned hostility to the technology itself. The extreme “neo-Malthusian back to subsistence agrarianism with a tiny global population” section of Environmentalism casts a long, influential, ideological shadow over the wider Green Movement, and sections of the Left too.

        Try arguing with far too many Greens about developing potentially low polluting, safe, cheap, forms of nuclear energy, like Thorium-based reactors, or the long term potential of fusion, and you will quickly realise that they simply don’t want solutions to energy production to be found. Why ? Because this would allow industrial , big global population, human society to continue – on a rational socialist basis of course.

        Unlike far too many Greens, we socialists do not view humanity as little more than a pestilential infection of the planet’s “naturally balanced ecosystem”.

  4. Richard Hull says:

    Oh, the draft somehow leaves out the title of the book – Nuclear Or Not: Does Nuclear Power have a place in a Sustainable Energy Future. I think because I put it into brackets.

  5. Karl Stewart says:

    Excellent article CMac,

    Following on from JohnP’s strong piece on military planning, this further proves the need for intelligent and knowledgeable policy development on serious issues.

    I’ve always been in favour of expanding our nuclear industry and it’s good to read another left-wing position on this.

    France generates almost all of its electricity through nuclear power and they have the cheapest domestic electricity charges in Europe and they’re also a major exporter.

    It’s a clean, reliable, cheap and safe source of electricity – what’s not to like?


    On nuclear waste disposal, I did read a little while ago that there was a method called ‘vitrification’ by which nuclear waste is processed into a glass form, giving it an exceptionally long ‘shelf-life’ – i.e. that it doesn’t physically decay.

    Is this so? And of so, is it widespread?

    1. C MacMackin says:

      Yes, that is right. I believe it is done at Sellafield. Spent fuel consists of three components: unuse uranium (which would need further enrichment to be used again in most reactors), plutonium (often seperated for use in bombs, but which could in principle also be used as fuel in some reactor designs), and fission fragments. The latter is a mixture of a few different elements which are what the uranium has been split into. The uranium is not particularly dangerous, unless you swallow it. Plutonium is nasty stuff which has too long a half-life to decay quickly but a short enough half-life to be highly radioactive. We should look to burn that in nuclear power plants. The fission fragments are very radioactive, but don’t need to be stored as long as the other waste components.

      Reprocessing, which is done in a few countries such as the UK, France, and Japan, splits the waste into these three components. The fission fragments are often then vitrified/turned to glass. The glass does have a fairly long shelf-life, but it still isn’t without problems. As it undergoes radioactive decay, its atoms release particles and energy. However, there is a recoil, pushing the atoms backwards and distorting the crystal structure of the glass. This means that, over time, the glass does break down somewhat.

      I’m afraid that is where my knowledge comes to an end. Vitrification may be a useful step if the waste is then further encased in concrete. Sweden seems to have made the most progress towards waste storage. I don’t think they use reprocessing, so they’d encase the entire mass of waste (plutonium and all) in lead and concrte, surrounded by a steal shell which is welded shut. They then take it 500m underground and place it in a hole surrounded by water-resistant clay. Eventually they’ll seel off the storage facility. There is still debate over whether these sorts of measures are enough to allow “cessation of stewardship”.

  6. C MacMackin says:

    Oh, and before I forget, I need to thank David Pavett for his invaluable help editing this article (and my upcoming ones) and helping to get it published.

  7. Bazza says:

    Yes good comments by all and a total reliance on renewables in the UK may be too optimistic but there is still untapped potential and we do need to address climate change and fossil fuels.
    I was also told solar also works on light but clearly in the UK we lack the sun.
    A few years ago I thought I had an original idea of solar panels in the world’s deserts but apparently it was originally proposed for the Kalahari desert in 1913 by a scientist, it was also predicted that this could provide the World’s energy for a year in 6 hours!
    And one wonders if all US power could be generated by such a huge farm in Death Valley?
    And why can’t the World just cooperate through the UN to collectively to harness the free energy of the sun?
    Why not think big and have a globally publicly owned solar grid?
    Global cooperation, now there’s a thought.
    Climate change effects us all globally.
    You may say I’m a dreamer but perhaps we need to think outside of the box and why not free public transport by country to attract people out of cars.
    Things are getting serious.

    1. John Penney says:

      The problem (well one of the major technical problems anyway), with that popular idea of generating huge amounts of electrical energy from sunlight in areas of the globe where constant bright sunlight is available, like deserts for instance, is the colossal loss of electrical energy (as heat) from the transmission cables required to bridge the huge distances to where the world’s electricity using industry , and cities , are. Superconductive cables could theoretically crack that – but haven’t been invented yet as a workable proposition, and may never be ! Same problem with a lot of very isolated windy sites for windfarms.

      Unpredictable/unreliable wind generated electrical energy is a pretty rubbish way to ensure a major contribution to society’s useful energy supply , and hugely expensive. I bet most current wind farms are long gone by 2030. A Green ideology , politically driven, fad that is a technological dead end.

      And wood pellet burning power stations are simply a subsidy-driven con trick, that actually has no useful impact on CO2 reduction at all ! And has ridiculous transportation costs attached. Private Eye has repeatedly revealed that UK governments have simply ignored conclusive academic research that has shown the entire “green credentials” of wood pellet burning power stations to be bogus.

    2. C MacMackin says:

      John is somewhat over-pessimistic about the potential for solar power in deserts. Using high-voltage direct current (HVDC) cables it could be done, although you’d want to use concentrated solar thermal energy rather than photovoltaic panels. All of this would be very expensive infrastructure and, unless costs come down a lot, nuclear would be cheaper. As you say, if this were to provide all of the world’s energy it would need to be a global system and I don’t see any realistic chance of that happening in time to address climate change.

      The place most often mooted for desert solar energy is northern Africa to power Europe. The problem is that the countries in northern Africa are not the most politically stable. Do you want to be relying on Libya for electricity? (I have the somewhat absurdist image of the US intervening in Libya not to secure the oil but to secure the deserts.)

      Free transit is a very good idea and something I mention in the next instalment.

      John is absolutely right about the wood pellets. Something to remember when people give breathless statistics about renewable energy in Europe is that wood pellets make up the largest portion of that. A certain amount of wind can make sense in countries with lots of hydro capacity, as they can shut the gates of their dams when the wind is blowing to let the head-pond build up for use later. In the integrated Nordic electricity grid this allows Danish wind to partner with Norwegian and Swedish hydro rather effectively. Even in the UK there may be a use for a small amount of wind. Solar panels only makes sense in areas where air conditioning is used, since there electricity demand rises when the sun is shining. The feed-in tariff for them in Britain was an idiotic move which the civil service advised against.

      In addition to being a green fad, I think part of the reason we’ve seen the big emphasis on things like wind and solar here is because they’re easy to deploy in the liberalised, privatised energy systems of Europe. Effective technologies like hydro and nuclear are such big up-front investments that they really need to be done by a monopoly utility (more on this in a later instalment).

    3. C MacMackin says:

      I meant to include this in my previous comment, but forgot. I suspect that ultimately humanity’s main energy source will be space-based solar power. At the moment this is only science fiction and we’re a long way from making it work, but it has enormous promise. Essentially, massive arrays of solar panels would be place in geosynchronous orbit, where they would be in sunlight for something like 50 weeks of the year. They would then transmit this power back to earth using microwaves. It is this technology which is most unproven. Currently, it would cost orders of magnitude too much to launch the satellites. We would need either much cheaper access to space (perhaps using something like the engines being developed by British company Reaction Engines Limited) or highly automated technology able to produce and launch solar panels from the moon. One estimates from the latter suggested that energy could be two orders of magnitude cheaper than today. That seems more than a little optimistic, but the technologies required are things which we’ll want to develop anyway. In 30 or 40 years we might find that this is a real possibility.

      1. Bazza says:

        Space based solar power sounds good but as you say is years away.
        I am a socialist and as you can probably tell am no scientist but I have learnt much from this post and comments.
        I remember joining Labour when I was in my 20’s and when I attended meetings it took me 6 months to have the courage to speak.
        I always remember at one meeting a man came I had never seen before and he suggested free public transport and everyone in the room (including councillors) laughed at him except me, I thought that sounded interesting but to my regret didn’t have the courage to support him – we never saw him again.
        And this is a problem and on the left too, some are wary of trying to dream in case they are laughed at.
        A few years ago I did suggest solar panel farms in the World’s deserts etc. and some countries have taken this on board like China but as I learnt at my last branch meeting such farms have to be big to be viable.
        The tragedy is often the most poverty stricken countries face searing heat and searing poverty and I wondered if the first could be used to help address the second.
        I also saw a report on farmland in a less developed country which had become parched because of increased temperatures and I wondered if solar panels could be used there to power greenhouses to help poor farmers to grow fruit and veg and help poor economies?
        I also wondered if in hot countries electric cars could be fitted with solar roofs to recharge them?
        And solar panels on the roofs of the poor?
        And throw in free laptops so the poor can do massive open on-line courses to try to educate themselves out of poverty.
        I once suggested having some moving roads (like the escalators you use for yourself and your luggage at airports) say for city centres and main routes (people could park and ride) with shelters we get in every hundred yards or so but people just laughed at me.
        I have also learnt much from this post and comments about nuclear and it is right that many of us on the left almost have a gut reaction that it is bad mainly due to the waste which concerns us all.
        I wondered can’t we just put it in rockets and send it to the sun – it is due to burn out in 3 billion years time and this may keep it going (hows that for forward thinking) but then again it might just blow the universe up!
        Agree with the points about Greens.
        Very thoughtful piece and we do need human imagination, things are getting serious.

  8. Steve George says:

    Decent article, but there’s a big gap in the analysis -and I have read and reread the article to make sure I’ve not missed it. The missing piece is tidal power.

    The UK is uniquely placed to use tidal power as a clean, renewable and time fixed source. And no, I don’t have an interest in the technology. I also agree with the basic conclusion that the UK’s future energy generating capacity will have too include nuclear.

    I might be a tad cynical, but the emergence of this piece in the run up to the Copeland by-election, and its strapline (Labour supports nuclear power) does seem a bit fortuitous.

    1. John Penney says:

      There are two more instalments of this article, Steve. Tidal power may well come up in the next two. I hope so, because it could indeed be a significant generator of clean electricity, without the unpredictability of wind.

    2. C MacMackin says:

      I don’t look much at tidal power. I don’t rule it out, but it won’t be able to provide more than a minority of energy needs. If it is cheap then we should still pursue it, but it is unclear whether this is the case. It’s a largely untried technology and the economics aren’t exactly rosy either. Maybe they’d end up being cheaper than nuclear after we build a bunch of them, but the cost of nuclear would also be expected to fall as we develop the technology. I’m not against tidal energy, but I’m not terribly optimistic about it either. No matter what, it won’t change the fact that Britain can’t live on renewables alone.

      As for the upcoming by-election, that is a coincidence. I’ve been working on my pieces on energy policy since January and it’s just now that they’re finally ready. I have no official position within the Labour party and am not involved in any way with the Copeland campaign. Labour already officially supports nuclear power, although not on the scale I’m suggesting. As far as I know, Jeremy Corbyn opposes it (the late Michael Meacher certainly did, as can be seen in the “Related Posts” for this article) and all of Labour’s talk on energy policy wince his election has been about renewables.

      1. Steve George says:

        Thanks for replying, it’s much appreciated. Yes, tidal is in the early stages, but the potential is actually very large. The UK is unusually well endowed with potential tidal energy sources (we are surrounded by many large masses of water that generate very strong tidal flows) that are within relatively close range of where the energy is needed (we are a small densely populated country).

        I absolutely agree that total
        reliance on renewables isn’t a practical prospect – we will need to use all and any energy sources, while trying to reduce fossil fuel burn.

        Labour supports nuclear power? Crikey, you could have fooled me. How can it do that if the leader opposes it?

        Once again, thanks for taking the discussion along.

        1. C MacMackin says:

          The leader opposes nuclear weapons and yet the party still supports renewal of Trident. Party policy doesn’t change overnight. During the last election I remember Miliband making some positive comments about nuclear and some niche part of the industry where Britain has some expertise.

          I may have been a bit harsh on tidal to be honest. It might be able to contribute a significant minority of the energy supply, but that remains to be seen. If the lagoons can be made to work then that would be very useful as they can be paired together to provide on-demand power and effective storage. Even if no intermittent renewables are used, nuclear works best when production is fairly level, so having a storage mechanism is helpful for addressing peak demand. I’m somewhat dubious about tidal barrages because, even though the energy is predictable, it isn’t controllable. I’d think that tidal farms on the ocean floor would be too expensive and difficult to maintain, but don’t have a reference for that. One issue for all forms of tidal power is that ocean water is much worse for corrosion than fresh water.

          1. Steve George says:

            Thanks once again – nice to have a polite exchange! I would gently suggest that your piece would benefit from a closer look at tidal energy potential for the UK. I do have friends working in this area, and there are some fairly impressive potential figures being handed around. Of course, time will tell. Again, I have no stake in the issue. I’m just an interested engineer.

            Your point about pairing lagoons is an excellent one – tidal power is one of the few renewable options that allows storage and timing of energy release. Tidal barrage output is, in fact, controllable – water can be discharged through a selected number of turbines, or through plain exit gates.

            On sea water and corrosion – yes, sea water poses a problem – but the UK has world beating expertise in building and operating complex machinery underwater, thanks to our North Sea experience. It’s an engineering challenge, and not an especially complex one.

            I hope these exchanges help inform other readers on some of the aspects.

            On Labour Party politics, I’ll leave that to experts – I’m not one. However, I would find it hard to be convinced that a party led by Corbyn could ever be really committed to nuclear power. I’m just watching a piece on BBC News that shows others are sceptical. We’ll see.

  9. Giles Wynne says:

    Bashing Arthur Scargill, personally, isn’t going to impress those who supported “clean” coal, not only a source of energy, but a product that has many other uses. I remind the writer that we import vast quantities of coal to keep today’s fires and furnaces burning.
    We have the opportunity to exploit many forms of energy, some like wind power, that are far more expensive than others to harness and though we have plenty of wind, we also have inexhaustible quantities of coal. Renewable in the form of wind water and nuclear are important but what is more important is the waste of energy and closing the coal industry was a waste of resources, just as waste in homes and industry is, by poor utilization.

    1. David Pavett says:

      I don’t think criticising Arthur Scargill is meant to impress. Rather, it was to illustrate a head in the sand attitude which the left should not support.

      It is true that coal is still an important, though declining, part of our energy mix (around 29% I believe) and that most of it is imported (mostly from Russia and Columbia). But I think the point if the article was to argue the need for non-carbon based energy production.

      Also, we should not be mislead by the phrase ‘clean coal’. It would be better to speak of ‘cleaner coal’ since all of the technologies for this still leave significant harmful emissions. In addition they are expensive.

      1. C MacMackin says:

        Just to clarify your 29% statistic compared to my 1.3%, yours includes use for electricity generation (although I think it’s a bit high–quick googling suggests it’s closer to 20%). This can and should be replaced. My number was only for uses other than electricity generation, such as in blast furnaces, and much of this is harder to replace.

    2. C MacMackin says:

      I don’t have an issue with using coal as, e.g., a chemical feedstock. However, that will require far less coal than if we were burning it. We’ll also need it for steel production but, again, this would not be very much; coal today makes up only 1.3% of final energy consumption (table 1.02). We do not have inexhaustible quantities of coal, any more than there are inexhaustible quantities of iron, uranium, gold, or any other material. Obviously I disagree with how Thatcher closed the coal industry, but that doesn’t change the fact that eventually it would have needed to be largely wound down for environmental reasons.

  10. John Walsh says:

    CM, great to see your effort to help enhance policy debate. I’m a little surprised, however, that your discussion is couched largely in relation to the production of energy with only passing reference to why fossil fuels are a problem and little mention of consumption.

    For example, and to refer to one of your sources (David MacKay), in pre-austerity days when people talked about zero carbon homes it was thought that as part of the wider picture we could aim to significantly reduce energy consumption and that this reduction would be part of formulating production policy. Is this something you plan to discuss in parts 2 and 3?

    Also, for a PhD student (from memory?) can I suggest that some of your references could be thought less than solid? For example, central to your argument is that renewables cannot provide enough electricity. It follows that the amount of electricity consumed per annum is central. However, your quote that consumption is around “50-60 gigawatt peak power” is from a very short article about falling demand for electricity. Secondly, your claim that “others have suggested that [geothermal] is an impractical power source” is, as far as I can see, from a book that promotes the use of underground solar thermal storage and ground source heat pumps, while also questioning geothermal mining. As such, the book provides a nuanced account of geothermal. Thirdly, your claim that “solar panels are massively unfit as an energy source” references an article about the introduction of extortionate feed-in-tariffs, that they amounted to a regressive tax (i.e. I’m not sure that Monbiot is useful as a reference for whether or not solar PV is viable, never mind the “massively unfit” claim).

    Hope that helps and looking forward to parts 2 and 3.

    1. C MacMackin says:

      Issues of consumption are addressed in the second article in this series. This is particularly relevant for energy consumed in heating and transport. I had to break things up somehow.

      On the topic of peak electricity consumption, that number is in line with government statistics: Peak demand probably has fallen somewhat since that article, but it gives a rough idea of how much is needed right now. Note that electricity demand will grow as heat and transport are electrified.

      When I referred to geothermal I did specifically mean “geothermal mining”. Underground storage of solar thermal energy isn’t an energy source. It’s a somewhat pedantic point, but heat pumps aren’t really a source of geothermal energy either–they’re extracting heat that the ground has absorbed from the sun, not from the center of the Earth. I believe MacKay makes this distinction in his book. I discuss heat pumps in the next installment and think that they do have an important role to play, but they are not an electricity source.

      On the issue of solar panels, there were two particular bits of the Monbiot article which were relevant:

      The government wants everyone to get the same rate of return. So while the electricity you might generate from large wind turbines and hydro plants will earn you 4.5p per kilowatt hour, mini wind turbines get 34p, and solar panels 41p. In other words, the government acknowledges that micro wind and solar PV in the UK are between seven and nine times less cost-effective than the alternatives.

      Solar PV is a great technology – if you live in southern California. But the further from the equator you travel, the less sense it makes. It’s not just that the amount of power PV panels produce at this latitude is risible, they also produce it at the wrong time. In hot countries, where air conditioning guzzles electricity, peak demand coincides with peak solar radiation. In the UK, peak demand takes place between 5pm and 7pm on winter evenings. Do I need to spell out the implications?

      I would say that makes them “massively unfit”. The latter point is clearly true from publicly available data.

      Not meaning to get too defensive, but this is amongst the most heavily referenced articles on Left Futures. See, for example, Michael Meachers articles opposing nuclear power. I do not have the time to reconstruct all of the figures and results from raw energy data, so I have at times had to rely on others, including amateurs, to do so. Where that is the case I have tried to ensure that they have cited good sources.

      1. John Walsh says:

        … to be frank, you can quote social-political commentator George Monbiot until the cows come home but it still won’t make him a reliable source on the issue of the viability of solar PV when – and here’s the crux – when we’re spending time on here trying to develop viable policy resources.

        Even worse, when you’re quoting Brian L. Wang, M.B.A. – “a long time futurist. A lecturer at the Singularity University and author” – on the issue of nuclear safety, well, this is starting to look like ‘google research’. David P, I’m surprised you didn’t see this.

      2. C MacMackin says:

        Monbiot’s claim about the differences between solar supply and electricity demand are backed up by National Grid data. You can make a quick graph to check if you like. Keep in mind that seasonal swings in demand will get worse as heating is electrified (I’m not sure how much, but I’d estimate on the order of 20%). I thought people would find it easier to comprehend an article written for a general audience than a massive CSV file.

        The post I cite for deaths per terrawatt-hour from nuclear has results similar to those available elsewhere. If you have a particular problem with the methodology of the back-of-the-envelope calculation I originally cited then I am happy to hear it and will request to have my article ammended accordingly.

      3. C MacMackin says:

        Also, I don’t claim that this document is enough on its own to become a party policy statement, let alone a white paper. Far from it. That would need someone with considerably more time and expertise than available to me. I am a physicist studying the evolution of ice shelves, not an energy analyst. In a later article I explicitely say that I consider the exact energy mix to be a technical question which will require expert attention. I am trying to lay out the issues as I understand them.

        1. prianikoff says:

          The baby hippo in the pool re.nuclear is the Moorside development in Cumbria.

          This will create quite a splash due to the forthcoming Copeland by-election.
          In the past week Toshiba, which owns 60% of NuGen, the consortium planning three new nuclear reactors at Moorside, has indicated it wants to sell its stake.
          This may just be a tug of war over the strike price, as May’s government has said it wants to offer 20% than what was offered to EDF at Hinckley.
          But if Toshiba pull out, the whole scheme could be up in the air.

          Labour could be making more of this in the run-up to the by-election.
          Not by a knee-jerk defence of nuclear power, but by defending the jobs and pensions of all workers in the area, including those at Sellafield.

          An integrated energy policy would anticipate such economic turbulence & in the case of the N.W, there are a whole number of possible renewable schemes which could be provided with government investment and generate jobs e.g. the Solway barrage; the Morecambe bay tidal lagoon;
          barrages on the Duddon, Ribble, Dee and Mersey estuaries.

          These are not just abstract questions, but attract real interest in the local press.
          Nuke fundamentalists, particularly those favouring non-existent technologies, just don’t connect with this body of opinion.

          1. prianikoff says:

            “May’s government has said it wants to offer 20%..”

            20% less, that is

  11. Karl Stewart says:

    We’ve had two excellent policy articles. This one from CMack and the previous one from JohnP. Thanks to them both, and also thanks to DavidP for his editing assistance on each piece.

    This is exactly the kind of detailed draft proposals that any party seeking election as government needs to be setting out.

    Couple of questions:

    Have you guys had any feedback from people higher up in the representative structures of the party? Such as members of the NEC for example? Or Shadow spokespersons?

    And are there plans to push these proposals through the Labour Party’s formal process in any way?

    1. John Penney says:

      No response whatsoever, Karl. And no contribution to the discussion around the article from anyone on the NPF Defence Policy Commission, or reps of the Corbyn/McDonnell circle . Same story on the two articles I put on Left Futures on the need for a comprehensive Left Economic Strategy and Programme.

      I put both the Economic proposals on the NPF site, and although some , much more limited in scope, proposals by other contributors to the NPF got some (brief , and rather patronising ) – responses from the likes of Ann Black, there were no responses from the NPF Economy Commission on the Economy to my submissions.

      The only conclusion one can draw is that the entire current NPF process is a PR exercise, and the NPF process is fully intended by its Labour Right majority to develop and adopt NO new policies relating to the “Corbyn Surge” .

      Since obviously the existing neoliberal “policy bundle” served Labour so well in the last two General Elections, and in Scotland particularly !

  12. Rob Green says:

    Any nation that is prepared to take the risk however small of rendering huge swathes of its territory uninhabitable for centuries by building nuclear power plants deserves to perish.

    1. Karl Stewart says:

      …DavidE, I’d suggest that anyone who chooses such as dull pseudonym as “Rob Green” when there are so many more creative and imaginative monikers to choose from deserves to be ignored…

      1. Rob Green says:

        Then ignore me.

        1. Karl Stewart says:

          I’m just curious why you use that pseudonym David?

          1. Rob Green says:

            Because I’m blocked for criticising Israel.

  13. Mervyn Hyde says:

    John Penney, Not wishing to put too fine a point on it, you do rather take an autocratic approach to debate, it does go without saying that Germany took fright after the Tsunami in Japan and stopped all new development on Nuclear power. Some would say for good reason.

    In order to put some perspective on my thinking, when I was at college we discussed the amount of losses in the distribution networks from the power station to the consumer. It has always been consideration of mine to place the power plant as closely to the end user as possible in order to minimise those factors. That needs people to start thinking about new methods of producing electricity, at the moment there is not enough government inspired research in those areas, specifically because of vested interests.

    I have an open mind and am willing to explore any idea that I feel could be possible, but that means investing in the kind of research that perhaps people like yourself would put on the fringes of eccentricity, such as magnawork which could generate electricity directly into a house. It’s been said that these technologies have been suppressed whilst people like yourself readily call them cranks, without checking whether they are or not. ( News items have recorded these only to find no follow up on the results of these activities. I well remember in the early 1970s “Tomorrows world” put water in a petrol tank of a mini and talked about a black box converting the water into fuel, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out what was happening, but it was never heard of again, but we did witness it working, whatever happened to ZAM the wonder metal that was non corrosive?)

    There are a myriad of ways of producing free energy power, every water course has this potential, solar power could be used to convert water into hydrogen, we could have power plants all along the coastline, converting sea water into hydrogen gas to act as fuel for combustion engine generators. Note all safe technologies.

    This document explains how losses occur in the distribution network equalling 40%, in short the resistance in the cables consume 40% of the actual output of power stations.

    Scroll down to item 4.3 and 4.3.1 in this document to get the full explanation of the losses through cables.

    1. C MacMackin says:

      Germany does not experience tsunamis. Melting glaciers could potentially alter the Earth’s seismic behaviour, but we’re talking time-scales of hundreds of years, well beyond the life-time of a nuclear power plant. In any case, almost all of Germany’s reactors are inland.

      If you look at the executive summary of that report you cite, you will see that losses are about 5%. The only reference to 40% is the increase in resistance of wires when the temperature goes from 0 to 100 degrees Celsius. Those are fairly small losses and savings from putting production close to the user have to be weighed against economies of scale which are lost. (Incidentally, the whole “local energy” thing on the green left seems to be in contradition to the “European super-grid” which gets trotted out as a way to smooth over times when the wind is not blowing. Just a general observation–you didn’t make that argument yourself.)

      Hydrogen is an energy storage mechanism, not a fuel, because any method of producing hydrogen will require more energy than could be extracted from the output. This is fundamental thermodynamics. So, how do you propose that we power these hydrogen facilities along the coast? How do you propose that we store hydrogen? It is extremely bulky in its gas form, while storing it as a liquid or solid brings difficulties and dangers associated with extremely low temperatures. It is also not completely safe, any more than gas is completely safe. In fact, just the other day there was a gas explosion near where I live which destroyed a block of flats and caused fires in others. The same could happen with hydrogen.

      Water can not fuel a car, no matter what catalyst you throw at it. A chemical reaction between water and air would only ever be able to absorb energy, not release it. About the only way you can get energy out of water is to dip sodium (or another element in that column of the periodic table) in it and harness the result explosion. Of course, producing pure sodium will also take an awful lot of energy… Perhaps the reason you never heard anything more about that news story was not that it was supressed by vested interests but because the inventors were con artists?

      1. Mervyn Hyde says:

        Hello Mac, firstly I made no reference Germany suffering from a Tsunami. German people have been anti nuclear for a very long time, culminating with protests against it after the Japanese Tsunami. The German Government then called a halt on further development of Nuclear power. It also appears to me that pressure outside Germany was mounting to get them to reverse their decisions, whether rightly or wrongly because of the example they were setting for the rest. We mustn’t be anti nuclear must we?

        Whilst I mentioned one method of using power from Solar Panels to convert water into hydrogen, that did not mean there are not other ways of doing it,

        The article explains all you need to know about reusing it as a fuel.

        Power Loss.

        As I read the section referred accurately to the fact that in peak times such as winter weather, demand increases the demand for more current, as demand increases the load in the cable increases which increases the resistance, with that resistance you get an increase in temperature in the cable.

        The final paragraphs state this:

        As copper or aluminium heats up, its resistance to the electrical current flow increases, causing more energy to be lost. The increase in resistance between 0 and a 100celcius is just over 40%. The increase in temperature can occur as a result of the heating affect of the current flowing through the cable as well as the climatic conditions.

        The losses are related to the square of the current so are more significant at times of peak load, when most current is flowing through the cable as weather conditions. For this reason the distributors publish higher loss factors for times at which demand is typically higher – e.g. winter afternoons.

        Last paragraph:

        As the losses in the cable are dependant on load, these are called variable losses and represent two-thirds of total technical losses.

        So in short as the load in the cable increases (high demand) so the temperature in the cable increases, and the temperature rises in the cable so the resistance to current flow increases,

        (The losses equate to the square of the current.)

        I^2 . R

        Current in cables or electronic equipment flows easier the cooler it is, so you would think that in winter conditions the cable would be cooler and therefore improve current flow, but as we see, the load on the cable is working at peak demand therefore more current and resistance in the cable, Square the outcome and you get more heat, more heat more resistance.

        This paper may throw more light on the problems of power distribution:

        Distribution Sector considered as the weakest link in the entire power sector. Transmission Losses is approximate 17% while Distribution Losses is approximate 50%.

        1. John Walsh says:

          This issue of power losses over the grid, for me, provides a clear example of a fundamental problem with writing this energy policy article. Namely, the reliability of what is being stated given the use of and faith given to what could be questionable references.

          For example, MH raises the issue of power losses and provides a link to an OFGEM document written by consultants for the purpose of helping OFGEM understand power losses in relation to “the loss incentive in the (current) price control formula”. Now, when evaluating the credibility/ reliability /validity of this resource alarm bells should be ringing given that OFGEM are deliberately a very weak body relative to the ‘big 6’. MH refers to the small print which suggests there’s more to power losses than the report is acknowledging and this is then countered by reference to the Executive Summary. MH then references a trade body paper which provides a very different picture to that provided for OFGEM. And so on – the issue becomes murkier not clearer.

          The point being that there is a fundamental problem with writing these articles when they are based on internet research rather than either ‘experience’ in the area or, for example, recognised knowledge production methods such as rigorous research. In essence, if the validity of the article is based on how well internet resources have been validated this is an as yet unrecognised method of knowledge production – an issue with epistemology – which will provide a very good reason for such articles to be dismissed by the (already reluctant) Party.

        2. John Penney says:

          I raise this fundamental issue about huge power losses from long distance cables many comments ago: ie,

          “The problem (well one of the major technical problems anyway), with that popular idea of generating huge amounts of electrical energy from sunlight in areas of the globe where constant bright sunlight is available, like deserts for instance, is the colossal loss of electrical energy (as heat) from the transmission cables required to bridge the huge distances to where the world’s electricity using industry and cities are.”

          C.Mack replied:

          “John is somewhat over-pessimistic about the potential for solar power in deserts. Using high-voltage direct current (HVDC) cables it could be done”

          I didn’t respond then, because I simply don’t have the technical knowledge about these “Direct Current HDV cables”. But my understanding has always been that the huge power loss from long cables (including from our current National Grid vis a vis isolated wind farms, and normal grid operations) , makes all this “build huge solar power arrays in the world’s deserts” stuff, completely non-viable.

          1. prianikoff says:

            It’s not a problem;
            HVDC (High voltage direct current) is a mature technology.
            It’s particularly suitable for long distance connections and thus connecting renewable power to the grid.
            Until now it’s mainly used for connecting hydroelectric stations to end users, but is also suitable for undersea cables.

            eg. The Rio Madeira transmission link in Brazil, at 2,385km, is the world’s longest power transmission line, capable of transmitting 7.1GW of power.
            It exports electricity from the Madeira River in north-west Brazil to major load centres in the south-east.

            There are also HVDC lines of over 1500km in China, the Congo and India.
            China has built 7 Ultra HV transmission lines of over 1,000 km in the past seven years.

            AC has problems in connecting unsynchronised sources and high voltages and experiences losses short circuits and corona losses.

            Unlike an AC transmission line, the voltage and current on a direct current (DC) transmission line are not time varying. DC electricity is the constant, zero-frequency movement of electrons from an area of negative (-) charge to an area of positive (+) charge.

            In fact the first electrical power lines built by Edison were DC, but at the time AC had more advantages. With better DC-AC conversion today, that is no longer the case.

            There are technical problems, but most of these have been overcome with new electronics.
            Siemens produces a range of HVDC solutions for power transmission.

          2. John Penney says:

            This “long power cable loss issue” seems quite fundamental. John Walsh and Mervyn Hyde seem to think it is still a massive problem. Is it simply a matter of the cost of installing a new HVDC cable infrastructure ? If so why doesn’t the UK National Grid now use HVDC, given the huge power losses incurred by the existing set-up over the grid ?

          3. C MacMackin says:

            I think the reason that the national grid doesn’t doe this is that the power losses aren’t actually that large. High voltage AC is also pretty efficient. A big reason why we use AC today is because transformers allow us to easily step the voltage up for efficient transmission and down for safe consumption, which was not possible for DC when the grids were first being built. Today we have solid-state electronics which could do this for DC, but the cost of switching is too big to be worth it. HVDC is only useful for longer-distances where the cost of the equipment to convert between AC and DC is made up for by the fact that DC lines are cheaper and more efficient. As such, HVDC is already used for some inter-connections, especially under-water ones to connect hydroelectric dams in northern Manitoba to the population in the south.

          4. C MacMackin says:

            Sorry, the last sentence should read “As such, HVDC is already used for some inter-connections, especially under-water ones, and, e.g., to connect hydroelectric dams in northern Manitoba to the population in the south.”

  14. C MacMackin says:

    A response of mine is held up in moderation due to the number of links it contains. here it is without the links:

    My point was that the events at Fukushima were not a good reason on their own for Germany’s moratorium. They did not demonstrate any risk from Germany’s nuclear power plants beyond what was already known to be the case. If it was felt that they could operate safely before Fukushima, then there was no reason to shut them down afterwords. The, as you say, existing anti-nuclear movement used the fear of Fukushima to push their agenda. The reason the nuclear power plants were shut down at that time was due to irrational political pressure, rather than a dispassionate consideration of the facts.

    You still need to get enough energy from solar panels to produce the hydrogen. The research you mention may well be useful, but it doesn’t change that fact. It also doesn’t address the storage issue; in the research paper they say “Because of the high molecular weight of H4[SiW12O40], it does not constitute an especially
    effective static storage medium for H2 (or H2 equivalents)”. It remains to be seen whether this is a technique which can scale. When it comes to things like solar panels, batteries, and hydrogen, there are constant “breakthroughs” which ultimately turn out to be useless or only provide incremental improvements. Producing hydrogen also involves energy losses, as does using it in fuel cells. These losses are substantially larger than transmission losses.

    The parts quoted from the Ofgem report are an accurate description of the physics of electrical resistance. Yes, losses are higher at times of peak demand. It does not then follow that the findings are wrong. The other link you provide gives those numbers without any context. It says that technical losses (i.e. inefficiencies) are 22.5%. This is much less than the 50% distribution loss cited earlier, which is a total and thus includes non-technical losses (e.g. mis-read meters and theft). 22.5% is far higher than world average in the data presented by the world bank (sourced from the International Energy Agency). However, it is about the same as reported losses in India. Given that the writer of this article is Indian, it would guess that his statistics come from there. For Britain, the world-bank data shows losses of about 8% (this would include transmission losses, hence the slightly higher number than the OFGEM report which just included distribution), while for the United States it shows about 6% (the US government estimates 5%).

    I have limited knowledge about the technical viability of HVDC myself. Some people seem to be taking it seriously, although a few others question it. As such, solar in deserts may be technically feasible, albeit expensive. I don’t think it’s a good choice for Europe for security reasons.

    If there are any Left Futures readers in the energy industry who would like to write an article, I would be very happy to hear their contribution. No one had done so, and as I know more-than-average about energy (but am by no means an expert) I thought I would offer what information I could. Much the same could be said for John Penny’s article on defence.

    1. prianikoff says:

      AC isn’t suitable for transmission lines of 80 km or longer, due to power losses.

      The Anglo-French HVDC connector has been running since the 1960’s.

      The BRITNED HVDC submarine cable, linking the Isle of Grain to Rotterdam has been operational since 2011.

      These are just small steps towards a European super-grid.
      Potentially, this could link together Iceland’s Geothermal energy, French Nuclear power, UK wind farms and Spanish and North African Solar energy.

      This shows how the productive forces have outgrown national boundaries.
      But the implementation of a European supergird is probably beyond the powers of the EU, which is less than the sum of its parts.

      The capitalist corporations driving its economy don’t really “do” international planning.
      They do opportunist takeovers, as in the case of Peugeout-Vauxhall!

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