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Renew your energy: November 2009 Archives

*Over he past five years, the Open University (OU) based New Europe-New Energy project has been looking at sustainable energy options in the new and candidate Central and Eastern EU countries. It started off focusing on the Baltic states, and then moved on via Bulgaria and Romania to the Balkans, linking up with local agencies, academics and practitioners and organising conferences and seminars.

Some of the new European countries have very large renewable energy potentials. For example, by 2005 Romania was already obtaining 17.8% of its energy from renewables and the target agreed with the EU is for 24% by 2020; Slovenia had reached 16% by 2005 and has a 25% 2020 target; Estonia was at 18% in 2005 and has a 25% 2020 target; while Latvia was at 34.9% and has 42% 2020 target. That makes the UK's 1.3% in 2005 and 15% 2020 target look pretty low.

Of course, unlike the UK, some of these countries have large hydro installations and also major biomass resources, and we have only just started developing our very large offshore-wind, wave and tidal resources. Even so, it could be that in the years ahead, eastern and central Europe could be major players in the renewable-energy field.

Lithuania

After having looked at the potentials in Kosovo and Albania, the OU project recently returned to where it started, looking again at Lithuania, to see what progress had been made, in county with a mid- to high-range potential. It noted that the binding EU renewables target for Lithuania is 23% of total energy consumption by 2020. Lithuania has set a national target of obtaining 12% of its energy from renewables by 2010 and 7% of its electricity. By 2005 it had reached 3.61% of electricity and 15% of total energy consumption.

So what's on offer? Lithuania has a quite significant wind resource and although only around 54 MW has been installed so far, expansion is expected, with the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA) predicting 200 MW by 2010. There could be an overall 54 times increase between 2006 and 2017.

Lithuania also has over 8 MW (th) of biomass heating capacity in operation and has introduced new biomass technology in seven regional heating plants throughout the country supplying 14% of the country's heat.

The current overall situation in district heating supply is 78% from natural gas, 18% from biomass and 2.6% from crude oil. However, the Updated National Energy Plan aims for 50% of Lithuania's central heating to be provided by biomass thermal production by 2020.

While the heat market is strong, the value of electricity is higher and Lithuania already has more than 3 MW installed biomass-fired generation capacity with a nine-fold rise in electricity generation from biomass expected between 2006 and 2017. At present though, hydro is the main source of green electricity in Lithuania, with 128 MW in operation in 2006, representing 91% of the total electricity generated from renewables. By contrast wind was at 3% and biomass 6%.

Lithuania has adopted a Feed in Tariff in 2002. The tariff levels will stay unchanged until 2020. In addition, the Law on Heat (2003) encourages municipalities to purchase heat produced from renewable-energy sources. EU Structural Funds will be allocated to new boiler houses and CHP plants from 2007 to 2013 (approx €36.8 m).

Lithuania looks like exceeding its Kyoto emissions reduction target. The UNFCC note that, in 2006, Lithuania's emissions were 53% lower than the base-year level, well below its Kyoto target of –8% for the period 2008–2012. According to Lithuania's projections, with the existing policies and measures, emissions will still only increase by 2010 to reach a level 30% below base-year emissions. So Lithuania still expects to overachieve its target significantly.

Therefore reducing emissions is not an urgent issue as such. But reducing gas and oil imports from Russia is seen as vital, as is stimulating the economy and creating employment. Renewables offer one way to achieve these goals, while also meeting the EU's mandatory Renewable Targets.

Nuclear is sometimes also seen as vital – although it cannot be used to meet the EU renewables target. Lithuania closed Unit I of its Russian-era Ignalina plant in 2004, as a requirement of entry into the EU. But it now wants a replacement, though with the recession that looks some way off. As a stop gap it's trying to keep Unit II going beyond the closure date agreed with the EU – the end of 2009. That could be very contentious.

Bulgaria

A somewhat similar situation seems to have emerged in Bulgaria, where there are currently hopes of extra compensation from the EU for shutting down the Kozloduy reactors 1 and 2, which could influence scheduled decisions on finance for the proposed new Belene nuclear plant on the shores of the Danube. The expected costs of that have escalated from €4 bn to €10 bn. The EU is paying compensation for the decommissioning of the two old units in 2006. But more will be needed – and yet with the recession, money is tight. And as the WNN news service put it: "In absence of private funding, alternatives for funding two new large reactors at Belene range between Russian state funding and potentially Bulgarian state funding, both of which are controversial."

Certainly it would be odd to have to rely on Russian support, if one of the aims of going nuclear was to reduce reliance on Russia. Especially given its reasonably good renewable resources – not as large as Lithuania, but Bulgaria still reached 9.4% from renewables by 2005.

Part of the rationale for a return to nuclear there and in Lithuania is that it is claimed that nuclear power will be cheaper than renewables. This is debatable. New nuclear projects in France and Finland have repeated the familiar problems of construction delays and major cost overruns, while wind power has been claimed as more economic in some contexts. For example, see the data at www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Comparative_electrical_generation_costs produced by the California Energy Commission for May 2008, which put wind as the cheapest operational source, significantly lower than all of the other options, including coal, gas, hydro and nuclear.

As elsewhere in the world, in parts of new Europe, the rivalry between these two very different energy options continues…

*Based in part on an article for the October edition of the Newspaper of the British Chamber of Commerce in Lithuania.

The Skills Summit, held at the British Wind Energy Association's annual conference earlier this year, saw the launch of a "Wind and Renewables Skills Sector Accord", which is hoped to encourage companies in the sector to take on apprentices to help reach government renewables targets, with the aim of training up to 60,000 new technicians and engineers.

There have certainly been a lot of pronouncements about the large number of jobs that could be created by the expansion of renewable energy in the UK – perhaps even matching the 250,000 so far created in Germany. Equally though there have been concerns about skill shortages – and the need for more and better educational and training provisions.

There is a range of initiatives at various levels. Some are part of more general schemes. The new Skills Funding Agency (SFA), which becomes operational in April 2010, is the successor to the Learning Skills Council and it plans to focus "exclusively on adult skills and working with colleges, skills providers and employers to identify needs". The government will play a facilitating role, offering two brokerage services, one for SMEs and one for larger employers; and schemes such as "Train to Gain" and the National Apprenticeship Service. All of these include the aim of enabling employers to adapt to the low-carbon economy and training a workforce competent for its new demands.

More specifically, the Department for Business Innovation and Skills has announced plans to create about 1,500 graduate placements to help support marine renewable energy, while Gordon Brown has talked of a new £10 m "green internship" scheme for young people.

In the East Midlands, the Regional Development Agency (emda) is piloting a "Skills4Energy" programme designed to ensure appropriate support is available for Further Education colleges and skills providers to provide suitable training within the region in energy technologies. For more details. Visit www.skills4energy.com.

Meanwhile, British Gas is working with the Welsh Assembly to create the first dedicated environmental-skills training centre in Tredegar, and to provide more than 1,300 people a year with skills, such as installing solar panels. Most of the money to start the centre will come from the European contingency fund.

Universities are of course also trying to do there bit, with courses on sustainable energy and allied topics at both degree and postgraduate level, as well as short courses on specialist topics. One of the first and largest is the BSc in renewable energy, run by the University of Exeter in Cornwall at its Falmouth site. The University of Dundee, De Montford University and Glyndwr University also run undergraduate degrees in renewables/green energy, while Cornwall College offers a foundation degree in renewable energy.

The Open University offers a range of distance learning courses in the area, including its pioneering one-year sustainable-energy course (T206), which attracts around 500 students each year. For a "taster", visit www.open.ac.uk/T206/index.htm.

The market for Masters seems quite buoyant, with most major universities now running courses in sustainable-energy engineering or similar topics – perhaps the most well known being the CREST MSc at Loughborough.

It is clearly an expanding field – but the key issue is whether the education expansion is sufficient to meet the growing need for people with the right skills, at the right level. While people with professional science and engineering backgrounds are obviously always going to be central, people with vocational/technical qualifications are also urgently needed. It may also be that people with skills at various levels in the financial, management and planning areas are equally important. Project management and the ability to deal with environmental-assessment issues, planning conflicts and social outreach issues may be just as important to success as basic mechanical or electrical engineering. Some would say that policy-development issues and strategic-development studies are also important, given the need to push ahead with the UK's ambitious low-carbon transition programme. Overall it will be quite a challenge to meet this wide range of requirements.

For a list of courses, visit www.reuk.co.uk/UK-Renewable-Energy-Degree-Courses.htm.

Mention should perhaps also be made of the parallel initiatives on nuclear power. For example, the Open University and the National Skills Academy for Nuclear has secured funding from the North West Higher Level Skills Partnership to develop a certificate in nuclear professionalism, which aims to aid "the transition into the nuclear industry for recent graduates and experienced personnel transferring into the sector".

The certificate will be a modular framework, alongside a small element of scientific-skills development, with a particular focus on "providing the behavioural, commercial and project-management skills" that are seen as important to the nuclear sector.

If we are going to have a new nuclear programme, then it will be important that it is properly managed, so courses like this will be necessary. However, there is the problem that there may not be enough skilled people and training courses for them, to support both renewables and nuclear.

For more details, visit www.nuclear.nsacademy.co.uk.

The government's new draft National Policy Statement on nuclear power, indicating which issues the new Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) should take on board, and which it can ignore, contains this remarkable statement:

"The Government is satisfied that effective arrangements will exist to manage and dispose of the waste that will be produced from new nuclear power stations. As a result the IPC need not consider this question." The draft statement goes on to say that: "Geological disposal will be preceded by safe and secure interim storage."

So it seems, the waste issue is all in hand and we needn't bother too much about it, or any problems with the much more active spent fuel that the new reactors' high-fuel "burn-up" approach will create. Despite the fact that the highly active spent fuel is to be kept on site at the plant for perhaps several decades, that is evidently not something IPC will have to consider in its assessment of whether the proposed plants can go ahead. Instead the IPC will just focus on any conventional local planning and environmental impact issues that may emerge in relation to the 10 new nuclear plants that the government has now backed.

Quite apart from the issue of on-site spent fuel storage, there are plenty of other issues to discuss. For example, the risk of flooding in the years ahead, as climate change begins to bite. Dungeness was dropped off the original 11 strong list, due to local eco-issues, including, we hear, concerns about flood risks. That leaves the following, all of them also coastal sites, although allegedly less at risk: Bradwell, Hartlepool, Heysham, Hinkley Point, Oldbury, Sellafield, Sizewell and Wylfa, all existing sites, plus newcomers Braystones, and Kirksanton, both in Cumbria.

The last one is currently the site of a 3.5 MW windfarm, partly local community owned, which would have to be dismantled. It's one of the more successful UK wind farms. Will, I wonder, the IPC treat its potential very symbolic demise as a negative environmental impact?

Perhaps more relevantly, will the IPC safeguard local interests effectively? IPC chair Sir Michael Pitt says that the large nuclear and other projects it will look at will "raise important issues for the nation and for local communities and we want the public to have confidence that their views will be heard. In every case there will be an opportunity for an open floor hearing as part of the IPC examination process".

Most green groups see the whole thing as top down, autocratic and designed to steam-roller through unpopular plans rapidly. CANE, Communities against Nuclear Expansion, said: "At a time when public confidence in our political process is at an all time low, government have decided to take to themselves more power to override people's wishes." But Sir Michael said: "The bottom line is that the IPC will not accept any application, where it considers that the consultation process has been unsatisfactory or the community's concerns have not been addressed."

Friends of the Earth (FoE) nevertheless remains concerned: "The IPC is an unelected, undemocratic body – the new Commissioners aren't directly accountable to the people their decisions will affect. It's going to be very difficult for local people to get their voices heard, especially with key documents being so technical and opportunities to attend inquiries so few. If people are unhappy with the process they'll have to take the matter to court, which is extremely difficult and costly."

Interestingly FoE and other green groups have said that, although they can see that the new planning system might in theory over-ride local opposition to wind projects, they are not willing to compromise basic democratic principles. Tony Juniper, then FoE's director, noted a while back: "Government advisors tried to sell the planning reforms to green groups on the grounds that we would get our wind power more quickly. We rejected that offer and instead said that we would prefer to win the arguments through debate, not via a lurch toward centralised planning."

In reality though it could be that trying to bulldozer projects through, using what might be seen as draconian measures aimed at defecting opposition, could be counter-productive – consolidating opposition. This could well also prove to be the case for nuclear plants, which, unlike wind farms, most green groups oppose. Maybe, in that case at least, perversely, IPC will thus do opponents of nuclear power a favour.

In his new book, Whole Earth Discipline: an Ecopragmatist Manifesto (Viking), Stewart Brand argues that environmentalists should change their thinking about four issues: population, nuclear power, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and urbanization. Amory Lovins, an equally legendary figure in US environmental circles, has produced a very damning critique of Brands assertions on energy in which he says: "His nuclear chapter's facts and logic do not hold up to scrutiny."

For example Brand rejects all non-nuclear options, arguing that photovoltaics need about 150–175 times, and wind farms from 600+ to nearly 900 times, more land than nuclear power to produce the same electricity.

In a summary of his full analysis, Lovins says that Brand understates nuclear power's land-use "by about 43-fold by omitting all land used by exclusion zones and the nuclear fuel chain" – including uranium mining and waste disposal. Conversely, "he includes the space between wind or solar equipment­unused land commonly used for farming, grazing, wildlife, and recreation. That's like claiming that two lampposts require a parking lot's worth of space, even though 99% of the lot is used for parking, driving, and walking. Properly measured, per kilowatt-hour produced, the land made unavailable for other uses is about the same for ground-mounted photovoltaics as for nuclear power, sometimes less­or zero, for building-mounted PVs sufficient to power the world many times over".

In his full paper, Lovins present a substantial amount of data to back up his claim that: "Land actually used per kWh is up to thousands of times smaller for windpower than for nuclear power. If land-use were an important criterion for picking energy systems, which it's generally not, it would thus reverse Stewart's footprint conclusion."

Brand's other arguments for nuclear and agains renewables are similarly dispatched as erroneous. For example while Brand claims that new nuclear will be more competitive, Lovins argues that "renewables are cheaper, faster, vaster, equally or more carbon-free, and more attractive to investors", backing this up with his usual truck load of references. They reinforce Lovins' claim that nuclear power "would reduce and retard climate protection, because it saves between two and 20 times less carbon per dollar, 20 to 40 times slower, than investing in efficiency and micropower" that is renewables (large hydro apart) and local CHP/cogeneration. He concludes that: "The more you fear climate change, the more judiciously you should invest to get the most solution per dollar and per year."

He is then left with trying to explain why nuclear had nevertheless been taken up by some governments, and why people like Brand talk of a "nuclear imperative". Lovins says that it is not due to any obvious advantage, economic or otherwise, In his summary he says: "If nuclear power isn't needed, worsens climate change (vs. more effective solutions) and energy security, and can't compete in the marketplace despite uniquely big subsidies – all evidence-based findings unexamined in Stewart's chapter – then his nuclear imperative evaporates". He goes on: "Of course, a few countries with centrally planned energy systems, mostly with socialized costs, are building reactors: over two-thirds of all nuclear plants under construction are in China, Russia, India, or South Korea. But that's more because their nuclear bureaucracies dominate national energy policy and face little or no competition in technologies, business models, and ideas. Nuclear power requires such a system. The competitors beating nuclear power thrive in democracies and free markets."

This is little less convincing, or rather, less than a full explanation. Lovins claims in his full paper that the "rout of nuclear power in the global marketplace, and its inability to persuade private investors anywhere to risk their money on its equity, marks the biggest collapse of any industrial enterprise in the history of the world" adding that "Brand can ignore it only by reading World Nuclear Association press releases instead of actual market order and installation data, and by pretending that the decentralized technologies that actually add tens of times more global capacity each year than nuclear power adds somehow cannot be important or effective competitors".

Certainly renewable and other green energy options are doing very well around the world – for example as the recent REN 21 annual review noted, by 2008, renewables represented more than 50% of total added generation capacity in both the United States and Europe i.e, more new renewables capacity was installed than new capacity for gas, coal, oil, and nuclear combined. But, as Lovins admits, there are still some new nuclear projects going ahead. And what he does he doesn't explicitly address is why some of these are in the (at least allegedly democratic) EU and possibly soon also in the US. It might be argued that they will not be economic and will have to be subsidized – by taxpayers or consumers. If so, then perhaps Lovins is saying that they are being mislead by governments under the sway of powerful corporate elites, even in ostensibly "free" countries? Maybe that is the case. I couldn't possibly comment!