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Renew your energy: December 2011 Archives

A Christmas energy roundup

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It's Christmas, so here's a light-hearted contribution looking back over the year.....although maybe not quite so light-hearted, given the troubled year we've just been through, what with the quake and tsunami in Japan - and Fukushima.

The UK did send Japan an early Christmas present, but they may not have wanted it: a shipment of high-level radioactive waste.  This derived from spent fuel from Japanese nuclear plants, which had been reprocessed at Sellafield's Thorp facility to extract plutonium and uranium, some of this maybe later ending up in mixed oxide 'MOX' fuel, for use in Japan- which now they probably don't want either!

Another perhaps less serious problem they had was when the seawater intakes of a nuclear power plant in Japan got clogged with jellyfish. The same thing happened in Scotland at Torness. Maybe they were trying to tell us something?  So maybe was the  three-eyed fish  that a group of fishermen  reportedly caught  in a lake near a nuclear power plant in Argentina.

Nature does seem to remind us who is boss occasionally, with the tsunami in Japan being the most obvious recent example. That has it seems also happened in the past in the UK. What seems to have been tsunami evidently hit the English and Welsh coast of the Severn estuary in 1607, with the flood recorded with a metal peg set into the wall of a church (built on a low rise) at adult chest height, and showing surrounding ground had a flood height of 4 metres. It caused 2000 deaths of people of the villages and much loss of livestock.  I do hope the designers of the new nuclear plants proposed for sea-level sites on the estuary at Hinkley and Olbury remember that.

However let's move on from nuclear. Renewables had their share of crazyness and problems this year too, with, for example, the 1/6th scale prototype of Norway's Sway floating wind turbine sinking in heavy seas in November.  And a 2MW wind turbine caught light in fierce gales in Scotland in December The global recession also took its toll with US company Clipper Wind abandoning development work on the 10MW Britannia offshore wind turbine concept.  But, technical and economic hiccups like this apart, the main problem facing renewables seems to have been heavy handed government intervention. Thus PV solar got hit twice with a 72% and then 50% cut in UK Feed In Tariffs. The argument was that PV solar had boomed too fast. Rapid growth  was an issue that also seemed to hit on land wind power- there were problems with excess wind generation in Scotland, leading to curtailment of valuable output and provocative compensation to the generators. The main reasons seem to be that the grid system is not ready for it.  But at least we have now agreed on a new design for grid pylons -a 'T'- shaped tower won the national competition. 

What we haven't quite agreed on it s what to do with the electricity- use it as normal, or also for charging up electric cars, and running heat pumps. That would help balance out night-time excess power.  But we could also store it as hydrogen.  I was much taken by a quote I came across from a talk given in Cambridge in 1923 by J.B.S Haldane, who predicted: "The country will be covered with rows of metallic windmills working electric motors which in their turn supply current at a very high voltage to great electric mains. At suitable distances, there will be great power stations where during windy weather the surplus power will be used for the electrolytic decomposition of water into oxygen and hydrogen".;_or,_Science_and_the_Future

Ah, no, some say we may not need exotic new supplies like this  - since we will have lots of shale gas.   A bit surprisingly perhaps, Chris Huhne undercut some of the hype about that, pointing out that  it had  'as not yet lit a single room nor cooked a single roast dinner in the UK'.  The collapse of the Longannet Carbon Capture and Storage project also put CCS into a somewhat longer time frame, and that's worrying if we are to rely of gas in to the future.

Which, for now, leaves us with nuclear and renewables slogging it out for a place in the sun, or rather for their share of the 'Contracts for a Difference' when ever they finally get going. It's not quite clear to me how that is going to work.  With no direct Obligation on anyone to take specific types of power, just overall government indicative supply targets, I assume it will be up to the market- which will presumably veer towards whichever option can offer the best deal in the short term. That is far from clear. On land wind looks likely to be the cheapest of the main non-fossil option at present, depending on how you do the sums and what other subsidies are on offer. But you get the feeling that the government sees nuclear as special:  it gave an early Christmas present to Sheffield Forgemasters in the form of a loan of up to £36 million "to continue its drive into civil nuclear and steelworks plant production."  But that's not a subsidy honest!  And even if it was then, they would no doubt say, similar offers have been, or will be, made to renewable projects. But a new £3bn MOX plant at Sellafield?  Difficult to justify...especially when the last (£1bn +) one didn't work.

Personally, rather than leave it up to the market, or backstage funding deals by civil servants, I'd rather leave it up to the democratic process to decide on big issues like which major technology to invest in.  But that's not our way any more, at least not until things go seriously wrong.  Then you may get terrible results, like 94% of the public voting against nuclear, as happened earlier this year in Italy. It couldn't happen here!

Genetic energy

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Genetically engineered food had not exactly been popular in the UK, with many people being worried about the risks. Quite apart from the dangers of cross-species gene transfer, some are concerned that the underlying aim is to enable suppliers to lock farmers into dependence on them. More generally, some see it as part of a wider claim that 'technology can fix everything, don't worry about impacts'.

Views like this are likely to shape reactions to the latest idea- genetically engineered energy crops. The back-story is that the first generation of biofuel crops has been widely criticised for being low yield, land hungry and undermining of food production. The second generation of non-food crops, it is claimed, will be better. But genetically, modified crops could, it's said, be even better- with much higher yields, and more resistance to drought, pests and diseases.

In fact in a new report on 'Next generation biofuels and synthetic biology', the Foundation for International Environmental Law and Development (FIELD) says that the aim is to go beyond simple genetic modification 'by splicing a few genes from one organism into another' and on to designing 'entirely new life forms with pre-selected functions, like the microbes which will digest trees and grasses and ferment them into biofuels, or the algae which will harvest solar energy to produce oil'.

Well actually that sounds interesting. So why not? FIELD offers some compelling arguments.

Minor genetic adjustments may not sound too horrific- it's what nature does slowly and we do a bit faster via selective breeding. But FIELD quote the Royal Society explanation that 'the synthetic biologist seeks to build a bespoke system (such as an organism) by re-designing an existing system or constructing one from scratch using parts taken from nature or specially designed. This approach can lead to organisms...with properties not found in nature.'

FIELD report that some synthetic biologists are designing 'a biological shell which will express synthetic DNA as flexibly as a computer runs programmes. The shell is created by disabling the genes of an existing organism one at a time and removing those that can be removed without killing the organism'. Others seek to catalogue and assemble biological parts like Lego bricks. FIELD says 'BioBricks, a leading effort of this type, is a registry of DNA sequences that each reliably perform a specific function. Each "brick" is designed to be compatible with the others.' Still others aim to construct synthetic life forms entirely from scratch using DNA synthesisers, 'the biological equivalent of word processors'.

FIELD notes that the world's first self-replicating synthetic genome, announced by the J. Craig Venter Institute in May 2010, was constructed in this way. Venter described it as 'the first self-replicating species we've had on the planet whose parent is a computer.' That certainly sounds worrying.

FIELD says 'It is extremely difficult to anticipate the risks and harms of a new science like synthetic biology, and therefore of next generation [GM] biofuels. Traditionally, the risks of new genetically engineered organisms are assessed by comparison with their known relatives. Containment rules and risk mitigation strategies are then set based on the rules for the known relative. But synthetic biologists are capable of designing organisms with no relatives in nature'.

It accepts that 'building "terminator genes" into synthetic organisms, or making them dependent on artificial substances, may decrease the likelihood of uncontrolled proliferation', but asserts that 'uncontrolled proliferation may occur despite best efforts at containment. Synthetic micro-organisms released into the environment, accidentally or intentionally, could share genes with other micro-organisms through horizontal gene transfer or evolve beyond their functionality. One hypothetical, worst-case scenario is a newly engineered type of high-yielding blue-green algae cultivated for biofuel production unintentionally leaking from outdoor ponds and out-competing native algal growth. A durable synthetic biology-derived organism might then spread to natural waterways, where it may thrive, displace other species, and rob the ecosystem of vital nutrients, with negative consequences for the environment.'

It goes on 'Synthetic biology also presents new bio-security threats. DNA sequences and design software are available online and synthesised DNA is available by mail order. In 2002, a team of researches at the State University of New York demonstrated the potential threat by recreating the polio virus from sequences of DNA ordered by mail.'

It then outlines the current state of play on regulation, but warns that 'there is little clarity on how synthetic biology is currently regulated under domestic and international law, and no clarity on how regulation should proceed'.

There are vast amounts of money potentially to be made from synthetic biology, and, given the rapidly developing field, those seeking to devise regulatory controls also face, in effect, a moving target. So perhaps it's hardly surprising that regulation is problematic.

Worried? FIELD clearly is. So too are Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace. Some may see all this as just scare-mongering by those who are basically anti-scientific progress, but there would seem to a valid cause for some concern. One way or another, we seem likely to be in for another round of the GM debate.

FIELD report: :

The UK governments new Carbon Plan, produced as required under the Climate Change act, looks at a core strategy based on a mix of renewables (45GW), Carbon Capture and Storage (28GW) and nuclear (33GW) by 2050, but also includes three alternative possible scenarios. In one, if CCS does not take off (just reaching 2GW) and renewables are restricted to 22GW, up to 75GW of nuclear is built by 2050. In the second, with CCS moving up to 40GW, nuclear is then at 20GW and renewables 36GW. However, in the third, renewables move up to 106GW, with nuclear at 16GW and CCS at 13GW by 2050. All three future scenarios are at

Some might say having three main options spreads the risks. Certainly there are risks and problems with each and it could be argued that some of these are sufficiently serious that the options should be reconsidered.

Nuclear Balance

We are used to hearing about the short-term economic, safety and security risks of nuclear, but there are also longer term issues- and beyond the usual one of waste disposal. In a report on 'Energy balance of Nuclear Power Generation' the Austrian Institute of Ecology and the Austrian Energy Agency have had another look at the issue of the full lifecycle energy requirements for providing the fuel for nuclear power plants. They looked at all the previous studies and concluded that, assuming the low growth scenario of the World Nuclear Association (WNA) and the IAEA data on uranium resources from currently operated uranium mines, reserves will be sufficient until 2055. If mines which are currently being developed are also taken into account, the uranium reserves would last until around 2075 in the low WNA growth scenario. However emissions from the increased use of lower grade uranium ore will rise, since uranium fuel production will get much more energy intensive.

With ore grades between 0.1-2%, the energy expenditure for generating one kWh of final energy is put at between 2-4%. With ore grade of 0.01% and 0.02% the energy expenditure rises to 14-54% and the resulting CO2 emission amount to 82-210 g/kWh. By contrast, CO2 emissions for renewabales are put at 3 - 60 g/ kWh.
The study notes that one third of currently operated uranium mines have an ore grade below 0.03%, but if we push ahead with more nuclear, then we reach the point when continuing become increasingly pointless in energy/carbon terms.

You might of course still continue with nuclear despite that, but below about 0.008 to 0.012 % ore grade, the report notes, 'the energy expenditure for the uranium mining is so high, that the overall energy balance turns negative... From this ore grade on, the operation of nuclear power plants does not generate any energy surplus.'

The only option then, if for some reason you wanted to continue to use nuclear, would be to use renewables to provide the energy for uranium mining and processing. It's just conceivable that uranium mines in Namibian might use solar PV power and those in Kazakhstan wind power, and that uranium ore processing plants will also use renewable sources, but surely it would not make sense to use renewable so wastefully. /

CCS delayed or dead?

The demise of the proposed coal-fired Carbon Capture and Storage pilot project at Longannet in Scotland, due to the high investment cost, led some to say CCS was dead as an option in the UK. One key issue for CCS evidently is the need to cover the risk of accidental sudden large scale CO2 release at some future point. Hard to quantify! For a spirited demolition of CCS see Eurosolar president Prof Peter Droege's review:

He notes that the IEA roadmap envisions that by 2050 3,000 CCS projects will capture and store 10 billion tonnes of CO2 annually, about a third of current global carbon emissions. He says that's 'a tall order, in view of the fact that not a single utility-scale CCS plant is currently operating on the planet'. He reports that 'American Electric Power, cancelled plans to deploy CCS at one of its big facilities - even though the U.S. government offered to pick up half the tab.' At best he says 'most observers peg 2020 or 2025 as the earliest date by which enough large-scale CCS plants are on-line and returning evidence to prove technical viability' However 'renewables are set to achieve grid-parity over the same period. This means that there will be risk that CCS becomes economically obsolete just as the returns come in.'

He concludes 'Funds can be far better spent on stimulating demand reduction and energy efficiency, improving renewable energy storage and two-way energy grids to balance intermittent generation, and - last, not least - to bank on 'carbon storage' that works: namely the active bio-sequestration of greenhouse gases in wetlands, moors, humus rich agricultural soil and in growing new forests.'

Nevertheless, CCS enthusiasts argue that it could be competitive with renewables and avoid their grid balancing issues. Some small pilot projects exists around the world and the UK government is still keen to press ahead with its £1bn CCS competition, if it can find a new candidate. In addition, there are it seems still 6 industrial consortia keen to compete for maybe 4 UK 'slots' in the EU subsidised (NER-300) CCS demo programme. The UK's proposed new CfD support system should also offer support for CCS, cheaper gas-fired plants included.

The Longannet coal project was to involve post-combustion capture and access to offshore storage via a 170 mile long pipeline. Some say a better first option would gas fired pre-combustion capture schemes, possible even using bio-methane in existing CCGTs. Many environmentalists are unhappy with CCS, not least since they say it will deflect support from renewables. But biomass-fed CCS would be carbon negative, assuming the biomass is fully replaced, so some see fossil-fed CCS as just a preliminary stage and as a bridge to a much more sustainable approach.

For an overview of EU CCS prospects: 23&toegang=115f89503138416a242f40fb7d7f338e&id=3361


Renewables certainly have their problems, not least, for some of them, intermittency, although that can be overstated. It's a relatively minor operational issue when the renewable input is below around 20%, and can be dealt with without leading to significant extra emissions using standard approaches, including the new breed of flexible, but high efficiency, combined cycle gas turbines, like the FlexEfficiency 50, developed by GE:

As more renewables come on line, we may need more energy storage capacity, and there are some clever new ideas emerging in the hydrogen field. The electrolysis of water is sometimes seen as inefficient, especially with variable electricity inputs, but RE Hydrogen say that their novel materials electrolyser can handle intermittent electricity inputs, usually a bugbear for wind or PV powered hydrogen generation:

More radically, there's a new idea for thermal dissociation of water at high efficiency using high temperatures and solid acid materials:

Meanwhile, Airproducts has developed a cryogenic system for storing energy as liquid air. It claims that overall energy conversion efficiencies of 75-85% are possible with up to 100MW storage for 12 hours:

Innovations like this, and also upgrades to the basic renewable generation technologies, are moving ahead rapidly around the world, with costs falling rapidly. And if you want to spread risks, well there are dozens of different types of renewables- real diversity. I know where I'd put my money!

Community Heat and Power

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Local community initiated and run renewable energy projects seem to be catching on around the EU. Wind co-ops have been very common in Denmark for many years- about 80% of the wind generation capacity is locally owned. It seems to be one reason why local opposition to wind is much lower than in the UK, where there are very few locally owned projects. As the Danes say ' your own pigs don't smell'.

It's similar in Germany where many projects are locally owned. A comparative study conducted in Germany by researchers from the University of Amsterdam concluded that the social acceptance of wind power is very high in general, and even higher when community members are directly involved. 62% of the residents near a community owned wind farm expressed a positive or very positive opinion on the wind farm in their neighbourhood and only 1 % had a negative or very negative attitude. In the case of the non-community owned wind farm, 47 % expressed a neutral opinion, while 26% were positive or very positive and 27 % were negative or very negative.

Stefan Gsänger, World Wind Energy Association Secretary General said: 'If we want to reach a 100 % renewable energy supply worldwide with wind energy as a cornerstone, we have to make sure that the local communities actively support this endeavour and that they benefit from the wind farms in their vicinity. Community Power ownership models offer an excellent approach to achieving this objective.'

The local ownership idea has also spread to other technologies. A well as being a leader in wind, Denmark, makes a lot of use of district heating, and it is now developing some solar-fed heat networks, with some of them being run as community cooperatives.

For example, the Brædstrup District Heating co-op owns the network and heat meters and delivers district heating to almost 1,400 households, covering around 95 % of the heat demand in the town. Supply temperatures are between 72°C in summer and 80°C in winter, and all heat meters are remotely read at years end. A General assembly is held once a year, mostly in March, and all members of the cooperative have access.

The 2006 general assembly decided to invest in a major solar heat collector panel installation to go along side the existing gas-fired plant. Financial support was received from the national TSO (€480k), and installation took place in 2007. Solar heat production from the 5.6MW 8.000 sq.m solar array was 3,229 GWh in 2009.

Their next project is to expand the solar array to more than twice the size of the existing one, and to develop a heat storage based on 100 holes in the ground, each with a pipe loop, where surplus solar heat can be stored and extracted later with the help of heat pumps. Financial support has also been applied for and received for this experimental project to the sum of €850.000. If it goes well, further expansion is foreseen.

Many more community solar heating projects like this have emerged, with back up heat stores, including the 13MW array at Marstal, soon to be doubled: see For more see:

Biomass is also being used as a basis for local community projects around the EU. For example, Juehnde is the first bioenergy village in Germany, meaning that it produces its electricity and energy for heating and cooling locally from renewable biomass resources. While the project was started in 2000, it reached the self-sufficiency level for energy in June 2006. In 2007, Juehnde produced around 5 m kWh electricity, while the village's consumption, with 750 residents in 200 households, 75% of whom are connected up, is about 2 m kWh. The excess is sold to energy providers. The major feedstocks for electricity generation are methane (biogas) produced from fermented liquid manure and locally grown energy crops. Heat is produced as by-product from electricity generation in a 700kWe biogas fired CHP plant and in Winter from burning woodchips. The major motivation behind the use of biomass is climate and resource protection. It's run as a co-operative.

Local agriculture, with 9 local farmers, is the backbone for operating the project, as 25% of the 1300ha farmland and 10% of the annual forest wood growth from its 800ha of woodland is contracted for bioenergy production. But there are also two PV solar arrays- 10 and 8.6kWpeak

The project received €3m in financial support from Federal, regional, and local government agencies. It proved so successful, that a number of other bioenergy villages are being developed, even without the same government support.

The largest so far are Rai-Breittenbach with 900 residents 90% of whom are served by 3.5MW of biomass and 30 kW of PV; Iden with 1000 residents and 250kW of biogas and 850kW of wood fired generation, serving 75% of the population; and Randeqq, with 1300 people supplied by 2.7MW of wood generation and some solar thermal, supplying 50% of the population. And more are on the way.

More at

So how far have we got in the UK? The Bay Wind co-op in Cumbria was the first breakthrough, and several more wind co-ops have followed including Westmmill near Swindon, also now a site of a solar co-op:

Scotland has been leader in the field, with support from the Community and Renewable Energy Scheme. That has assisted 105 electricity generating projects over the last 2 years, which it's claimed should result in an installed capacity of 53 MW and more are on the way. Overall, Community Energy Scotland have estimate that there is about 180 MW installed capacity of community owned renewables schemes currently under different stages of development and many more are planned. The 2020 Routemap for Renewable Energy in Scotland included a commitment to expanding the contribution from community schemes, with a new target of 500 MW community and locally- owned renewable energy by 2020.

One of the most recent projects is the community wind power scheme at Udny, Aberdeenshire, which is to be followed by Torrance Farm Community Wind Energy project at Harthill. A Community Trust Company has been formed to disburse the profits from the 800kW Udny scheme - £4 m over 20 years - which could go to fund projects such as a new community hall, a youth hut, a cinema or the expansion of a local paths network.

AAT has been trying to do the same thing in Wales, and there are many new projects emerging across England, via groups like CoRE, the Community Renewables Co-op:; FREE, Fowey Renewable Energy Enterprise ; and WREN, Wadebridge Renewable Energy Network

However it's up uphill struggle, not least to raise finance. The Renewable Obligation is not much use for smaller schemes- it's designed for large-scale commercial projects. On the continent the various Feed In Tariffs were by contrast much more use, and there were hopes that the UKs small FiT could help, but its support for PV has now been drastically cut back. The new scheme, backed by British Gas, is promising, with hundreds of hopefuls signing up, but it seems we have some way to go before we can expect to see anything like what's happening elsewhere in the EU.