Dick Philbrick, Vice President IES explores energy questions

In the 2020 edition of the IES Journal Keith Burns writes persuasively about ‘a new era for nuclear power’ and Maurice Barr writes very eloquently on the theme of ‘Best is the enemy of Better.’

Keith digresses with an interesting anecdote on the ‘chippie’ who benefitted from selling shark under the name rock salmon. Perhaps MIT are using the same sleight of pen when they announce ‘Nuclear Batteries’ as their concept for low carbon energy. These are micro nuclear reactors (battery sounds better!) in a container. The  report from MIT explains they would be built complete in a factory and shipped ready for site installation; then returned to the factory for refuelling after X years. They are another ‘little idea’, like the small nuclear reactors being developed by Rolls Royce, in a scattered mosaic of alternative ways of producing cleaner energy. A number of professors have allowed their names to be associated with the development, and Westinghouse ‘might’ have a prototype ready for testing in three years. My concern is there is nobody shouting a grand well-engineered plan from the rooftops; just a lot of little initiatives, as IES has been saying for 10 years.

Geothermal Engineering Ltd are drilling 5.1 kms down in Cornwall with each of 4 sites producing sufficient geothermal energy for about 10,000 homes. The Eden Project is in on the act too, and started drilling 4.5 kms down a few weeks ago. Gravitricity are testing plans in Leith to allow immense weights to ‘fall’ hundreds of metres down existing mine shafts, which might provide a quick release of power for frequency maintenance. Fluence have gained Department of Business Energy and Industrial Strategy support to build a 640 MWh lithium battery storage project on the Thames estuary. BP has proposed a hydrogen generation project on Teeside to produce 1GW of blue hydrogen by 2030. We have a few pumped energy storage sites and it is believed we cannot add additional ones. There are many other ‘little’ initiatives but no equivalent of J F Kennedy’s getting to the moon demand of 1960.

I have learned from our impressively consistent Energy Strategy Group of the limitations of wind and solar, without equivalent massive storage for when the wind and sun cannot provide. They have also explained the problems of maintaining energy supplies when high inertia coal fired turbines are removed. Their recommendation is that we need a serious plan and maybe nuclear is an element of the plan. And this is where I believe I may be guilty of seeking Best and not Better.

For me there is a certain selfishness in being prepared to hand the problem of disposal of nuclear waste to future generations; I find the concept of geological stability with seismic activity from below (and even meteorites and terrorists from above), difficult to accept. The total lifetime costs for nuclear, including decommissioning, are still unknown. Our ability, whether in Britain or in Finland, to build nuclear plants to even within a few years of target date is not established. Hinkley C is scheduled to start 18 years since the first announcement with a strike price of £92.50/MW at 2012 with inflation increases permitted throughout the period of power generation. Wind energy is already offered at half this cost if unsolved storage costs are ignored. I would like to avoid more nuclear if it is possible – that would be Better and Best. Many areas have been badly polluted and left a trail of toxic industrial waste. Ravenscraig steelworks took 4 years and £40 m to clean, but now boasts 1000 houses, a pub and hotel. It is judged that people may live there safely despite the pollution of the past – that is much more difficult where there has been a nuclear incident. Non- radioactive pollution appears to be easier to clear up. What can we do?

Maybe, as so often is the case, we should learn from Germany. Their government has announced an €8 billion support for hydrogen development which equates to an average of €130 million for each of the 62 EU supported projects in Germany, with the ambition, according to the economy minister, “…… to become number one in the world when it comes to hydrogen technologies.” That is large scale backing and no doubt with future export potential in mind. Maybe that is provoked by the decision to abolish nuclear power in Germany, but it is the scale and the determination to produce a new technology, where Germany aims to be the leader, that impresses.

We have tried and honourably failed with wave power. There was considerable fanfare when Orbital launched their latest tidal generator in April 2021, but despite their enviable publicity skills, a strange silence since. Even if successful, wave and tidal power would never have been ‘large scale’.

Perhaps most disturbing of all we don’t have any wide, well informed debate which might generate sensible pressures for government action. The market does not yet appear to be producing a ‘large scale’ response in Britain. This is anecdotal but I have asked a number of very well informed, politically active friends, what they see as the main problem for wind energy and not one has suggested that ‘large scale’ storage technology remains unsolved. The ignorance is staggering and maybe explains the lack of agitation for action. The UK government has announced £92 million support for energy storage development. Will that be sufficient to attract innovative brainpower away from the glamour and distractions of self driving vehicles and going to Mars – it is barely 1% of the German total.

We now have significant power generated from wind, but have ‘missed the bus’ in terms of large scale manufacture of those windmills, apart from the enormous blades; how can we seize the chance to crack the energy storage problem, become the world leader and export the technology. Lack of storage is the achilles heel of the wind energy sector; there is a clear problem to be solved. Decarbonising our economy is more important than the glitzy distractions of driverless vehicles and Mars.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of IES.

Posted in Opinion, News & Environment and Sustainability

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