9 Mar 2011

What if we face an energy glut?

Something I have blogged about before but seems all the more pressing since taking part in the 2050 Pathway debate, and playing with Prof David Mackay's 2050 calculator. Far from having to batten everything down to prepare for a world of extremely expensive low-carbon energy and possibly limited supplies, what if we end up with a glut of the stuff?

Press the nuclear option Button 4 on the calculator and it's immediately apparent that we are producing far more energy than we need without insulating a single house or fitting a single heat pump anywhere. OK, it's electrical energy and there are dozens of applications (mostly transport) which would struggle to cope with electricity as a fuel right now, but if we could gradually shift most of this across to electricity by 2050, we'd be home and dry. Well, not quite. I can't somehow see electric planes taking off, but just about everything else can be run on either electricity or fuel cells. Which require bucket loads of hydrogen, which is energy intensive to split from various compounds, but in a world of energy gluts, we have no problem using excess electricity to manufacture hydrogen.

But nuclear power? It's not sexy, is it? It's very expensive to build nuclear plants (but is it any more expensive than any of the other options?). And there are problems with nuclear proliferation and nuclear waste. And with uranium supplies. I know all that. But are these problems insurmountable? How about using thorium as a fuel instead? There's lot's of it and it's difficult to use it for nuclear weapons.

What's clear to me now is that it's going to be extremely difficult to reduce carbon emissions without using nuclear, even if it's only a partial solution. It involves getting lots of newish technologies to interact with one another and also involves managing intermittent supplies. Technically, it's all possible but it's not without huge risks too.

The problem of signing up to the nuclear Button 4 option is (for a housing blog) that it makes an awful lot of the demand-reduction stuff (which is my meat and drink) redundant. No more worrying about insulation and airtightness, nor about heat pumps or biomass or district heating. We could just plug electric boilers in everywhere and be done with.

It all seems extremely inelegant. But maybe it is the future? In a world where we are all mentally preparing to live the Good Life, the Jetsons will triumph after all.


  1. Francis - IrelandMarch 09, 2011


    I think the whole "Green" thing is being very over hyped - with every Yin there is a Yan

    I am waiting for the Yan of green and maybe this is it

  2. The problem of signing up to the nuclear option is (for a housing blog) that it makes an awful lot of the demand-reduction stuff (which is my meat and drink) redundant. No more worrying about insulation and airtightness, nor about heat pumps or biomass or district heating.

    But just imagine - housing blogs could then concentrate on so much more fun stuff than insulation and airtightness!

    And think of all the money freed up to spend on Schools'n'Hospitals.

    My hope is that renewables of various kinds will come down in price despite us wasting billions subsidising them. And then when they do become economical, we still have money left over after splurging lots of it on obsolete renewable tech to buy the new stuff.

  3. Mark BennettMarch 09, 2011

    Aside from the nuclear waste issue I think there is one big problem with Nuclear, that Prof Mackay made in his book. Principally that you cannot turn it off very quickly.

    Nuclear could be used to supply the background base load but we will always need to be able to react quickly to changes in demand, and nuclear isn't the solution to this.

    Many more pumped storage systems would be needed, like Dinorwig, to allow the peaks and troughs and night/day variations to be smoothed out.

    A possible migration to electric vehicles might help to smooth the demand, increasing the average usage overnight. There may also be some benefit long term in appliances that can time their power consumption based on grid loading, e.g fridges and freezers that could cut out at half time in the football to allow everyone to put their kettles on etc.

    We're a long way from having the infrastructure or technology to support either of these.

    So, I personally think that an increase in nuclear is probably necessary, but I don't think it is likely to be suitable for producing the majority of our energy.

  4. I'm not a fan of nuclear myself. I've no strong opinion one way or the other on whether it can be done safely: talk of 3rd and 4th generation reactors is intriguing but I don't know enough to judge and I for historical reasons I simply don't trust the industry to be at all honest about the downsides or the government to regulate it properly.

    There's lots of wild speculation about thorium reactors, etc. What we need are some working prototypes to see how well they really operate - and done very openly to build up confidence.

    In the mean time betting on nuclear without full understanding seems to be a really bad idea.

    Putting that aside, though, and assuming that we do have a fleet of reactors churning out 100 GW or so in Britain (i.e., considerably more than current electrical production) then I think Mark Bennett's concerns about load following aren't really valid. A smart grid would largely cover the problem, charging vehicle batteries and heating water or houses at the right time, but if that proves too awkward to operate or insufficient then I'd have thought that large-scale hydrogen production would be an ideal process for load balancing.

    The idea of very small (shipping-container sized) reactors is also intriguing as it would make nuclear CHP a sensible option.

    In the long run we should be looking to fusion. With governments fiddling about with this so half heartedly, though, that's going to be a very long run.

    In the mean time I vote we stick with the very low energy density fusion reactor 150×10⁹ m away.

  5. All interesting points. Like you, Ed, I'm no "fan" of nuclear (I doubt many people are - it's hard to get excited about a technology with a history like this - talk about baggage!) but maybe it's a case of needs must.

    I understand that the Indians are building trial thorium reactors (because they have a lot of thorium) so we will soon have something tangible to judge them by. It's not without issues, but then tell me an energy technology that isn't.


  6. Alan ClarkeMarch 10, 2011

    "too cheap to meter" I recall.

    My feeling was that the ease of producing nuclear and wind power in the model was completely unrealistic. If the model says it's that easy, which it plainly isn't, the model has to be wrong.

    Meanwhile demand reduction hardly existed - the best you could do with personal transport was keep mileage down to current levels - so clearly you needed electric cars + nuclear. However over last 10 yrs my household (still a 2 car rural household with kids) reduced car CO2 emissions by 70% by reducing mileage and changing cars. See also http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-12664047

  7. It won't work, the grid will crash every time it gets cold. We'd need 200-300 GW of new plant.

    Norway has a problem heating electrically even with lots of hydro, they even heat large buildings with oil (oil?!!) at times of peak demand and still it sometimes fails to meet demand.

    Also the Finnish and French nuke prototypes are way over time and over budget and American cost rises are worse.

    The main problem with the DECC model was that the powers that be closed off lots of options before releasing it on the public ... perhaps to get their desired answer?

    Electric vehicles are a bad joke, unless you think a 200 km range is OK. You'll pay more per month to lease the batteries than you now pay for fuel, and in cold weather the range will drop further due to heating the car.

  8. @ Mark Brinkley said...

    “All interesting points. Like you, Ed, I'm no "fan" of nuclear (I doubt many people are - it's hard to get excited about a technology with a history like this - talk about baggage!)“

    Nuclear today is producing the energy equivalent of 12 million barrels of oil each day - the output of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait combined, not including ships and subs - all without emitting Nox,Sox, C02 or very dangerous particulate air pollution. The safety record is
    unmatched by any other industry.

    No Nuclear means more coal and gas, it is that simple. Renewables are mostly weather dependant unreliable energy sources that depend on deploying collectors to capture the weak and diffuse energy and as a result cannot provide base, intermediate or peaking loads - they are not dispatchable.

    New nuclear does not mean that homeowners should abandon plans to update homes with much better insulation, windows etc . Heat trapping measures are invaluable until heat requirements are so low that eventually the electric grid can cope with the demand.
    Most car owners travel less than 40 miles a day, every car needs 10kwh of useable battery capacity to achieve a massive reduction in petroleum dependance.

  9. Blogger Alex877 said...

    "To Cheap to Meter" refers to a 1954 speech by Lewis L. Strauss - the politically appointed head of the Atomic Energy Commission in the USA. He was actually talking with Fusion Energy in mind at a time when un-metered electricity was still in living memory.

    The reason NP plants don't normally load follow is due to the fact that the cost of owning the plant is virtually the same as the cost of operating the plant, so it makes sense to crank it up to full power as often as possible. The fuel bill does not change based on actual use; nuclear plants refuel on a calendar schedule that is only loosely linked to the actual running time in between outages.
    Contrast this to Natural Gas.

    French PWR's load follow and German ones also are capable of doing so. BWR's actually load follow bit better than PWR's.

    Delays and cost overuns in first of kind reactor designs (EPR - France/Finland) are unfortunately to be expected. In the West the engineers that build the last generation have either died or retired so it takes a lot of time to regain the momentum.

    Remember, France within 10 years kicked oil use out of electicity generation and 10 years later 80% of electric power generation was and is still from nuclear. 58 plants in 20 years.

    Does anyone think Wind/Solar could do the same in the UK within 20 years?

  10. Alex,

    This nuclear lesson is very interesting and the stuff on thorium is fascinating, but the point I was striving to make in this post wasn't so much to do with how wonderful nuclear power might or might not be, but that we potentially have ways to make a surplus of electricity by 2050, and how this might effect our plans for demand-side reductions. Everybody (me included) thinks demand-side reductions are a good thing. But every now and then it is good to imagine a world where our assumptions get turned on their head.

  11. It's nice to imagine a lot of things, but this energy glut future isn't going to happen.

    When it comes to the future, all problems can be traced back to two things. Population levels, and human greed.

    The world is finite, but people live like it isn't. The explosion in the rate we have destroyed the future has been due to lots of readily available energy and medicine.

    Trouble is the demand for energy is now way beyond a sensible level, and the world will be picked clean of everything, not just energy.

    Imagine a car driving towards a cliff. You can brake, you can just keep going, or you can speed up. We seem to be doing the equivalent of 'giving it some gas'. Trouble is, even if we brake, it's too late. We're going over the cliff. There's going to be a crash.

    The human race has copulated it's way to a disaster, and medicine is to blame. If families have 6 children, you NEED 4 to die before breeding age otherwise... Medicine and good natured people have created a disaster waiting to happen. If you have medicine, you must also have birth control, that hasn't happened.

    We're doomed, and the misguided belief that science will save us is misguided. Our standard of living is not dependant on science, but energy. Lose that, and we go backwards.