Monday, 14 March 2011

Renewable energy is more reliable than nuclear

Far from nuclear power being reliable and  renewable supplies being unreliable, the facts suggest the exact opposite. We can forecast production from wind turbines or solar farms hours in advance, but you cannot predict the sudden breakdowns in nuclear power plant. You don't need to look at the Fukushima crisis to understand that - just look at the UK where Sizewell B, the most modern British nuclear power station, went offline in May 26th 2008 leading to widespread blackouts across parts of the UK. This sort of incident is much more dangerous to the task of keeping the lights on than anything reneweable energy will throw up. The sheer size of these nuclear power plants and their inherent instability is a major threat to the continuity of the electricity supply system. - That is before you even consider the safety issues.

We can cope with variable production from renewables with a variety of hi-tech, low cost, measures - and minimise the need for extra 'back up'gas power stations. These hi-tech measures include demand side management techniques  which involve shaving off the peaks in peak demand (using price signals to shift demand from one period to the next), building more interconnectors to shift power around Europe and gain the benefit of systems such as storage offered by Norweigian hydro, and in the future using 'extended range' electric cars to manage the variability of renewable supplies. See previous blog about electric cars - you can shift between petrol and electricity modes in these vehicles according to the variability in renewable production using computerised price signals - the same principle which applies to demand management using smart grids and giving the National Grid more incentives to use demand management techniques.

Is the Government going to adopt these hi-tech measures in its 'electricity market reform' (EMR)? Of course not! The aim of the EMR is to cut back the renewables programme and shift the incentives to nuclear power. Far from incentives being given to encourage demand side management or energy efficiency in the electricity system, bungs will be offered to the electricity companies to build more power plant. In fact there's more than enough gas power stations coming on line to provide loads of 'back up' already. The only reason you might need all of this plant is to provide emergency supplies when nuclear power stations break down unexpectedly!

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Oil price hike - it's not just Libya

Commentators have fixed on Libya as the explanation for the latest oil price spike - but this is a trigger, not the cause of a crisis that will only be (temporarily) relieved by a slowdown in world economic growth. The underlying cause is simply that expansion in oil supply activities is unable to keep pace with the expansion in demand for oil.
The discussion about 'peak oil' probably oversimplifies what has been a rather more subtle trend since the 1970s that expansion of supply of oil has increasingly been unable to keep pace with demand. The oil crises of the 1970s were initially resolved by world economic recessions, especially at the beginning of the 1980s, but then the  oil supply issues were ameliorated by technological shifts away from using oil as a fuel source. Countries around the world stopped using oil in electricity generation, less oil was used in industry and less oil was used for  heating. This technological shift gave the world the false impression that there were no more oil supply pressures. Oil prices fell, and also fuel efficiency of vehicles, which had risen during the 1970s and early 1980s, fell once again.

The problem the world faces now is that demand for oil use in transport, especially motor vehicles, has continued to surge, with there being no expected barrier to this continued expansion - that is short of considerable oil price increases which choke off demand and induce people to buy more energy efficiency motor vehicles. This is the underlying problem - Middle Eastern political crises are triggers that make a chronic problem into a crisis. The point is that this present oil price spike would have happened anyway, perhaps in one or two years' time, regarded of political developments in the Middle East.

The problem that the world has now is that the market will not deliver the required technological shift away from oil use in transport any time soon. The market response is to induce purchase of more energy efficient vehicles, but only so long as oil prices remain very high with an ever-present danger of oil price spikes which lead to recessionary consequences. In this situation there is no such thing as 'sustainable' economic growth in any sense of usage of these terms. Indeed, the economic outlook for the coming period is bleak in that a world economic slowdown seems inevitable. Then only way this oil crisis will be resolved is likely to be by economic recession.

Of course Governments could do more interventionist action - although it seems for many US Republicans you probably have as much chance of persuading them that Karl Marx was not such a bad guy after all as to convince them of the necessity of immediate tight restrictions on motor vehicle fuel efficiency.  The US actually did some of this in the 1970s with 'Corporate Average Fuel Economy' (CAFE) regulations - but things have moved on since those days when regulatory action by the state was not regarded as being quite so much the work of the Devil as it is viewed today.

In fact even such action will not be enough on its own. We need a shift towards electric cars. The state could help shift this in the right direction by incentivising so-called 'extended range' engines.  These use a small petrol (gas) engine to power an electric motor with a small battery that can be used for small range travel and topping up the engine. These fit well into an electricity system powered by variable (renewable) electricity sources. These energy sources will never run out, unlike fossil fuels and nuclear power.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

New book on the politics of renewable energy published

Ecological Modernisation and Renewable Energy, published by Palgrave this month, discusses the emergence and development of the new renewable energy industry. David Toke reinvigorates ecological modernisation (EM), a key theory of environmental development. Renewable energy was developed from the grass roots into an industry that is challenging the position of conventional fuel sources by maintaining a distinct identity which attracts popular support. Toke analyses this 'identity EM' and highlights the continuing role of alliances between the renewable industries and environmental NGOs. The politics of technological identity are explored in several case studies which include studies of California in the 1970s and 1980s and the USA since the 1990s. Other countries discussed include Denmark, Germany, Spain, UK, Australia and China. Examination of what policies are needed to promote renewable energy is carried out through analysis of institutions, interest and discourse to cut through stereotyped debates about whether 'market based' or 'command and control' strategies are better.
In its concluding section the book also contains a critique of David Mackay's work, in particular for MacKay's numerical treatment which appears to reduce the importance of renewables compared to other ways of interpreting the statistics. Toke questions MacKay's wisdom of relying on a strategy which is heavily reliant on development of nuclear power.
See entry on Palgrave website: