Published as a podcast at susbiz.biz on Friday 6th May
This is Anthony Day and this is the Sustainable Futures Report for Friday 6th May. Let me start with a welcome to all new listeners. April saw the largest monthly download rate ever - up 26% on March. There are listeners all over the world, with most in the UK, the US and Canada. Welcome. And do let me have your comments ideas and suggestions for future episodes. I’m at firstname.lastname@example.org
This week the world continues to change. How will it affect you, your business and our sustainable future?
The oil price is up - and down; the £ is down. Temperatures are up in Canada to record levels for May and wildfires have broken out in Alberta, leading to the evacuation of some 80,000 residents from the town of Fort MacMurray.
In Nevada the train goes up, the train goes down. It’s called advanced rail energy storage.
Solar Impulse 2, the electric aeroplane, flew up from Mountain View, California, at dawn last Monday and came down 16 hours later to land in Goodyear, a suburb of Phoenix, Arizona, exactly as planned.
Smart meters for all by 2020, but not if Stop Smart Meters can help it. They think they know what the energy companies are up to. And they won’t bring bills down.
That’s enough up and down. Also in this episode,
Would Brexit damage the environment? Britain Stronger in Europe, the body leading the Remain campaign presents 10 green reasons for staying in.
Sir David Mackay, author of SEWTHA, died last month aged only 48. The energy debate continues.
But first, Hinkley C, the planned nuclear power station which is the cornerstone of the UK government’s energy policy, is in the news again. And it’s not good news.
Just to recap, Hinkley C is a new nuclear power station which will have two European Pressurised Reactors (EPR) and produce about 7% of the UK’s electricity. Earlier this year saw the resignation of the finance director of EDF, the French company which will build the station. He was concerned that the financial cost, some £18bn, would be too great a risk for the company to bear. The British government has already persuaded the Chinese government to invest 30% of the cost, but EDF has not been able to raise the balance of the finance needed. The contract has therefore not yet been signed. Cornered by a parliamentary committee last month, the chief executive of EDF agreed that the commitment would be made before 15th May. That’s next week. Energy minister Amber Rudd has also expressed her confidence that the plant will go ahead.
Apart from financing, the project is facing technical problems. The EPR is a new reactor design. There are stations using this technology currently under construction in Finland and at Flamanville in Northern France. Both projects are vastly over budget and years behind schedule. At Flamanville the Nuclear Inspectorate has raised doubts about the quality and strength of the main castings. Testing will continue before a final decision is reached towards the end of this year.
Production of these components was carried out by specialist manufacturer Areva, itself in financial difficulties and likely to be taken over by EDF. Latest news from Reuters is that Areva have said some reports on manufacturing and quality control may have been falsified at its Creusot factory - which supplies the nuclear market with large forgings and castings including the reactor vessel for Flamanville. If the Nuclear Inspectorate decides that the Flamanville reactor vessel must be replaced, part of the building will need to be demolished to get the components in and out. That will probably be the least of EDF’s worries. If these components are rejected the credibility of the EPR, or at least the credibility of the ability of EDF and Areva to deliver it, will be destroyed. Given that this is a real possibility, it is worrying that the British government is pushing ahead with the same technology and the same contractors at Hinkley C, before the outcome of the testing is known.
Will the lights go out if we don’t build Hinkley C? Well even if construction started tomorrow, the station would not start producing power before 2025 at the earliest. It can’t solve any supply problems arising between now and then. The National Grid will issue its annual Winter Outlook Report in the next few weeks, and we’ll look at the problem again then.
Sir David Mackay, a former chief scientific advisor to the Dept of Energy and Climate Change, died recently at the early age of 48. Sir David was a distinguished academic, Fellow of the Royal Society, Cambridge physicist, mathematician, statistician, digital communications expert and author of “Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air” (SEWTHA). This book is a detailed analysis of every component of energy use - heating, lighting, cooking, transport and all the other categories - and every possible source of energy, from nuclear to wave power and oil to anaerobic digestion. His conclusion was that renewables could deliver most, but not all of the energy we required. Many people were disappointed to hear him say in his final interview that since different solutions would be needed for different countries the UK should abandon renewables and concentrate solely on nuclear and fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage (CCS). In fact he went so far as to say that the idea of powering the UK from renewables was an “appalling delusion”.
It’s very difficult to argue with someone of such eminence, but several people have said they hope he’s wrong. Given that the government has withdrawn its support for CCS and the nuclear industry is clearly facing problems, maybe a rethink is in order.
Of course, one objection constantly raised against renewable energy is that it’s unpredictable. Sometimes the sun doesn't shine, sometimes the wind drops, sometimes for days or even weeks at a time. The answer is energy storage. Batteries are big and expensive, although technical developments are improving both of these factors. Pump storage schemes, where water is slowly pumped up Into hilltop reservoirs and then rapidly released through turbines to meet short-term peaks in electricity demand, are major and expensive civil engineering works. They need large areas of land including suitable lakes and hills.
The train goes up...
From the United States we now have ARES, advanced rail energy storage.
This involves motorised trucks laden with concrete blocks travelling up and down a railway line with an 8 degree incline. This translates to about 1 in 7, which, by the way, is considerably steeper than a normal railway. When there is surplus electricity in the grid the trucks are powered to the top of the line. When there’s a shortage, gravity brings the trucks down the line and the electric motors turn into generators, feeding electricity back into the grid.
The US Bureau of Land Management has given its approval for the first commercial scale installation which will use a line rising 1,000 metres in South Nevada. It will have a capacity of 12.5MWh. ARES claims its "fast response technology bridges the power gap between smaller battery and flywheel installations and far larger pumped storage hydro -- at a lower life-cycle cost than batteries, a higher energy-to-power ratio than flywheels, and a greater efficiency and far faster ramp-rate than pumped storage." It also claims that the efficiency is about 85%, and the system can be easily scaled to be much smaller or even bigger than a pump storage scheme and everything about the technology is standard railway equipment.
I've complained before that the energy debate is mainly about supply; rarely about demand. Enter the Smart meter. The government plans that every domestic consumer will have a smart meter by 2020, and roll-out will begin later this year. The advantage of the smart meter is that it transmits usage data directly to the energy supplier, so there’s no need for anyone to come to the house to read the meter and there should be no more estimated bills. It also provides realtime cost and usage data to the consumer. There’s potentially a lot more to it than that, and while the extra facilities on a smart meter could have several advantages there’s a pressure group called Stop Smart Meters (SSM) which sees them as part of mass surveillance and the march of Big Brother.
Smart meters will be installed by your energy supplier and there will be no cost to you, the consumer. At least no direct cost: the cost will of course be recovered over time through your bill. You have a legal right to refuse a smart meter, although once you’ve had one installed you cannot have it taken out. The system will consist of an electricity meter and a gas meter linked wirelessly to a communications hub using a dedicated home area wifi network (HAN). An in-home display, allowing the consumer to see how much energy is being used and how much it is costing, will also be provided. Users can link to the HAN to capture the data and carry out their own analysis. The communications hub will link to a national network to send billing data to the energy suppliers, and it can also link to smart appliances, presumably to turn them off for a brief period at times of high demand.
It’s this sort of intervention that concerns the Stop Smart Meters campaign. They believe that smart meters are being introduced solely to increase the profits of the energy companies. They foresee that different rates could be charged for energy at different times of day, according to demand. This is already how industrial customers are billed. They are concerned that the cheapest energy will be available at night, encouraging people to run washing machines and dishwashers while they are asleep. They claim that this is a highly dangerous practice which has not been discussed with the fire services. I wonder if they’ve forgotten Economy Seven. Electricity has been cheaper at night for as long as I can remember and we always run the dishwasher at night. At least unless it’s a sunny day with lots of solar electricity. SSM is also afraid of the microwaves from the HAN - they’re similar to mobile phone signals - and afraid that our consumption data could be hacked. Who would want to do that?
In my view anything that encourages consumers to use less energy by providing them with realtime information on cost and usage must be good news. No doubt analysis packages will be available so we can see when we are incurring most of our energy costs. It’s a short step from there to work out why, and to take action to keep costs under control. Managing demand is crucial in the face of the supply problems - closing power stations, late nuclear stations, foreign control of oil and gas supplies - which are stacking up against us here in the UK.
Staying with energy, the oil price is up - and down. Last week the price was around $46/barrel; this week it’s been up to $48 but it’s fallen back to $45. By the time you hear this it will all have changed again. The trend since February has definitely been up. In the UK we’ve noticed that pump prices for petrol and diesel are on the rise. At Christmas we were paying 99p/litre and now it’s around £1.09. This is only partly due to the rising oil price. The £/$ exchange rate has declined by 3% in the last month. This is generally believed to be the result of uncertainty around the EU referendum - still some seven weeks off.
At Fort McMurray, Alberta, the centre of Canada’s tar sands operations, wildfires broke out this week and rapidly spread across a wide area. By the end of the week 400 square miles were affected and officials predicted that this could double by the end of Saturday. Parts of the town were saved, but 1,600 buildings are believed to have been destroyed. The population of 80,000 people was evacuated and then some of them were moved on again by land or by helicopter as the weather changed and the course of the fire shifted. Some people are still trapped north of the town, and there is concern that poor air quality could affect them. The area has experienced one of the hottest May days on record coupled with very low humidity. There is concern that oil installations could be in the path of the fire. Oil companies have cut production by 25% and closed some pipelines as staff have been evacuated. The loss of production is expected to have an effect on the Canadian economy, though the cost of the damage caused by the fire is not yet known. The government has declared a state of emergency and allocated a relief fund of $100m.
It’s very easy to say this was all a consequence of climate change, but that would be simplistic.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said people should not conclude climate change was to blame. "It's well known that one of the consequences of climate change will be a greater prevalence of extreme weather events around the planet," he said. "However, any time we try to make a political argument out of one particular disaster…that can sometimes not have the desired outcome.” A very reasonable view. Nature and natural disasters continue to surprise us. Whatever the cause, we need to be vigilant. Whatever the cause we need to foresee the consequences. Have you updated your strategic risk assessments recently? Do you have contingency plans?
BREXIT or BREMAIN?
Yes, only seven weeks until we in the UK vote on whether to leave the European Union or not. Apparently a simple majority will determine the result: one vote will be enough. Bit of a risky strategy, I think, for such a fundamental change. Opposing forces, both of which include cabinet ministers, are rehearsing their arguments. This week Britain Stronger in Europe, the “remain” campaign announced:
“The EU is a major boost to the UK's green economy, supporting jobs and growth in Britain. It also supports the UK's environmental efforts in a number of other ways,” and they go on to list them, including:
“• Investing in renewable energy, helping us ensure a more sustainable future; and
“• Leading the fight against climate change;”
and then they say:
“In contrast, senior figures in the Leave campaign have a track record of opposing environmental measures - and even denying the existence of climate change.”
I don’t actually think they have a monopoly on that. Despite the influences of the EU, our government - strongly pro-EU (some of them) - has managed to bankrupt many established solar energy companies by changing the subsidy regime at short notice, has effectively put a block on on-shore wind power, is expressing doubts about the future of offshore wind and the Swansea Bay project and has withdrawn support for Carbon Capture and Storage. And it’s done all this without leaving the EU, so why do we need to exit?
That’s it for this week. I apologise for the delayed publication, but there will be another episode next week and it will come out on Friday as usual. If there are things you want to hear about or take issue with, please get in touch. If you’re an expert with a point of view let’s do an interview. Wherever you are in the world we can do it on Skype.
For the moment though, this is Anthony Day signing off from the latest episode of the Sustainable Futures Report.
Till next time.
Bye for now!