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Renew your energy: February 2011 Archives

Last year, the Africa-EU Energy Partnership (AEEP) and the EU, together with the African Union, launched a 10 year Renewable Energy Cooperation Programme (RECP), and announced a planned contribution of €5 million to start the programme.

EU Commissioner for Development, Andris Piebalgs said: "Today 1.6 billion people worldwide have no access to electricity, most of them in sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia. Poor energy systems undermine growth potential in these countries from 1 to 2%. We need a reliable source of electricity to fuel development. Africa has a vast untapped renewable energy potential, ranging from hydro, to solar, wind, geothermal and biomass which could be used to ensure millions of people access to electricity".

The Road Map for the Implementation of the EU-Africa Energy Partnership includes three priority areas and the following targets:

Energy access: Africa and the EU will take joint action to bring access to modern and sustainable energy services to at least an additional 100 million Africans by 2020. This will be a contribution to the African objective of giving access to modern and sustainable energy to an additional 250 million people.

Energy security: Africa and the EU will take joint action to improve energy security by doubling the capacity of cross-border electricity interconnections and by doubling the use of natural gas in Africa, as well as doubling African gas exports to Europe.

Renewable energy and energy efficiency: Africa and the EU will take joint action such as-

  • Building 10,000 MW of new hydropower facilities;

  • Building at least 5,000 MW of wind power;

  • Building 500 MW of solar energy

  • Tripling the capacity of other renewables

  • Raising energy efficiency in Africa in all sectors.

While that's good news, 500MW of PV solar is embarrassingly small, and 5GW is not much of a 2020 target for wind. For example it's been claimed that Kenya alone could have 800MWof wind generating capacity within 3 years and I've seen wind resource estimates of 2.8GW for Ghana, while South Africa could have much more.

A recent Earthlife analysis suggested that South Africa could obtain over 50% of its power from renewables (400TWh p.a) by 2050, with the potential for on-land wind being put at 50GW, the wave potential at 10GW, and the solar potential being enough in theory to supply the needs of the whole country. See:

Moreover, moving up to North Africa, Egypt is planning a 1GW offshore wind farm in the Gulf of Suez, and 7.2GW of wind by 2020, while Morocco has a huge wind resource -its just started building a 200 MW wind farm outside Tarfaya. And then there's Concentrated Solar Power- perhaps 10MW by 2020, including Desertec projects across the Sahara and some in South Africa: see my earlier Blog: Wave power is also beginning to make its mark: in addition to project off the Cape, a 100MW wave power plant is planned off the Kenyan coast. And for much of Africa, biomass represents a huge potential resource, if it's done right. It's the same for PV solar. So far the emphasis has often been on fairly token projects, often parachuted in and left without proper maintenance back up. Hopefully things will change, with the RECP programme. But it needs more than top-down aid programmes - it needs local involvement, training and skill development to support the growth of local jobs, and technical and economic capacities.

'The solar radiation Africa receives could make this continent the Saudi-Arabia of the future'. That was a summary of the conclusions from the recent 'Power Kick for Africa' strategy workshop on renewable energy policies organised by the World Future Council Foundation, in cooperation with the Energy Commission of Ghana. That brought together representatives from utilities, regulators, industry and civil society from ten African countries. They said they were determined to expand their cooperation under the umbrella of the African Renewable Energy Alliance (AREA). AREA link: Let's hope initiatives like that, coupled with RECP, really begin to make a difference and overcome some of the problems that have bedevilled economic and social development in much of Africa. So far most new investment in energy systems in Africa does seem to have been focused on large capital projects of uncertain social and environmental impact, the most familiar perhaps (leaving aside oil!) being the giant 100GW hydro project planned for the Congo river. In addition, South Africa has had ambitions to expand nuclear capacity. However a proposed new reactor programme, and the development of the Pebble Bed Modular reactor, have now both been shelved, although a recent government report did still see nuclear playing a role, along with renewables, in the proposed attempt to cut coal use by half by 2030.

Does Africa really need nuclear? It has abundant solar and other renewable sources, many of which can be developed effectively on a local decentralised basis, unlike nuclear power. Their use would seem to offer an economically effective, socially equitable and environmentally sound way to cut emissions and aid social and economic development- a view developed in a radical new book 'Electric capitalism: recolonization in Africa on the power grid' by David McDonald et al,

Reprocessing nuclear waste provides little short-term benefit because the process costs too much and uranium supplies remain plentiful, according to a new study of US nuclear waste management options by MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The US doesn't reprocess nuclear waste, but interest in that option has increased, not least since President Obama has blocked the development of a high level nuclear waste repository at Yucca mountain. A special Commission has been set up to explore options- which the MIT study aims to feed in to.

Reprocessing (MIT call it 'recycling') primarily aims to extract reusable plutonium and uranium from spent fuel, and assuming there is some use for the extracted materials, that reduces the amount of high level waste that has to be deal with- although it also generates a lot more low and intermediate waste. The extracted Plutonium and Uranium can be used as fuel for breeder reactors. Bush was keen on that idea as part of the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership arrangement- which would have seen spent fuel from reactors overseas brought to the US for reprocessing to extract its Plutonium. Obama was evidently not keen on GNEP and, with the US effectively out of it, the GNEP has now been downgraded/renamed.

The other option is to convert the Pu and Uranium into MOX- Mixed Oxide Fuel- for use in (some) conventional reactors, which is what the UK does with some of its extracted Pu, selling MOX chiefly to Japan, in return for reprocessing some of their spent fuel. But MOX is pricey and there is evidently not seen to be much incentive to go that way yet in the USA. The MIT says 'There is no shortage of uranium resources that might constrain future commitments to build new nuclear plants for at least much of this century, and scientifically sound methods exist to manage spent nuclear fuel.'

Not everyone will agree with MIT's assessment of the front end of the fuel cycle - i.e. on fuel availability. If a global nuclear renaissance occurs, demand for uranium will grow and there are already said to be shortages, though so far due to the lack of investment in mining and processing rather than in actual reserves. But some say 'peak uranium' is not far off- for example the German Energy Watch Group suggest that this may be by 2035. MIT evidently is not amongst the pessimist, though it does say that options should be kept open, since technological advances may make recycling (e.g. to stretch fuel reserves) a better choice in the future, and it also says -keep open the option of an underground, but accessible, interim, up to 100 year, storage facility, from which spent fuel could be removed later, if needed, for reprocessing and use.

MIT's second point, on the back end of the fuel cycle, is fair enough, as far as it goes. Interim dry storage of un-reprocessed spent fuel is seen as a viable route: it's what the US does and what UK now plans to do, since, to save money, it will not reprocess spent fuel from the proposed new reactors. The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission says that spent fuel can safely be stored on site for 60 years. The UK government has now agreed with this assessment. That of course is no long-term solution and it does have its own problem/risks, especially with the much more radioactive spent fuel that will result from high fuel burn-up approach that is to be used with the proposed new UK reactors, to improve their economics. But if you've produced it, it has to go somewhere!

The UK's plan, such as it is, assumes that the spent fuel will stay at reactor sites for perhaps 60 years, while waiting for a high level waste repository to be built- at a site as yet to be determined. It's said that this will be available by 2040. However it has been earmarked for the existing legacy waste, and wont be available for spent fuel from the proposed new plants until 2130- long after the new plants have been closed down, with 'interim storage' continuing somewhere for 100 years or so. But it could be more, for example if a community willing to accept a long-term waste site can't be found.

It does sound a little open ended. Or you might say, being positive, flexible! The MIT certainly suggests adopting a flexible approach. It says the US should wait to see what happens elsewhere (e.g. in the EU) in terms of ultimate long term disposal, before committing to anything finally, but perhaps inevitably calls for a $1bn nuclear R&D programme exploring the full range of technological/fuel-cycle options. The US is already looking at new nuclear technology, including fast neutron reactors running on plutonium and uranium extracted from spent fuel. That would imply spent fuel reprocessing. However, it's claimed that the new plants might be able to burn up some of the resultant wastes- and might also be able to use thorium as a new fuel, so avoiding uranium scarcity.

In terms of new reactor technology, the UK, Finland and France are just staying with upgraded version the standard US/French Pressurised Water Reactors, while in terms of waste, the European Commission recently produced a Nuclear Waste Directive and adopted IAEA safety standards, with geological disposal being seen as the way ahead. Two or more Member States can agree to share a final repository in one of them, but the EU is not allowed to export nuclear waste to countries outside the EU for final disposal (It seems that there had been offers from Russia to take it). So we're stuck with it- and for some time.

And it's not just us. China is expanding it's nuclear programme (aiming to move from 2% of electricity now to about 4% by 2020), and although it has recently indicated that it might have to slow down a little and reduce it targets, since it was having problems replicating imported US technology (the Westinghouse AP1000), it is also looking for somewhere to put the wastes and is considering reprocessing some of its spent fuel.

Fighting for FiTs

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PV solar had boomed in Germany, with more than 14 GW being installed so far, but there have been some gloomy predictions about the fate of the German Feed-In Tariff, and PV solar in particular, with support levels falling from a high of 43.01 €cents per kilowatt hour for small solar power plants at the end of 2009, to 28.74 €cents at the beginning of 2011. In addition, PV plants on arable land had been eliminated from the support programme all together.

It's the same elsewhere.

Similar issues emerged in France. The French government talked about a 'speculative bubble' and has imposed a three-month halt to new PV installations over 3 kW, while legislators worked on new tariffs for larger PV installations, which were expected to include rules providing caps on development and lowering feed-in tariffs for solar PV projects. The government also played the China card. 'Most panels installed in France were made in China with a highly questionable carbon footprint,' Environment Minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet said, whereas the policy must "create jobs in France, not subsidise Chinese industry.'

To some extent what we have seen are the results of success- PV has got cheaper, so it needs less subsidy. But success has also led to problems. As more people signed up to the FiT the cost to (other) consumers rose- only by a tiny amount true, much less that other fuel price rises, but enough to provide those hostile to FiTs with a case for them to be throttled back.

Tariff cuts and capacity caps have also been imposed in the Feed In Tariff for PV in Spain via a Royal Decree, and were retroactive i.e retrospective for existing projects, which led to major protests by people whose jobs were threatened, with protestors from all over Spain wielding PV panels. One said: 'The Government is bowing to the pressures of major energy companies and is misleading citizens into believing that the tariff deficit is a problem created by renewables.'

The Spanish Association of Renewable Energy Producers said: 'It appears Parliament has given itself over to the electric utilities to do away with the solar PV sector in this country.' Congress approved the Decree by 175 to 12, but with many abstentions. There are likely to be a lot of legal disputes as thousands of PV array owners are hit.

You might see all of this as a failure of nerve – the whole idea of FiTS is that, by building a market they force the price down. This has actually already occurred. According to the German Solar Industry Association (BSW), system prices have fallen by 45% in the last four years. But you have to stick with the process, even if it seems to be pricey initially. Some however say that PV was just too expensive initially to be suited to this approach – it loads consumer up too much. Actually in Germany the extra amounted to approximately 2 €cents per kilowatt hour in 2010, although it was set to rise to 3.53 €cents in 2011.

Figures like this were disputed, but the German solar industry association (BSW-Solar) eventually agreed to a compromise under which feed-in-tariffs will be reduced according to the amount of solar electricity installed annually, with a sliding scale of reductions based on capacity predictions. For example, if the calculated solar PV market capacity for 2011 year was over 3.5 GW, tariffs would be reduced by 3%; if the projected capacity was 7.5 GW, tariffs would be reduced by 15%. As previously planned, funding will also be cut by a further 9% at the turn of the year 2012. Renewable Energy Focus commented: 'This new step is seen as an earlier than planned reduction, following warnings against the artificial stimulation of the solar market.'

There will be a review of the EEG (the German Renewable Energy Sources Act) in 2012 which will presumably play a decisive role in the future of PV in Germany.

So what does this means for the UK? The UK's 'Clean Energy Payback' FiT for micropower projects, including PV, is so small (it's expected to yield just 2% of electricity by 2020) it is hardly likely to have a noticeable impact on consumer prices, but the government aims to cut support for PV in 2013, leading to a £40m saving in 2014/15 (10%), 'unless higher than expected deployment requires an early review'. And if need be, access to the FiT might be limited for large solar farms on greenfield sites before the review, which was scheduled for 2012, but has now brought forward to this year, because of 'growing evidence that large scale solar farms could soak up money intended to help homes, communities and small businesses generate their own electricity'. So far around 40 MW of PV has been installed under the scheme, out of about 77 MW in all – tiny by comparison with Germany and Spain, but much more than before.

So what next? Given the global recession, extra costs to consumers were obviously politically difficult, even if in fact they were much smaller than other energy price hikes. But the cuts do mean that the growth of PV, and the reduction in price that the FiT system would then yield longer term, will be slowed. And it may get worse.

In addition to the proposed £40m cut for PV, the UK government is trying to limit the problem of short-term consumer costs in its proposed new Electricity Market Reforms by adopting a variant of the FiT which has a strong market element and possibly also contract auction/tenders to keep prices down. That's not really a FiT at all- it's more like the old Non Fossil Fuel Obligation, which saw many successful tenders but few actual projects, since companies often bid at unrealistically low prices. It also includes nuclear as well as Carbon Capture of Storage projects, with opponents worrying that, there will therefore be less support available for renewables.

Opponents argue that it makes no sense to lump nuclear, CCS and renewables all in the same category and try to support them in a 'one scheme fits all' approach. They are all at different stages of development, for example nuclear has had 40 years plus of funding (and arguably shouldn't get any more), some renewable are now well established, but some still need help, whereas, a few pilot projects apart, CCS is still mainly unproven.

Worse still, in addition to the £40m cut and the new 'fast track' review of tariffs for PV projects over 50 kW, the government has now indicated it will also look at reducing support for on-land wind projects in 'unsuitable' lower wind-speed areas. It's hard not to see all this as panic measures to cut costs by hitting renewables, while continuing to support nuclear and CCS.

Grid battles

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'Battle of the Grids', a new Greenpeace report, says that we are fast reaching a showdown between 'green' and 'dirty' energy. 'Thousands of wind turbines delivering near free energy were turned off in 2010 to allow polluting and heavily subsidised nuclear and coal plants to carry on business as usual. It is estimated Spain had to ditch around 200GWh of energy last year. The buzz on the lips of industry specialists, lobbyists and in boardrooms is about system clash and the costs of building and running what is increasingly becoming a dual system'.

It is certainly true that there is a conflict looming as we plan the expand both nuclear and renewables. What happens when there is a lot of wind power available but energy demand is low, as at night in summer. Do we then switch it off or switch off inflexible baseload nuclear plants?

The Greenpeace report demonstrates the problem on a European scale, and offers suggestions for how it can be resolved. Together with Greenpeace's 2010 Energy [R]evolution report, it builds on its earlier Renewables 24/7 study, exploring a new system for the EU which it says can deliver 68% renewable energy by 2030 and nearly 100% by 2050, with the use of gas, coal and nuclear then phased out. That's in line with several other recent '100% renewables by 2050' studies; see my earlier blog.

But this report goes a further and looks in more detail at how to balance variable renewables and variable demand across the EU

It's based on modeling work by Energynautics, covering electricity consumption and production patterns for every hour 365 days a year at 224 nodes of electricity interconnections across all 27 EU countries, plus Norway, Switzerland and the non-EU Balkan states.

The report calls for the development of a smarter, more efficient EU-wide grid linking up variable renewables and energy storage facilities, which it claims could 'guarantee supply despite extreme weather conditions, delivering green energy around Europe via efficient, largely below ground DC cables'. High Voltage Direct Current supergrids are much more efficient over long distances than conventional AC grids (with energy losses of perhaps 2% over 1000km compared to up to 10% for AC grids) and it's claimed that it is easier and cheaper to put DC cables underground.

In the proposed optimal approach to balanced energy supply, natural gas is phased out by 2030 as are most coal and nuclear plants, and by 2050 it's almost 100% renewable with wind and solar dominating: 'even if technical adaptations could enable coal and nuclear plants to become more flexible and 'fit in' the renewable mix, they would be needed for only 46% of the year by 2030 and further decreasing afterwards.'

A key element in their approach is demand side management via an EU-wide interactive smart grid system, which allows loads to be shifted in time to avoid peaks, and can balance inputs from variable renewable across a much wider geographical area – thus avoiding the need for curtailment of excess wind or back ups when there isn't enough wind locally or regionally.

That is pretty ambitious. At present wind is usually seen as only having a small capacity credit (i.e. only perhaps 10–15% of the installed capacity can be relied on statistically to meet peak demands, due to natural wind variability). So it's seen as mainly just a fuel saver, replacing the output of some fossil plants some of the time – these fossil plants then returning to full load when there is no wind. So they are the back-up – they are mostly gas-fired plants that we already have, so there is no extra capital cost. Indeed they are already used to balance the twice daily peaks in demand and to deal with variable supply e.g. when a conventional or nuclear plant goes off line suddenly. Balancing the slower variation in wind (with improved wind forecasting helping to reduce the uncertainty) means that they have to ramp up and down to and from full power a few more times.

However, that involves operational and economic penalties – these plants are less efficient when running part loaded. That is even more the case with nuclear plants, which are run 24/7 to recoup their large capital costs and can't ramp up and down quickly or repeatedly. So that is why we are seeing excess wind being dumped and hearing talk of having to build more back-up plants to balance wind. Greenpeace suggests that similar inflexibility problems would also emerge with coal plants fitted with Carbon Capture and storage.

In the Greenpeace scenario all this is avoided by using a mix of demand side measures (e.g. switching off some loads than can be easy interrupted without problems for a few hours, such as freezer units) and importing green power from other regions via the EU wide supergrid. In addition, their system has inputs from biomass-fired plants and geothermal plants, that can be varied, and from pumped hydro storage, topped up when there is excess wind or other green power somewhere on the system.

It's a much more interactive system, with no formal 'always on' baseload, although the biomass, geothermal and hydro plants can perform that function.

What would it cost? They claim that it's much more expensive to waste valuable wind and other variable renewables than to build balancing supergrid networks. They put losses from curtailing wind at €32bn/p.a. but offer a version of their proposed grid system which they say would cost €74bn between 2030 and 2050.

This 'Low Grid' pathway would seek to produce as much renewable energy close to areas with high electricity demand as possible (i.e. within central EU, e.g. with PV solar). They say: 'Security of supply relies less on the electricity grid and long distance transmission. Instead the gas pipelines are used more intensively to transfer gasified biomass from one region to the other, thereby optimising the use of biomass as a balancing source', with former gas plants converted from natural gas to biogas.

By contrast their 'High Grid' approach would install 'a maximum of renewable-energy sources in areas with the highest output, especially solar power in the south of Europe and interconnections between Europe with North Africa.' This would minimize generation costs but increase interconnection costs to €581bn between 2030 and 2050. It would give strong security of supply, 24/7, since they say the supergrid capacity exceeds demand. It also balances solar production in the south and wind production in the north of Europe.

It's challenging stuff, with some very large capacities being installed, for example, by 2050, in the EU27, PV is at 888–974GW, wind 497–667GW, bioenergy 224–336GW, depending on the scenario, while Hydro is at 163GW, CSP 99, Geothermal 96, and Ocean energy 66GW.

See of the grids.pdf.