Sunday, 16 August 2015

So which countries will take care of the likely ruinous debts for Hinkley C?

As widespread incredulity spreads about the UK Government's insistence that the plan to build Hinkley C nuclear power station is still on track, we must wonder which country and which companies will take the hit in the event of the near certain financial catastrophe that will befall the project. It is near certain given that the first three reactor projects, in Finland, France and China, have all suffered delays and thus heinous cost overruns. Indeed the failure of the European Pressurised reactor (EPR) design, produced by the French state owned nuclear constructors, AREVA has so far ruined AREVA. This company is now being merged with EDF who are already set to fork out billions to plug the financial holes in the company.

The UK Government is insisting that it will not pay for any cost overruns suffered by the Hinkley C project, which is due (on the latest word) to start construction in 2016. Quite how that squares with the £10 billion worth of loan guarantees to be offered by the UK Government is not clear. However, if the British Government will not pay for the cost overruns then who will? The Chinese nuclear companies involved in the deal? That sounds odd given that Chinese companies, whilst they are state owned, are incentivised to make money. There managers will not do well if they make large losses. Of course western state owned companies can continue making loss after loss, as typified by British and French nuclear operations, and expect to be continuously bailed out by the state.

So, is the French state effectively going to underwrite the whole project through a merged EDF-AREVA? Certainly British electricity consumers will be paying out large sums over a very long period for any electricity generated by the project (for 35 years after generation starts), sums that will  increase with inflation. I wish people would not keep quoting the agreed 2012 figure of £92.50 per MWh. It is now over £94 per MWh. Meanwhile of course the Government has stopped the scheme that pays for wind power to be paid just £80 per MWh for just 15 years (and no loan guarantees).

But it seems that EDF-AREVA could end up carrying the can for cost overruns on top of the £25 billion price tag already estimated. This could do serious financial damage to EDF. Ultimately the French electricity consumer would end up paying a high price to install a failed nuclear power design in the UK. Does the French public understand this? They ought to be acquainted with what they are taking on.

Andy Blowers, having read this post, sent me the following comment:
'More importantly, on whom will the debts fall? Given the financial provisions on pricing and on decommissioning, clean up and repository costs, part of the burden will be levied on future generations.  The intergenerational equity aspect of new nuclear policy gets scant attention. Presumably something will turn up.'

Monday, 10 August 2015

Solar Power is too cheap to meter! - so says Keith Barnham in 'The Burning Answer'

Making a parody of claims attributed to nuclear power in the 1950s as being 'too cheap to meter', as Keith Barnham does, may seem a cheap shot to some - but it is a reality even now. That is the claim made by Keith Barnham in his book, now available in paperback, 'The Burning Answer - A user's guide to the Solar revolution'. Much hay is made by critics of solar power (and Keith talks mainly about solar photovotaics) by saying it only produces electricity when the sun shines. But in fact a manifest advantage is rarely mentioned - it's operating costs are more or less zero. The capital costs have been, and are, falling rapidly.

So much solar energy will produced when it is sunny that it can be stored. Even in places like Italy there is a lot of 'free' energy is being generated, surplus to electricity requirements,so that it can be easily stored. Yes that's right, easily stored. Of course we know about the tumbling costs of batteries from factories established by Elon Musk and also the latest developments in sodium ion batteries that will undercut the costs of lithium batteries. But one of the things that Keith tells us about are the existing types of heat pumps. The fact that solar pv is electric doesn't matter if it can be converted, using heat pumps, into water. Yes, I'm talking about solar pv, electricity here, NOT solar thermal to generate the energy that will be turned into heat.

Of course buildings are becoming more energy efficient (despite the best efforts of UK Government to slow the process), so much so that new buildings should be 'zero carbon' in energy consumption - but we still need hot water for older buildings and also to provide for cleaning purposes. That's where heat pumps come in - often they work best linked to district heating systems. Heat pumps can be super efficient in that they use energy from the air or water to generate a lot more heat energy than the electricical energy that is used by the heat pump. So, solar power will provide a lot of electricity, but they will also provide a lot of our heat requirements as well.

By this point Keith will be annoyed with me for leading on the storage issue. Grinding his teeth probably. But........

Keith Barnham is at pains to point out that a lot of storage is not required to supply more or less 100 per cent of electricity from renewable energy. He highlights the Kombikraftwerk project, run by a German research institute, which demonstrates how a 100 per cent renewable energy system could provide electricity to Germany with little need for storage systems. You can see some coverage of this also on where there is an online hour by hour demonstration.

Storage is best for creating hot water out of the surplus electricity. Of course. Not to mention making electric cars work. Of course. Coming soon near you, powered by solar pv.

Besides making these (well the comments about making electric cars noisy are mine) and other crucial points Keith's book is an excellent guide to the history and technical aspects of solar electricity - all written in language that the average Daily Mail reader can understand. Order it now  - it's an absolute steal for just a few quid. The book is published by Weidenfield and Nicolson.

NOTE: in an earlier version of this post I made some uninformed comments about the need to make electric cars 'noisy' to help visually impaired people. Paul Gipe then wrote me a message saying:

'we have a 2015 nissan leaf. the warning sound only operates up to a speed of about 16 mph (probably a limit in kph) then it turns off. above that the noise of the tires on pavement is enough to alert people. that's the same with all cars ICE or EV'.

I suppose this ignorance of mine exposes the fact that I don't have an electric car (yet). I'll try and get one soon!

Friday, 7 August 2015

Why EDF is a good example of why we don't need public ownership of electricity generation in the UK

Jeremy Corbyn has just announced that he favours public ownership of the electricity industry in the UK. Does that mean a return to the days when electricity generation was one big nationalised monopoly as in the days of the CEGB? That would be a bad idea. We need innovation in electricity in the UK. Monopolies (nationalised or private) generally mean that the incumbent industrial interest groups merely perpetuate their existing technologies, which is certainly something we don't need in electricity at the moment. Admittedly privatised, liberalised, markets need various types of intervention - but nationalisation is definitely the wrong direction. Corbyn mentions nationalisation  sometimes, and then talks about decentralisation - confusing.

I appreciate that Jeremy Corbyn is opposed to new nuclear power plant, but nationalisation is more likely to to generate this outcome than present arrangements. The CEGB could only ever think of centralised larger and larger power stations, including a nuclear build programme which was stopped in its tracks by the fact that the newly privatised industry realised that nuclear power was a financial black hole. It is no coincidence that the only companies that will consider investing in nuclear power in the UK are themselves state owned - in France or China.

EDF, still owned by the French state, is quite a good example of what can go wrong with nationalised electricity industries. EDF works hand in glove (and indeed is soon to be formally amalgamated) with the state-owned nuclear constructors AREVA. The fact that nuclear power was becoming more expensive, its construction costs uncertain and that it was being overtaken by a range of other generation technologies has passed this state complex by completely. How can dinosaurs change?  This insistence on ploughing ahead with nuclear power technology has produced a terrible financial mess so far for AREVA along with the failure of the 'new' power station design, the European Pressurised Reactor (EPR). The French electricity consumer and taxpayer is paying large sums for this failure.

But instead of changing, this complex is still lurching in the same loss-making direction. EDF-AREVA seems poised to guarantee to pay the construction cost overruns of the already ill-fated Hinkley C. That is, at least, the only way that Hinkley C will go ahead now that the British Government appears to be saying  (that's the current story) that it will not offer a blank cheque for new nuclear power in the UK. But if EDF does underwrite the cost overruns (and large cost overruns seem a racing certainty, even on top of £25 billion already projected), then further financial disaster will beckon for the EDF-AREVA conglommerate.

The dinosaurs went extinct.

What would be good is if there was grass roots campaigning to start up local energy companies - that is useful decentralisation - and this can be supported by legislation to allow independent energy companies easier terms to set up as suppliers. But this is not to be confused with 'nationalisation', and it requires people and companies at the grass roots to do the organising.

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

EU is becoming laggard in world renewable energy deployment

The EU, much famed in previous years for its promotion of global climate change abatement treaties and its installation of renewable energy, is heading for 'laggard' status in the global drive for clean energy.

Until a few years ago the bulk of renewable energy installed in the world was sited in the EU. But now the proportion is falling quickly. In 2014 only a quarter of new wind power capacity and only a fifth of new solar pv capacity was installed in the EU. That proportion seems certain to fall significantly in the next two years. The UK's renewable programme is being mostly abolished, in Spain windfarms have already stopped being installed and Germany has decided to strangle its once impressive solar pv programme.

The EU no longer has credibility in claiming to lead the fight to reduce carbon emissions. It's efforts prior to Paris will be marginal at best, and the main action will be negotiations between the U.S. and emerging economies, particularly China.

One can point to industrial influences for this change - the increases in renewable energy has occurred against a backdrop of stagnant or, in some countries, falling electricity demand exacerbating the overcapacity of electricity generation. The climate friendly solution of course is therefore to cut back on fossil fuel production, particularly coal, and continue renewables expansion and energy efficiency initiatives. Yet in Germany policy is focussing on curbing the expansion of renewable energy in order to prop up the coal industry. Incentives have been taken away from renewables but preserved for coal - indeed new subsidies for coal plant are being discussed just as an annual cap on wind power expansion is to be put in place and all but a dribble of new solar pv capacity stopped.

Dave Elliott writes to me to point out that some lignite plant are being taken offline; fair comment. However, to me this looks like a bit of a grubby compromise given that more incentives will be spent to preserve some of that capacity as occasional reserve, power when it is plain the renewables industry believes that if reserve power is needed then much cheaper, lower carbon and much more efficient gas fired power plant should be built.

Energiewende is a busted flush, in reality - that's not because the nuclear phase-out is impractical so much as because Germany has, in effect, decided to give priority to coal over renewables.

The problem is EU wide, and it has been given a supposed 'rational' facade by the European Commission in its policy decision made two years ago to ask for 'auctions' for renewable energy schemes as means of awarding feed-in tariff contracts. This is billed as a cost-saving device, but the reality is that the costs are saved through not installing renewable energy plant rather than installing them more cheaply. Finally the big energy companies who have sought a means of protecting their centralised power plant from the threat of renewables have found a new weapon. Results of, for example, the UK's recent auction for renewable energy contracts are touted as proof that the policy works. But the price reductions recorded are either the consequence of falling renewable energy costs anyway because of technological improvements or the result of silly bids for uneconomic projects. People's attention has been diverted by this conjuring trick away from the fact that the volume of new renewable energy projects is being severely rationed.

Of course the renewable energy trade associations are currently are complaining about this, but alas, the owners of the big power stations have regained the whip hand.

But there's still hope in the case of China, and hopefully, in the future, India. For Europe, alas, their glory, like so many things now, is in the past.