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Renew your energy: December 2010 Archives

As a lapsed nuclear physicist, nowadays active in the renewable energy policy area, I sometimes make forays back to see how the subject in progressing.

I once worked in high-energy physics, so it's interesting to see how fusion research is moving on. A while back I did a tour of Culham and was impressed by the dedication of the research staff there- who seem prepared to spend their careers churning through data from endless JET runs, while knowing that it will be many decades before anything solid comes of it by way of a viable energy device. Maybe I'm just unable to defer gratification that long! But, more prosaically, I was also struck by the row of bottles in the toilet- for staff urine samples. That reminded me of one of the reasons why I got out of nuclear research. It seems that, while often touted as being a 'clean' option, fusion still has safety issues, just like fission.

I see that the EU is trying to find a way to maintain funding for the follow-up, ITER in France, after it was discovered that there was a €1.4bn shortfall in the EU budget for the programme over the 2012-3 period. One option considered was to raid the EU 7th Framework research programme, but that would have reduced funding for other projects. It seems that the start of ITER construction may have to be pushed back to 2012. The EU's eventual contribution to construction is now expected to be around €6.6 bn. It seems a lot of money for a very long-term project, which may (or may not) eventually lead to a technically and economically viable energy device sometime after mid century. No help then with our current energy problems.

More recently I visited CERN in Geneva and the Large Hadron Collider, and went round their ATLAS project display. Sadly visitors can't go underground, but it is still an impressive project. Another €6 billions worth I'm told. Pure curiosity-led research, although their PR made much of the training aspects, international collaboration, and technical spin-off possibilities.

Well yes, but €6 billion would go a long way to helping us develop cheaper more efficient renewable energy technologies. As would the €6bn for ITER. It may be good to try to develop novel energy options for the very long term, and to know what happened in the first few nano-seconds after the Big Bang, but personally, I'm more concerned about what will happen in the next few years as we try to grapple with climate change and energy security.

However, there is no denying that 'big science' can be intriguing, inspiring and even fun! So, good luck to them. But spare a thought for the hard pressed innovators trying to develop and deploy new solar, wind, wave, tidal and bioenergy systems in an ever more competitive and risk averse market environment, often with minimal state funding.

We did get a Christmas present of sorts though from the UK government - a set of proposals for Electricity Market Reform, including, maybe, a new form of support for low carbon technologies. They say it's a Feed-In Tariff, but the variant they seem to favour has variable market determined prices and possibly involves a contract auction/tendering process. I know it's traditional not to like your Xmas presents, but I wonder if we can swop the one they are offering with a proper fixed-price Feed In Tariff, of the sort that has worked so well in Germany.

I have a horrible suspicion that what actually has happened, as occasionally does at Christmas, is that they have wrapped up an old unwanted, discarded present from a few years back to try to offload it - in this case the old Non Fossil Fuel Obligation. The NFFO used a contact tendering process and led to lots of optimistic bids for renewable energy projects, many of which were then given to go ahead on the basis of price/capacity conflation. Tragically though, very few projects actually happened- developers often found they couldn't deliver at the price they had specified to win the contract.

As with the system that was eventually to replace the NFFO , the Renewables Obligation, the competitive mechanism in the NFFO also meant that only the most developed renewables got supported- sewage gas, landfill gas and then wind. And it could be the same with the proposed new 'auction contracts for difference' system- emerging options, such as wave and tidal stream, could be squeezed out. As Chris Huhne put it, there was the risk that 'the contract arrangements exclude technologies that may in the long run actually perform a very useful role in providing low-carbon electricity.' So some other form of support might have to be offered.

It's good that the government has recognised, at long last, that the Renewables Obligation has problems, and is prepared to phase it out. That will cause disruption of course, but we have to make changes - the RO is an expensive way of subsidising a limited range of projects (the relatively high payments may be why some who get projects supported under it, like it). But before we throw away the wrapping on its proposed replacement, maybe we could ask, via the handy consultation process that is attached, for a proper fixed-price FiT, and while we are at it, one that doesn't also support nuclear. That was the really unwelcome part of the present- if nuclear projects are eligible for support they could well squeeze out renewable projects. Indeed some even see that as the aim:

Certainly anti-nuclear Scotland won't want anything to do with it. Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond, said 'it could see support mechanisms for nuclear generation in England at the expense of renewable energy sources and CCS [carbon capture and storage] in Scotland.' Oh dear. Whatever happened to peace and good will to all men.

A Memorandum of Understanding on the EU supergrid was signed recently by ten European ministers from countries bordering the North Sea, covering the plan to develop an offshore electricity grid enabling interconnection between continental, offshore and British energy resources. In addition to allowing more trade in energy across the channel and North Sea, thus increasing energy security, it will also link up offshore wind projects (140GW are currently planned) and other variable renewables to pumped hydro storage facilities across the EU. That will help to balance the grid with power in and out, the wider geographical footprint averaging out local variations in renewable supply.

As the European Wind Energy Association put it in its new 'Powering Europe' report, 'The grid plays a crucial role in aggregating the various wind power plant outputs installed at a variety of geographical locations, with different weather patterns. The larger the integrated grid - especially beyond national borders- the more pronounced this effect'.

However building supergrids will not be easy. Nature published a useful article on the supergrid (2 Dec 2010, Vol 468 pp 624-5) which highlighted some of the technical problems with High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) links. They have to be used for long distance undersea grid links, since otherwise, with AC, the energy losses are too high. But it noted, there's no such thing currently as circuit breakers for high-voltage DC. Power on AC grids can be disconnected relatively easily using circuit breakers, which fire off just at the point when the cyclic alternating current momentarily reaches zero. However you need milli- or even micro- second disconnection with DC. Nature reports that this sort of issue is being addressed in a 3 year €60m EU programme called TWENTIES, a consortium of 26 academic and industrial partners.

Ministers from the UK, Ireland, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden have agreed to start working on regulatory and technical issues, but of course cost is the big one- and who pays. Nature says that Germany is more interested in its Desertec Solar project, and France is presumably more focused on its proposed HVDC Transgreen links to North Africa. See my earlier Bog:

However, these southern projects are still at the early planning stage, and given the spread of renewable capacity within the EU, there will be a growing need to balance variable renewables. So the more inter-connectors there are the better, and hopefully France and Germany will stay on board the North Sea project. Otherwise we may have to curtail, and waste, valuable output from some of our wind farms when the wind is high, but demand is low- especially if there is also a lot of inflexible nuclear on the grid.

In some locations this is already happening. For example, the Orkney Isles distribution company, supported by OFGEM, has introduced an active grid management system, which curtails output from their wind plants during high wind-low demand periods. This may be reasonable in isolated island areas with small local grids, where the cost of undersea grid links to the main land, to export occasional excess power, is very high, and it does mean that more/new renewable capacity can be added to supply a larger contribution at other times. And it certainly makes sense to use local resources to meet local needs as far as is possible. But as a national strategy this decoupling has its limits. Local grids have their place, and, in some locations local energy storage too e.g. via batteries or even hydrogen production, despite its cost. See for example the PURE wind-hydrogen project on the Shetlands: But to help balance large contributions from variable renewables effectively there is also a need to link to national and international grids.

Some look to very large scale integration. For example there have been proposal for links between the grid systems of Europe and Asia, and even for a cross-Atlantic undersea grid link. The Nature article suggests that piecemeal, incremental, development is more likely, and given the technical complexity and political difficulty of making cross country links, that may well be how it plays out. But it does seem clear that we will be seeing supergrids stretching out around the world soon. Although organisations like GENI ( have been promoting world-wide links using HVDC, so far no one is proposing anything like the vast round- the-planet global power transfer system once famously outlined by Nicola Tesla, using the upper atmosphere and the earth itself as the paths. Round-the-planet links, of whatever sort, would of course mean that solar energy from the sunlit side could be fed to meet demand from those on the dark side, but so far ideas like this remain the province of science fiction.

For more on renewable energy-related developments and policies see

DECC's new report on 'young people and energy', based on participative surveys, shows massive support for renewable energy among young people. 94% of those questioned said that offshore wind was the 'fairest' energy technology, 81% said onshore wind, and 94% supported solar energy. This is compared to 2.2% for coal energy and some very critical responses on nuclear- 19.8% of people taking part in the survey thought nuclear power was fair, 26.6% not so fair, 30.8% not fair and 22.8% a raw deal.

These figures are in a report presented by DECC's pioneering Youth Advisory Panel to energy and climate change minister Charles Hendry. The report calls for greater youth consultation on energy and climate change policy and for young people to get involved.

Based on DECC's 2050 Pathways project, the report looks at the UK's energy policies from the perspective of those people who will have to live with those decisions for their entire adult lives. The report was drafted by young people aged between 16 and 25 who visited power stations, nuclear plants and projects promoting renewable energy sources to investigate the issues at first hand and met with experts, industry, pressure groups and innovators, to look at how we can keep the lights on in 2050 while reducing carbon emissions.

The report says while it is 'important that there is enough energy to go around', it would be 'irresponsible for us to only focus on providing energy to keep living the same way as we are today'. It calls for: • a fair deal for young people in the decision-making process; • work to ensure that Government does not lock young and future generations into ecological debt; and • continued engagement in dialogue with the youth constituency and stakeholdership to ensure that the youth perspective is heard, and responded to, by Government.

Youth Panel member Tom Youngman, 17, Bath, from Eco-Schools and a Green Flag School said: 'We do not want to inherit a diminished planet, as it often seems we are being asked to, and this is a huge step towards ensuring a sustainable and equitable future for our and subsequent generations.'

Nuclear power was the issue on which opinion was most divided, although a clear majority were against- under 20% were for it. This divide was evidently consistent across our surveys, at the face-to-face workshop and within the Panel itself. The panel found that a critical issue for everyone, regardless of their position on nuclear power, was whether or not the waste can be transported and disposed of safely. They commented "We are very concerned that short-term reasoning is being used to justify building a technology with substantial long-term impacts and responsibilities. The risks associated with nuclear cannot be ignored. Dangerous nuclear waste is a legacy we would rather not leave to future generations, and the heavy investment that will be required threatens to distract us from pursuing safer, cleaner and more future-friendly energy solutions."

Their recommendations on nuclear included: • The government must develop a transparent and viable long-term strategy for dealing with our legacy of nuclear waste. This long-term strategy must forecast beyond the current Parliamentary term to at least a minimum of 150 years; • The government must make sure that adequate funding for the decommissioning of current and any future nuclear power plants is assured in the long-term, and that this financial burden is not unfairly placed upon future generations; •Any funding or governmental support for further nuclear power development must not detract from any funding or support for alternative, renewable forms of energy.

The Youth report emerged just after a Commons vote on the Justification process for nuclear power, focusing on the case for the European Pressurised-water Reactor (EPR) and the Westinghouse AP 10000. 80% of MP backed the Justification package with just 27 and 26 MPs respectively voting against them. In all, 520 backed the EPR, 517 the AP1000, out of 649 MP eligible to vote, so there were significant abstentions, or no shows. Interestingly though, Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne voted for both, despite the Lib Dem agreement that the party would maintain an anti- nuclear stance, but abstain from voting.

There had been no commons debate preceding this vote, although the House of Lords Statutory Instruments Committee looked at the new nuclear legislation and review process. Greenpeace had told them that the EPR and AP1000 reactor designs were untried and untested anywhere in the world; and that the vendors and operators of the potential new reactors had not yet presented firm plans for the longer-term storage of spent fuel. The Generic Design assessments have also not yet been completed.

With students already taking to the street in large numbers on the University fees issue, and incensed by what they evidently see as a sell out by the Lib Dems, it could be that, if the DECC Youth panel's anti-nuclear views are representative, we might even see demonstrations on the nuclear issue of the sort already happening in Germany in repose to their coalitions policies.

That's unlikely in the UK context perhaps, but a clash of views on generational lines does seem possible. Poll data is often misleading (it depends on the questions asked), but for what it's worth, a recent Ipsos Mori poll for the Nuclear Industry Association found 40% of the adults they asked were in favour of nuclear (up 7% from 2009), 17% anti (down 3%). 47% backed new nuclear build, while 19% did not. Only 25% of women were in favour of nuclear- but that was up 4% from 2009. The result for women apart, these adult figures, and the MPs voting choices, are almost exactly the inverse of those reflected in the, admittedly small, Youth panel survey- with around 80% being against nuclear.

Given the evident concern about nuclear waste, it will be interesting to see if there is any reactions from young people to the governments recent admission that, on current NDA plans, the proposed Geological Disposal Facility (GDF) is not expected to be available to take spent fuel from new nuclear power stations until around 2130, which they note 'is approximately 50 years after the likely end of electricity generation for the first new nuclear power station'. (From the Government Response to Parliamentary Scrutiny of the draft National Policy Statements for Energy Infrastructure).

The point is that the government hopes that a final site for high level waste will be found and ready by 2040, but it seems it will take 90 years to emplace the existing 'legacy' waste in it, so the accumulated wastes from the new plants will have to wait, somewhere, until 2130- long after the new pants have all closed. That's quite some wait- a few generations of students ahead, if there are any then!

DECC Youth Panel report:

The costs of offshore wind have been rising, due in part to the rising cost of energy, which has pushed up the costs of materials like steel. As a result, offshore wind capital costs have doubled in the last five years. The UK Energy Research Centres new report on the issue, 'Great Expectations', estimates that costs will remain high for the next few years, but suggests that they will begin to fall by 2015, with a 'best-guess' reduction in costs of 20% by 2025, and continued reductions after that.

Some of the costs are linked to grid connections, which can be very expensive for marine cables. As I've reported before there has been a debate over the merits of sharing grid-links to shore between rival projects, with, given the competitive market framework evidently favoured by Ofgem, the risk being that we could end up with multiple links running close by in parallel. However, says that research carried out by National Grid suggests an integrated approach, with shared grid and services, could cut the capital cost of grid connections by 25%, halving the number of onshore cable landing sites from 61 to 32 and reducing the number of offshore substations from 73 to 45 in the process. The report also claims that the approach would cut the number of onshore AC cables by 77%, and half the length of offshore AC cables required from 1206km to 603km.

Even so, offshore wind is much more expensive than on-land wind, costing £157 and £186 per megawatt hour (MWh) depending on location, compared to £94 per MWh for on-land projects, according to a report published in June by the Department of Energy and Climate Change.

It commented: 'While offshore is projected to see a large reduction in costs, compared with onshore wind, it will still face much higher costs at £110–125/MWh for projects commissioned from 2020.' For comparison, new nuclear will, it's claimed, cost £99 per megawatt hour, while new coal- and gas-power generation will cost an estimated £105–115 per MWh, with carbon capture and storage attached. But the offshore-wind resource is very large, perhaps up to 200 GW in the North Sea, or much more if deep-sea floating wind turbines can be successfully deployed – up to 406 GW in all according to the Public Interest Research Centres Offshore Evaluation. And of course there are no emissions or wastes to deal with, or problems with fuel supply – it's free and everlasting.

The proof of the pudding though is in the eating. The EU has been at the forefront of offshore-wind development, with the UK now in the lead at 1.34 GW, and the UK, Norway, Denmark, Spain and Portugal are all developing floating turbine systems of 10 MW and above. However, the US has also decided to try to catch up, with a series of offshore-wind projects on the Atlantic seaboard.

A new report, 'Untapped Wealth: The Potential of Offshore Energy to Deliver Clean, Affordable Energy and Jobs,' by international ocean conservation organisation Oceana, puts the offshore-wind potential for the US Atlantic coastal region at 127 GW. It claims that harnessing offshore-wind power in Atlantic waters is a much more cost-effective way to generate energy than oil and gas drilling.

Although a five-turbine, 20 MW pilot wind farm 10 miles offshore in Lake Erie may actually be first, in terms of ocean locations, Cape Wind's 430 MW project in Massachusetts is closest to operation, with Deepwater Wind's 20 MW pilot project planned for Rhode Island following closely behind. But Maine recently entered the race, as a possible site for Norway's Hywind floating device, as part of a 30 MW offshore renewable programme, and New Jersey is looking to have 1.1 GW of offshore wind capacity.

There is strong interest in going further out to sea to avoid visual intrusion – with floating devices also being seen as a key potential breakthrough, since, unlike the UK and some other EU countries, the US does not have shallow offshore areas on its Atlantic coast. Moreover, the longer term potential may be very large. A new NREL report puts the total theoretical US offshore wind resource at 4,150 GW, nearly four times current US total installed generation capacity (1,010 GW in 2008). The potential generating capacity was calculated from the total offshore area within 50 nautical miles of shore, in areas where average annual wind speeds are at least 7 meters per second (approx. 16 mph) at a height of 90 meters, assuming 5 MW of wind turbines could be placed in every square km.

China is also developing some of its very large offshore wind potential, put at up to 750 GW in all. So far it's been relatively cautious, focussing on near-shore options, as happened initially in the EU. A new study by the Wind Energy and Solar Energy Resources Evaluation Centre, run by China's Meteorological Administration, put the near-shore wind resource at 200 GW, at depths of 2–25 meters, which are ideal for in-shore and inter-tidal wind farms, the latter being in coastal areas that are submerged during flood tides but exposed during ebb tides. But the study didn't look further out.

In May, according to reports in Windpower Monthly, China opened a public tender for 1,000 MW of intertidal and offshore wind farms in Yancheng, Jiangsu Province, in East China. Electric power company Huaneng has now announced that it will invest $82 m to install 100 of the 3 MW wind turbines developed Sinovel, the largest wind turbine producer in China. Jiangsu Province already has the largest number of projects and an ambitious target to install 10.75 GW offshore wind power by 2020. But it seems that China will experiment with four intertidal and offshore wind farms first, before considering whether to go further out, with costs being a key issue.

Deep-sea wind, as being pioneered in the EU and now possibly in the US, is certainly unproven so far, and the cost of installation are higher in deep water, but the new generation of floating wind turbines may yet make it possible to exploit the very large resource further out at lower costs.

*It may not all plain sailing though. Fred Olsen Renewables (FOR) has pulled out of the Crown Estate's Scottish offshore wind programme to concentrate its efforts on land since it evidently sees that as more commercially attractive in the short term. It has ceased working as the preferred developer for the 450 MW Forth Array wind farm off the east coast of Scotland. In addition, the UK's offshore wind programme is throwing up some conflicts, not involving objections from local communities, as in the case of some on-land project, but from existing offshore wind projects, worried about new projects, in effect, stealing their wind. The developers of Boulfruich Windfarm near Dunbeath have evidently complained that plans by Caithness Power to build four larger wind turbines less than a mile away at Latheronwheel will cut their electricity production by a quarter – and have lodged an official objection to the new site. Lawyers for Boulfruich told Highland Council planners: 'It's too close and will impede performance of the wind turbines.' Conflicts over wind-access rights used to happen occasionally in the middle ages. Seems like, as ever, it will create more work for lawyers!