Issue 8 | Winter 2019
From the Editor
Editor-in-Chief: Humera Ansari
Welcome to the 8th edition of the Energy Journal. We are turning the Switch On in this issue and discussing the key transformations happening in the global energy industry. We want to encourage you to consider the following and implement the ‘Switch On’ mentality in these challenging times. Switch On the technological innovation to help us reduce the impact of our energy usage. Switch On our ability to unite on a global level to achieve our climate goals. Switch On the energy policy required to make the transition towards ‘greener’ energy possible. Switch On the power to engage communities on a local level and help them become more sustainable. And finally, Switch On the push towards renewable technologies and the financial investment required to make these changes actually happen.
The benefit of having a collaboration between four universities, each offering a distinct area of expertise and a unique perspective, is centre stage in this issue. It is clearly reflected in the breadth of topics we cover and we hope we show you the wide-ranging impact of the energy sector. This issue is broken down into three sections: how we finance the transformation of the energy industry, what the impact of technological innovation is and lastly, the role of nuclear power in the energy transition.
The benefit of having a collaboration between four universities, each offering a distinct area of expertise and a unique perspective, is centre stage in this issue. It is clearly reflected in the breadth of topics we cover and we hope we show you the wide-ranging impact of the energy sector. This issue is broken down into three sections: how we finance the transformation of the energy industry, what the impact of technological innovation is and lastly, the role of nuclear power in the energy transition.
If you like the Journal, or would love to see something else, please let us know on our website. We would love to hear some feedback and continue to deliver content that is interesting to our readership.
Thank you for reading the Journal!
News in Brief
The European Investment Bank (EIB) has confirmed it will end financial support for fossil fuel projects such as coal, oil and gas, from the end of 2021. It has pledged to invest €1 trillion (£0.85 tn) in climate action and environmental sustainability from 2021 to 2030 and set a new Emissions Performance Standard of 250g of carbon dioxide per kWh, which will replace the current 550 gCO2/kWh standard.
The Russian newly finished ‘Power of Siberia’ gas pipeline, is due to be switched on on December 1, 2019 [Source: Gazprom]. It has a length of around 3000 kilometres and an export capacity of 38 billion cubic meters per year. That’s over 33000 times the volume of gas inside Wembley stadium!
The UK National Grid has made a new commitment for reducing its own direct greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. It had previously set a goal for a 70% reduction by 2030 and 80% reduction by 2050 and is already on track to achieving them, having delivered a 68% fall in emissions to date.
California’s Pacific Gas & Electric are not out of the woods yet with recent wildfires in the state linked to poor management of power lines from the company. With a liabilities bill of $30 billion still on the table, the utility firm filed for bankruptcy earlier this year and now face the possibility of public ownership, having cut power to over 3 million people in an effort to prevent further wildfires.
After months of intense debate, the French Parliament finally passed the “Energy Climate” Bill in September 2019. The bill aims to reduce France’s greenhouse gas emission while ramping up investments towards renewables. Some of the bill key points include the reduction of nuclear power from 75% to 50% of the country’s electricity generation by 2030, and a 40% decrease in fossil fuel during the same period.
In Mexico, the current government continues to pump money into state-owned oil company, Pemex, risking loss of foreign investment and tying the government’s budget to the fate of a company with $105 billion debt. The move goes against the previous administration and may thwart financial plans to expand social programs in the country.
Indian multinational conglomerate Adani won its final approval for its highly controversial Carmichael mine in Queensland, Australia. The long-delayed project had come under fire due to the expected greenhouse gas emissions it would produce and its location, adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef. The mine is scheduled to produce up to 10 Mt of thermal coal for export to India once it becomes fully operational.
On 9 August 2019, a lightning strike caused a power cut in the aoutheast of the UK, following the loss of a major wind farm and gas plant in rapid succession. 1.5 million customers were disconnected for up to 35 minutes, but trains suffered greater shortages, with King’s Cross station closed completely and tube stations plunged into darkness. The National Grid declared that systems acted as required but the inability to keep trains operating - as opposed to shutting down more households, which would cause significantly less distruption - has led to calls for a thorough investigation.
In Australia, plans for a new power station are heading down-under, as the government seeks to build at 27 km underground pipe connecting two resevoirs to generate hydro electricity. The project is controvertial as it will cost ca. £3.6 bn in a country where wind and solar energy have had such success and could be further invested in. Time will tell if the gamble pays off.
In the USA, the nation’s first hydrogen-powered train, ‘FLIRT H2’, is predicted to hit the tracks in 2024 following a contract reached between San Bernardino and Stadler. The train will only cover < 15 km but the possibility for more vehicles remains open.
The winds of change: 2019 has seen record low costs of offshore wind in the UK, dropping as low as £40 mWh, 30% less than in 2017. New projects are planned to power more than 7 million homes nationwide.
Saudi Arabia’s state-owned oil and gas company Saudi Aramco will finally not sell its shares to international investors, after the company formally announced its IPO. Instead, the kingdom decided that it will seek investments from its Gulf neighbours exclusively and seeks to raise $25bn instead of the $100bn previously hoped for.
Financing the Switch
UK Expenditure on Mitigating Climate Change
The UK, alongside the EU, has shown a keen interest in demonstrating their commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions through the United Nations 2015 Paris Agreement . The Paris Agreement provides a framework for 196 governments as well as industry and investors to retain the global temperature well below 2°C above the pre-industrial level; this is what scientists deem as irreversible levels of climate change that can be dangerous. The agreement also includes commitments from richer countries to assist poorer nations by providing “climate finance” to switch to renewables . The UK is one of the largest contributors to international climate finance, having committed to spending £5.8 billion between 2016 and 2021 . These funds are available for projects that stop and reverse deforestation. Further to this, the UK has doubled its agreement to the Green Climate Fund (GCF), aiming to offer £1.44 billion from 2020 to 2023 to support projects targeted to preserve the natural habitat . The UK government is also one of the leading contributors to the Global Environment Facility (GEF), planning to offer £250 million for the 2018 to 2022 period. The GEF has supported over 1,000 climate mitigation projects and contributed to reducing almost 3 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions produced . However, with promises of financial support for the coming years, the UK has been blamed for undermining its own climate change efforts. More money was found to be pumped into oil and gas based projects when finances spent abroad were reviewed. Research commissioned by the aid agency CAFOD and carried out by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) established that nearly a quarter of the Official Development Assistance also known as the overseas aid budget — was spent on fossil fuel development abroad. Between 2010 and 2017, the UK provided support for energy in the developing world with a total value of £7.8 billion, with 60% of the investments (£4.6 billion) spent on supporting fossil fuel energy projects in developing countries (Figure 1) .
Figure 1: The UK’s financial support for energy in developing countries from 2010 to 2017, with a total of £7.8 billion consumed. Research conducted by CAFOD in partnership with ODI using data sourced from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), UK Export Finance (UKEF) and Commonwealth Development Corporation (CDC) .
Indeed, the UK has spent 3.5 times more on fossil fuels than renewables during this period (2010-2017), Figure 1. In fact, in the two years following the 2015 Paris Agreement, the UK spent more on oil and gas than in the previous five years. This is rising rapidly; in 2018, funding support for fossil fuel projects abroad increased to £2 billion, in comparison to the £175 million spent in 2017 according to DeSmog . In contrast, the National Grid has recently confirmed that renewable energy sources (wind, solar, nuclear and hydro) have provided more electricity to UK homes and businesses than fossil fuels (coal and gas) for the first time since the first power plant was built in 1882. From January to May 2019, renewables produced 48% of the UK’s energy generation against 47% from fossil fuels . This landmark tipping point in the UK’s clean electricity generation has been reached through a decade’s effort in transitioning and revolutionising its power sources. As of late, during July, August and September of 2019, renewable energy has generated an estimated 29.5 TWh, compared to 29.1 TWh from fossil fuels (Figure 2) . This tremendous milestone shows that the UK has the capacity for large scale renewable energy generation to achieve national and international climate change targets. Additionally, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions further, in June 2019 the UK government awarded £26 million to accelerate the development of technologies for improved carbon capture, utilisation and storage in the hope of removing 40,000 tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere each year .
Figure 2: Quarterly electricity generation in the UK between 2009 and the third quarter of 2019 for fossil fuels and renewables. BEIS Energy Trends and Carbon Brief analysis of data from BM Reports .
Overall, the global warming crisis is expected to require extensive financial investment to achieve complete switchovers for many technologies; major infrastructure decisions need to be made as large scale transitions are vital. A thought-out response from the government is crucial to obtain an action-plan accompanied by legal policies that can be feasibly implemented to decarbonise by 2050, estimated at a cost of 1-2% of the GDP annually . Although, for the first time since 1882, renewable energy generation outweighed that of fossil fuels; the UK has spent £2 billion on fossil fuel projects last year alone (2018) . Furthermore, predictions still show global temperatures to soar higher than 2°C above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century; hinting that more financial backing is needed to fully switch to a more sustainable way of living as to mitigate dangerous levels of climate change.
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- Wykes S. UK support for energy 2010-2017: Protecting the climate and lifting people out of poverty? [Internet]. 2019 [cited 2019 Oct 22]. Available from: https://cafod.org.uk/content/download/49429/623388/version/4/file/UK Support for Energy 2010-17 Policy Briefing web version3.pdf
- Roach S, Collett-White R. UK Government Agency’s Annual Support for Overseas Fossil Fuel Projects Rises to £2bn [Internet]. 2019 [cited 2019 Oct 23]. Available from: https://www.desmog.co.uk/2019/06/27/ukef-fossil-fuel-support-2bn-2018-2019
- National Grid Media Centre - Britain’s clean energy system achieves historic milestone in 2019 [Internet]. 2019 [cited 2019 Nov 6]. Available from: http://media.nationalgrid.com/press-releases/uk-press-releases/corporate-news/britain-s-clean-energy-system-achieves-historic-milestone-in-2019/
- Evans S. Analysis: UK renewables generate more electricity than fossil fuels for first time [Internet]. 2019 [cited 2019 Oct 22]. Available from: https://www.carbonbrief.org/analysis-uk-renewables-generate-more-electricity-than-fossil-fuels-for-first-time
- UK’s largest carbon capture project to prevent equivalent of 22,000 cars’ emissions from polluting the atmosphere from 2021 - GOV.UK [Internet]. [cited 2019 Oct 26]. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/uks-largest-carbon-capture-project-to-prevent-equivalent-of-22000-cars-emissions-from-polluting-the-atmosphere-from-2021
- Electricity Market Reform-Contract for Difference: Contract and Allocation Overview EMR: Contract for Difference: Contract and Allocation Overview [Internet]. 2013 [cited 2019 Oct 22]. Available from: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/233004/EMR__Contract_for_Difference__Contract_and_Allocation_Overview_Final_28_August.pdf
- Eichler W. LocalGov.co.uk - Your authority on UK local government - Whitehall announces 12 renewable energy projects [Internet]. 2019 [cited 2019 Oct 22]. Available from: https://www.localgov.co.uk/Whitehall-announces-12-renewable-energy-projects/48182
Switching Investments in a Greener Way
After Winston Churchill decided to improve UK naval supremacy based on oil, he said: “Mastery itself was the prize of the venture.”  Owning oil has not simply meant the mastery over oil itself; it has meant the mastery of international order. The financial arena is heavily influenced by oil as well. Oil and gas remained popular field’s of investment in today’s low-yield environment as they are low risk - they generally have a high potential of return. Direct energy investments also have a low correlation to stocks and bonds and thus can be a portfolio diversification strategy . As such, fossil fuels are still popular with inverstors, despite poor stability in oil pricing today. Nevertheless, it seems like there has been a recent increase in investments towards a greener way. This article will examine the shift in investment at the national and international level, as well as private financing, and explore how oil companies are increasingly investing in sustainable energy.
The 2016 Paris Agreement accelerated shifts towards green energy investment at both the international and national level. The Paris agreement brought all states together to combat climate change and adapt to mitigate effects for the first time. The central goal of the agreement is to keep a global temperature rise below 2ºC above pre-industrial levels and strengthen global response to climate change . The overall policy paradigm is moving towards a low-carbon economy and is expected to bring structural change to the oil and gas industry. For instance, Government Pension Fund Global (GPFG), the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund which manages £770 billion of Norway’s assets, is diverting its investment away from traditional oil and gas shares. It will sell stakes in 134 oil companies but will keep stakes in large firms with renewable units such as Shell and BP. GPFG believes they will play a crucial role in developing green energy . Britain’s National Trust Charity announced it will stop investing in fossil fuels by 2022. The Chief Financial Officer, Peter Vermeulen, said the decision had both environmental and economic rationale as oil and gas producers were failing to evolve to be fit for a future . Not only investors at the national and international level, but also private investors are switching their investments towards sustainable energy. Private equity and infrastructure funds are increasingly investing on renewable energy assets like wind and solar. For instance, Allianz Capital Partners found that “investments in wind and solar projects offer an attractive annual income stream at an acceptable risk-return profile.”  Increase in sustainable energy investment comes from the continuous acceleration of the decarbonization in the power sector. Moreover, the renewable sector has matured enough to prove the viabilities of technologies of wind turbines and solar panels . In addition to private equity, major investment banks have also increased investment in renewables. To give an example, Rubicon has established a dedicated global renewable energy investment banking business and Macquarie took over the Green Investment Bank to show its support for the globalisation of the renewable energy industry . Macquarie insisted that the deal should be seen as “a positive sign of renewable energy evolving from an industry dependent on government support to one able to compete for mainstream international investment.” 
Probably most interestingly, even energy firms are increasing their investments in green energy sector. Even though the peak demand for oil has not yet occurred, oil majors are gradually facing the prospect of a declining industry . The rising cost of hydrocarbon extraction also creates an incentive to switch investments towards more affordable sustainable energy sources . Bloomberg identified “shareholder pressure, evolving new technologies and rapidly changing consumer preferences” as factors that pushed energy firms to invest in green energies . On the other hand, there is the perspective that oil companies transition is slow and they are avoiding rushing into renewable investments. Demand for oil and gas will continue for the foreseeable future and, while renewables could offer steady returns over time, these returns will initially be lower than those tendered by oil .
In summary, it seems green energy is no longer just about image. Switching investment to this area now means investing in a possible future trend. With increasing interests in sustainability and rising concerns about the future of oil and gas industry, investments are now slowly yet steadily diverting towards sustainable energy sources.
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- Ward A. Macquarie completes £2.3bn Green Investment Bank deal [Internet]. Financial Times. Financial Times; 2017 [cited 2019Nov9]. Available from: https://www.ft.com/content/e018d83a-835f-11e7-a4ce-15b2513cb3ff
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- Paraskova T. 2 Reasons Why Big Oil Isn't Rushing Into Renewables [Internet]. OilPrice.com. 2019 [cited 2019Nov9]. Available from: https://oilprice.com/Energy/Energy-General/2-Reasons-Why-Big-Oil-Isnt-Rushing-Into-Renewables.html
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- Vaughan A. Shell says it wants to double green energy investment [Internet]. The Guardian. Guardian News and Media; 2018 [cited 2019Nov9]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2018/dec/26/shell-says-it-wants-to-double-green-energy-investment
Germany Pumps €300m into Green Hydrogen Research Initiative in Pursuit of Clean Energy Transition
As part of the planned Energiewende (Energy transition in English), the Ministry of Education and Research in the German Federal Government has pledged to fund at least a further €300 m to advance research in technologies for green hydrogen production by 2023 . This announcement comes just a few months after the ministry has announced that €100m in funds would be annually allocated to this research field for the foreseeable future . With the decline in renewables expansion and difficulties in decarbonizing the transport sector, the Energiewende towards non-nuclear, sustainable power has provided increasingly challenging. The Deep Decarbonization Pathways report in 2015 showed that while sectors such as services and industry had achieved up to a 53% decrease in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from 1990-2014, the transport sector maintained the same GHG emissions amount over the same time period (164 m tonnes in 2014 vs. 163 m tonnes in 1990) . As such, Chancellor Angela Merkel established the socalled Climate Cabinet – a group of senior ministers with responsibilities in key climate policy fields – to agree on essential legislation to reach 2030 climate targets . This new influx of funds into clean hydrogen research comes after the Cabinet recently passed its draft legislative climate package earlier this year, which maps the sustainable energy infrastructure and renewable fuels portfolio outlook in Germany .
Chancellor Angela Merkel surveys CO2 neutral vehicles designs at the 2019 IAA International Motor Show in Frankfurt (Source: Bundesregierung).
The view among government officials, as well as power grid and gas network operators, is that hydrogen fuel is a promising candidate to break Germany’s dependence on coal power. The underlying attraction behind hydrogen as a renewable fuel is that it burns cleanly to solely produce water as a byproduct, without any carbon emissions. Of course, one could ask, “Why invest in hydrogen with the increasing spread of electric vehicles and battery-powered technologies?” Indeed, since the advent of Tesla, car manufacturers are progressively rolling out electric models of their vehicles to conform to the “new norm” in the automobile industry and stricter environmental regulations. However, with regards to energy density on offer, hydrogen fuel is far superior to battery technology. This means that a smaller amount of fuel is required to achieve the same energy output, which is advantageous for long-distance transport, such as aviation or tankers that require large quantities of fuel. In fact, the Hyundai Mirai, the world’s first commercial hydrogen-powered vehicle, offers a larger range on a full tank with much shorter fuelling times compared to the latest Tesla model (414 miles with 5 minutes of fuelling time with the Mirai compared to 300 miles with more than 1 hour charging time with the Tesla) . With regards to logistics, hydrogen gas could be readily distributed on a mass scale through modifications to existing gas pipeline networks, with the possibility to be blended with natural gas for domestic heat and electricity - a vision of the “hydrogen economy”. As well as being a clean fuel source, hydrogen could also provide a valuable means of renewable energy storage from intermittent sources - for example, when the wind is blowing strong at an offshore wind farm but there is not high demand for electricity .
[Hydrogen] could help solve one of Germany’s toughest challenges ahead: meeting rising energy demands and ensuring constant supply, even when the clouds form and the wind doesn’t blow.
Inga Posch, the managing director of FNB Gas e.V., the hub of Germany’s gas network operators, recently backed the prospect of a hydrogen economy and expressed that “the private sector interest has grown substantially since the realisation that we as a country are still overdependent on coal and have overlooked the potential of hydrogen.”  The Federal Economics Minister, Peter Altmaier, stated that “the government will decide on a hydrogen strategy by the end of 2019, which will create the conditions enabling businesses to further develop its industrial potential”. These comments come on the back of Altmaier’s desire for the country to become the global leading player in clean hydrogen technologies [9,10]. To-date, Germany is the first, and remains the only, country in the world to have launched a public hydrogen-powered train .
The reason that real impetus and interest in hydrogen research has only gathered steam now is the high cost and complexity of developing and commercializing the technology to industrial scale. Although hydrogen is the most abundant element on the planet, it is rarely accessible in its pure gaseous form (H2) due to its high reactivity with other elements. Moreover, existing production methods of hydrogen, such as the electrolysis of water, are expensive and wouldn’t be viable to generate mass power on the terawatt scale. As such, a clear gap in the energy and gas networks market continues to present itself and Germany seek to fill this. With the impending closure of nuclear power stations and the gradual phaseout of coal-fired power plants, hydrogen is being viewed as the route to achieving this goal. Chancellor Merkel has pledged to cut CO2 emissions by 50% compared to 1990 levels by 2030 . This pledge was further endorsed by the COP21 Paris Agreement in 2015. Indeed, levels have dropped a fair amount since 1990, though progress towards the goal has started to slip . This boost of €300m, in addition to the annual €100 m investment, is to be used to open 20 new research laboratories across Germany to test new hydrogen technologies for industrial-scale applications. Germany’s top energy companies are taking stock of this shift and making their move. Siemens AG announced in July this year that it is planning to construct a dedicated state-of-the-art hydrogen research laboratory in eastern Germany . Chancellor Merkel praised the firm’s bold initiative and called the move a “turning point” in transforming a region of the country that is still heavily dependent on lignite (pre-mined brown coal) mining into an innovation hub for clean energy. Meanwhile, RWE AG and Innogy SE are participating in a joint venture to evaluate a large-scale plant to generate green hydrogen close to the Innogy Westereems wind farm in the Netherlands .
A ccording to FNB’s Posch, Germany’s hydrogen demand in the transport and industry sectors is set to surge by 37% by 2030. Consequently, there are calls for the natural gas mix to carry a mandated share of renewable gases, namely hydrogen and biomethane, starting at 1% in 2021 and progressing to 10% by 2030 [13,16]. Implementing such large-scale renewable energy systems is going to necessitate agreement and co-operation on energy policy between government and industry. There also comes one of the key factors: money. Hydrogen production technologies are yet to be costcompetitive to fossil fuel sources, which is one of the reasons limiting their large-scale deployment . However, the International Energy Agency (IEA) believe that installing policies and incentives to companies could help reduce operating costs and capital investment in the long term.
In the same way that investment into battery technologies has led to the global rise in electric vehicles, the IEA believe that a similar approach could pay dividends with hydrogen. Indeed, if the technology is able to advance and reach an industrial readiness level in the next decade, it could help solve one of Germany’s toughest challenges ahead: meeting rising energy demands and ensuring constant supply, even when the clouds form and the wind doesn’t blow.
- Article: ‘Germany throws millions in funding into green hydrogen research’, Hydrogen Fuel News, URL: https://www.hydrogenfuelnews.com/germany-throws-millions-in-funding-into-green-hydrogen-research/8538597/
- Article: ‘Germany pledges 300 m Euros for green hydrogen research’, Bioenergy International, URL: https://bioenergyinternational.com/research-development/germany-pledges-eur-300-million-for-green-hydrogen-research
- Report: Hillebrant, K et al. (2015), Pathways to deep decarbonization in Germany, SDSN – IDDRI, URL: http://deepdecarbonization.org/wpcontent/uploads/2015/09/DDPP_DEU.pdf
- Article: ‘Merkel’s cabinet agrees climate packet – environmentalists say it’s paltry’, Deutsche Welle, URL: https://www.dw.com/en/merkels-cabinet-agrees-climate-packet-environmentalists-say-its-paltry/a-50517157
- Article: ‘Climate cabinet puts Germany back on track for 2030 targets’, Clean Energy Wire, URL: https://www.cleanenergywire.org/dossiers/climate-cabinet-put-germany-back-track-2030-targets
- Article: ‘Hydrogen fuel cell vs battery electric cars – which are better?’, The Week, URL: https://www.theweek.co.uk/electric-cars/101196/hydrogen-fuel-cell-vs-battery-electric-cars-which-are-better
- Article: ‘What’s the hydrogen economy?’, The Guardian, URL: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2012/oct/11/hydrogen-economy-climate-change
- Article: ‘Germany hopes to replace coal with hydrogen’, Energy Reporters, URL: https://www.energy-reporters.com/storage/germany-hopes-to-replace-coal-with-hydrogen/
- Article: ‘Minister of Economics announces hydrogen strategy’, Hydrogen International, URL: https://www.h2-international.com/2019/10/13/minister-of-economics-announces-h2-strategy/
- Press Release: ‘Altmaier verkuendet Gewinner im Ideenwettbewerb Reallabore der Energiewende, URL: https://www.bmwi.de/Redaktion/DE/Pressemitteilungen/2019/20190718-altmaier-verkuendet-gewinner-im-ideenwettbewerb-reallabore-der-energiewende.html
- Article: ‘Germany launches world’s first hydrogen powered train’, The Guardian, URL: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/sep/17/germany-launches-worlds-first-hydrogen-powered-train
- Article: ‘Germany unveils $60 billion climate package’, The New York Times, URL: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/20/world/europe/germany-climate-protection-merkel.html
- Article: ‘Germany turns to hydrogen in quest for clean energy economy’, Bloomberg, URL: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-08-02/germany-turns-to-hydrogen-in-quest-for-clean-energy-economy
- Press Release: ‘Siemens, free state Saxony and Fraunhofer sign future pact’, Siemens, URL: https://press.siemens.com/global/en/pressrelease/siemens-free-state-saxony-and-fraunhofer-sign-future-pact-gorlitz
- Press Release: ‘RWE and Innogy investigate production of green hydrogen in the Netherlands’, Innogy, URL: https://news.innogy.com/rwe-and-innogy-investigate-production-of-green-hydrogen-in-the-netherlands/
- Report: FnB Gas Network Development Plan 2020 -2030, Gas Scenario Framework Executive Summary URL: https://www.fnbgas.de/media/fnb_gas_2020_1_sr_konsultation_en_kf.pdf
- Report: Hydrogen from renewable power: technology outlook for the energy transition, International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), URL: https://www.irena.org//media/Files/IRENA/Agency/Publication/2018/Sep/IRENA_Hydrogen_from_renewable_power_2018.pdf
Has the Resource Curse met its Cure?
The push for renewable energy and sustainable development will affect the climate, the environment and the air we breathe. But what if it could also reduce the prevalence of inefficient and corrupt governments in developing regions and improve living standards for millions? The ‘resource curse’ is the name given to a recurring paradox by British economist Richard M. Auty, and it refers to the phenomenon of resource abundant regions often tending to be impoverished and ridden with social challenges .
This pattern is particularly prominent in fossil fuel abundant nations, and it is thought that oil abundance may play a role in procuring corruption, civil unrest and authoritarian regimes [2,3]. For instance, resource wealth may increase the stability of authoritarian regimes by ensuring a steady flow of capital from oil revenue. Venezuela for example, was dragged from being the richest country in Latin America, to nearly sub-Saharan levels of poverty in less than 20 years . Yet, its government clings to power by paying for military force through oil exports or by selling the rights to extract it [5,6]. Furthermore, the steady flow of capital into a fuel rich nation can mask the negative economic effects of poor administration practices which further engraves the status quo on the political landscape. Pemex for example, Mexico’s state-owned oil company brought forth a period of sustained development known as the ‘Mexican miracle’ with 6% GDP growth per year from 1940 to 1970. Yet Pemex, with a fiscal burden of 99.7%, barely had enough funds to modernise its infrastructure . As productivity of its major oilfields plummeted, Pemex became the most indebted oil company in the world and, with its profits squandered in political interests and inefficient investments, it was left incapable of carrying out drilling and exploration without significant foreign investment . These practices continued for over 50 years, but its repercussions were not felt until the ‘golden egg hen’ had dried up . The rapid growth fuelled by an oil-based economy often comes at the expense of institutional stability. However, the global push towards the use of alternative sources of energy may incentivise resource dependant nations to diversify their economies, as the commerce of fossil fuels becomes less advantageous in the long term.
Relationship between proven oil reserves and activity in renewables of eight of the world’s largest oil and gas companies. Adapted from .
Self-sufficiency is a major concern for governments and institutions. Thus, they actively adapt to the economic climate to secure a flow of capital from wherever it is available. Often, fossil fuel rich countries procure the development of these at the expense of social progress as it is a simple way of obtaining financial stability. This is self- evident given that regions with higher living standards, educational institutions and innovation tend to be service based economies.
When the financial means of a government stems from the capacity of its citizens to innovate and create new business models, the government tends to procure the development of its citizens and their living standards. In 2019 wind power in the UK became cheaper than gas, and as renewables are expected to become more efficient, traditional energy sources may eventually lose their competitive footing . If the governments of resource dependant economies see a reduction in resource revenue due to increased competition, they may feel pressured to switch on to a service based economy and alternative energy sources.
Moving towards non-conventional energy sources can help stabilise economies by incentivising their diversification.
Moving towards non-conventional energy sources can help stabilize economies by incentivising their diversification. Developing countries like Kazakhstan are particularly vulnerable to fluctuations in oil prices. With 30% of its GDP compromised of oil exports, Kazakhstan has vowed to supply 50% of its national energy demand from renewable resources by 2050 . By investing in these, the country would not only reduce its reliance on fossil fuels but would also diversify the economy by injecting capital into sustainable projects. A good example of this is the Norwegian government, who used their oil revenue surplus to create the largest sovereign wealth fund which has hit a trillion dollars in assets in 2017 . This way, the country can keep earning dividends from oil long after their reserves are depleted, and the fund has recently moved towards divesting in fossil fuels in favour of renewables . The drawbacks of a resource-dependent economy has also drawn the UAE towards a service based economy. In 2018, the emirates introduced a VAT of 5% which in its essence, is a shift towards a service based economy as they are increasing their reliance on tax collection . The progress of renewables and alternative energy sources is starting to make waves, and perhaps the evolution of the energy sector may indirectly bring an end to the resource curse.
The industry is constantly evolving given the context in which it develops. Currently, 6 out of the 7 ‘supermajors’ have already established a renewable venture capital fund, BP being a major outlier because of its high activity in the area of renewables despite having some of the largest proven oil reserves 1 . Yet for transitioning, governments should work hand in hand with industry, as the switch is as much out of necessity as it is out of foresight; BP Chief executive Bob Dudley has expressed his concerns on how government short-sightedness affects the evolution of the sector and slows down progress . For instance, Saudi Arabia announced billion-dollar investments on solar energy right after going into a budgetary deficit because of the 2016 dip in oil prices. This project would represent 20% of the world-wide renewable energy output. However, delivery has fallen short after the oil prices normalised. As of now, the construction of the solar facilities has not begun and the political will to build them has weakened [17,18]. All, despite recent estimates stating that Saudi Arabia may become a net oil importer by 2038 due to a growing national demand . The long-term benefits of shifting energy dependence on to renewables are already evident, yet these are often neglected due to short term gains.
In a nutshell, for a sustainable future to be possible both industry and public policy should prioritize it. Thus, society should continue pressuring government officials to favour the switch on to sustainable energy, as standing up for sustainable development might indirectly be a stand against corruption, authoritarianism and poverty.
- Auty RM. Economic Development and the Resource Curse Thesis. In: Economic and Political Reform in Developing Countries [Internet]. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK; 1995 [cited 2019 Oct 20]. p. 58–80. Available from: http://link.springer.com/10.1007/978-1-349-13460-1_4
- Ross ML. What Have We Learned about the Resource Curse? Annu Rev Polit Sci [Internet]. 2015 [cited 2019 Oct 19];18(1):239–59. Available from: http://www.annualreviews.org
- Myers K, House C. Petroleum, Poverty and Security [Internet]. [cited 2019 Oct 20]. Available from: https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/default/files/public/Research/Africa/bppetroleum.pdf
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- Ellisworth B, Armas M. Cómo una reforma militar dejó las tropas del lado de Maduro [Internet]. 2019 [cited 2019 Oct 20]. Available from: https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/venezuela-military-es/
- Raposa K. Venezuela’s Guaido Says Russia Not Propping Up Nicolas Maduro [Internet]. 2019 [cited 2019 Oct 20]. Available from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/kenrapoza/2019/02/27/venezuelas-guaido-says-russia-not-propping-up-nicolas-maduro/#66a8fb276b91
- Alire Garcia D. Mexico to keep pumping Pemex for tax money despite promised reforms - Reuters [Internet]. 2013 [cited 2019 Oct 20]. Available from: https://www.reuters.com/article/mexico-reforms-pemex/mexico-to-keep-pumping-pemex-for-tax-money-despite-promised-reforms-idUSL1N0IB0OI20131030?feedType=RSS&feedName=marketsNews
- Stillman A. How Pemex Became the Most Indebted Oil Company in the World - Bloomberg [Internet]. 2019 [cited 2019 Oct 20]. Available from: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-02-26/how-pemex-became-the-most-indebted-oil-company-in-the-world
- Forbes Staff. Se nos fue acabando la gallina de los huevos de oro: Peña Nieto [Internet]. 2017 [cited 2019 Oct 20]. Available from: https://www.forbes.com.mx/la-gallina-los-huevos-oro-se-nos-fue-acabando-pena-nieto/
- Milligan R. Wind Power Now Cheaper than Gas. 2019; Available from: https://www.energysavingtrust.org.uk/blog/wind-power-–-now-cheaper-gas
- Cohen A. Oil-Rich Kazakhstan Begins The Long March Towards Renewables [Internet]. 2019. Available from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/arielcohen/2019/10/18/oil-rich-kazakhstan-begins-the-long-march-towards-renewables/#6aff4be735c6
- Something for a rainy day - Norway’s sovereign-wealth fund passes the $1trn mark | Finance and economics | The Economist [Internet]. [cited 2019 Oct 25]. Available from: https://www.economist.com/news/finance-and-economics/21729458-5m-odd-norwegians-own-more-1-all-shares-world-norways
- Holger D. Norway’s Sovereign-Wealth Fund Boosts Renewable Energy, Divests Fossil Fuels - WSJ [Internet]. 2019 [cited 2019 Oct 25]. Available from: https://www.wsj.com/articles/norways-sovereign-wealth-fund-boosts-renewable-energy-divests-fossil-fuels-11560357485
The Southern Gas Corridor in the New Market Realities
The Southern Gas Corridor (SGC) project aims to increase and diversify European energy supply by bringing gas resources from the Caspian Sea to markets in Europe. The SGC consist of four projects:
- The development of Shah Deniz natural gas- condensate field;
- The extension of the existing South Caucasus Pipeline (SCP) to a capacity of 23 billion cubic metres of natural gas (bmc) per year. It will transport gas across Azerbaijan and Georgia;
- The expansion of the Trans Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP) from a capacity of 16 to 32 bcm per year. It will transport Shah Deniz gas across Turkey;
- The Construction of the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) with a capacity of 10 bcm per year, which will take gas through Greece and Albania into Italy.
These projects, which will take Shah Deniz gas on a 3,500 kilometre journey from the Caspian Sea into Europe (See Fig. 1), have an estimated investment cost of approximately US$40 billion.
Figure 1: The Southern Gas Corridor. Source: Petroleum Economist.
The history of SGC dates back to 1996 when Azerbaijani state oil company SOCAR and an international consortium of foreign oil companies led by BP signed the exploration, development and production sharing agreement (PSA) for the prospective Shah Deniz area in the Azerbaijan sector of the Caspian Sea. The Shah Deniz 1 (SD1) field was discovered in 1999 and gas production started in 2006. The Shah Deniz 2 (SD2) gas production commenced in June 2018. By 2021-22 the SD2 project will add 16 bcm of natural gas per year to 10.9 bcm already produced under SD1 project . Out of 16 bcm of gas from the SD2, Turkish BOTAS will buy 6 bcm per year, while 10 bcm will be supplied to EU countries. This means that Europe will receive about 2 per cent of its demand via the SGC. The Azerbaijani gas will play a more significant role for Turkey and southern- eastern European countries than for major European gas markets .
According to Ms Rzayeva, the SGC is currently facing a number of problems. Among them are high transportation costs, low gas price, pipeline construction delays, Shah Deniz gas production dynamics, and competitive Russian gas pipeline projects.
Overall, the situation in the European markets has changed significantly comparing the time when the SGC project was initially discussed and planned. The current low gas prices remain the major constraint for the development of the SGC. The SD 2 high transportation costs make the margins extremely tight. In this environment, the Azerbaijani gas may struggle to be competitive in the European markets. But in Turkey, the Caspian gas may contribute to the diversification of supply.
- BP Azerbaijan (2019) Shah Deniz project timeline. [Online]. Available from: https://www.bp.com/en_az/caspian/operationsprojects/Shahdeniz/projecthistory.html (Accessed: 10 November 2019).
- Gazprom (2019) TurkStream. Gas exports to Turkey and southern and southeastern Europe. [Online]. Available from: https://www.gazprom.com/projects/turk-stream/
- Kravtsova, E. (2019) Russian exports to Turkey, southeast Europe squeezed by LNG, Azeri gas, Reuters, 6 September. [Online]. Available from: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-lng-europe-russia-analysis/russian-exports-to-turkey-southeast-europe-squeezed-by-lng-azeri-gas-idUSKCN1VR0KI (Accessed: 10 November 2019).
- Pirani, S. Let’s not exaggerate: Southern Gas Corridor prospects to 2030. OIES PAPER: NG 135, Oxford Institute for Energy Studies. July 2018. [Online]. [Accessed 10 November 2019]. Available from: https://www.oxfordenergy.org/publications/lets-not-exaggerate-southern-gas-corridor-prospects-2030/
- Rzayeva, G. Gas Supply Changes in Turkey. Energy Insight: 24, Oxford Institute for Energy Studies. January 2018. [Online]. [Accessed 8 November 2019]. Available from: https://www.oxfordenergy.org/wpcms/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Gas-Supply-Changes-in-Turkey-Insight-24.pdf
The Power Crisis of Modern Computing
The field of computing has experienced radical advances in recent decades, especially in areas such as machine learning (ML). Computers have caught up to, and in some cases even surpassed, humans in carrying out tasks once believed impossible to be performed using a machine. Whether it is personalised web search or virtual assistants on our mobile phones, the computing services that we use are getting smarter every day. Unfortunately, this comes at the cost of extremely high power consumption. However, a radically different approach to computer hardware is presenting exciting possibilities for solving this problem.
Data centres could use up to 20% of the world's power by 2025.
When Google DeepMind’s computer program AlphaGo beat the world champion Lee Sedol at the game of Go in 2016 , the whole world was stunned. The game of Go was thought to be extremely difficult for computers to master due to its complexity, but novel ML methods enabled DeepMind to overcome various challenges. However, one thing that gained very little attention was the hardware. For the AlphaGo program to play in real time, it required hundreds of processing units . This resulted in around a million watts of power consumption, compared to just twenty watts of the human brain, which can be thought of as the “hardware” of Lee Sedol.
The example of beating the world champion at a ridiculously complex board game is, of course, extreme, but it is nevertheless indicative of a serious problem at the heart of modern computing. We continue to demand more services which are powered by ML and the rapidly growing popularity of smart devices will only contribute to the trend. For such reasons, it is estimated that data centres could be using 20% of the world’s power by 2025 .
To tackle the problem at hand, we first need to understand the inefficiencies behind ML. One of the most popular techniques in ML is neural networks. These are models that vaguely mimic the structure of the biological brain and are used for tasks like classification, e.g. recognising handwritten numbers (see Figure 1 A). Neural networks often take up a lot of space in memory. The issue is that in conventional computers, memory and computation modules are separated. When a neural network needs to perform a task, massive amounts of data need to be transferred from one place to another in a computer, which requires a lot of energy. Additionally, all of the information stored in a neural network is constantly processed – numbers are getting added and multiplied all the time. To humans these mathematical operations may seem straightforward, but computers, which operate digitally (in ones and zeros), might require thousands of miniature devices (transistors) just to multiply a few numbers.
A possible solution to these problems might be a new kind of hardware. Recently, there has been a push towards neuromorphic engineering: the concept of novel hardware that mimics neuro-biological circuits. The idea possesses potential because the neural networks that we use in computer science draw inspiration from biological architectures. However, the latter are much more power-efficient than any ML application running on conventional computer hardware.
One of the most promising neuromorphic technologies is memristors. These are devices whose resistance can be easily changed. When in a specific arrangement, thousands of memristors could be used to represent the most basic elements of neural networks, synapses (see Figure 1 B). This means that neural networks could be implemented physically using designated devices, instead of using current digital architecture, which is not suited for the task. The specific arrangement of memristors would enable them to perform many millions of mathematical operations in an instant without moving any data. This would allow the power consumption of neural networks to be reduced by orders of magnitude.
Implementation of a neural network using memristors. A) An example of a neural network for recognising handwritten digits. Input (an image of a handwritten digit) is fed into the leftmost layer, after which the signal propagates to the right. A prediction (guessing what digit the image depicts) is made by the rightmost layer of the network. B) Memristor arrays used to implement parts of a neural network physically. Each device in each of the arrays implements a single synapse (connection) of a neural network.
So why are we not using this exciting new technology already? Unlike transistors, which are digital, memristors are analogue devices, meaning that instead of representing just ones and zeros, they can represent numbers on a continuous range. Although this enables higher capacity, small changes to memristors can have a noticeable effect on their operation. For example, a slight increase in temperature could lead to a different resistance of a memristor. In the context of physical implementation of neural networks, where information is encoded using resistance, this could manifest as decreased classification accuracy. In transistors, on the other hand, small changes usually do not change the device’s state because ones and zeros are two clearly separated levels.
To better understand this trade-off between capacity and precision in digital vs analogue devices, consider the following analogy. Imagine a coin that is lying flat on a table. Its binary (‘digital’) state could be its top side (heads or tails) and its ‘analogue’ state could be its precise position on the table. The coin’s ‘analogue’ state could take infinitely many more values than its ‘digital’ state, though at the expense of sensitivity. A small push to the coin is unlikely to flip it, but the push will certainly change the position of the coin on the table at least a little bit.
The issue of sensitivity is at the core of the mission to make the much more efficient neuromorphic hardware possible. Although important, environmental factors are not the only ones affecting memristors. When manufacturing these devices, it is difficult to make them all identical, thus we should expect some variability. Besides, they might change throughout their lifetimes after many use cycles, resulting in their decreased performance. This is currently being addressed in different ways, either by simply improving the build-quality of the memristors , integrating them with more reliable digital devices  or by improving performance at a system-level .
Neuromorphic electronics is likely to become more mainstream in the very near future . With the improving performance and reliability of memristors, they might soon become part of conventional computing systems. Although digital electronics are here to stay, it is highly probable that our computers, mobile phones and smart devices will shift to being more modular. For example, digital modules may continue to be responsible for traditional computing tasks, while newly introduced neuromorphic modules could take on more exotic tasks, namely ML. The latter modules would significantly reduce the power consumption and thus give us a fighting chance when combating the effects of the projected power demands.
Modern computing, together with ML, has produced amazing results in recent years. The price incurred for such gains has come in the form of the drastic increase in power consumption, resulting from the current computer hardware not being suited for ML applications, namely neural networks. A new kind of neuromorphic hardware enabled by analogue devices called memristors, could be the key to solving this problem. Although this technology still faces challenges, recent advances seem promising – there is a very real possibility that in a few years’ time, all data centres and all of our computing devices will be more neuromorphic and thus more power-efficient and environmentally friendly.
- S. Borowiec, “AlphaGo seals 4-1 victory over Go grandmaster Lee Sedol,” 15 March 2016. [Online]. Available: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/mar/15/googles-alphago-seals-4-1-victory-over-grandmaster-lee-sedol.
- D. Silver, A. Huang, C. J. Maddison, A. Guez, L. Sifre, G. v. d. Driessche, J. Schrittwieser, I. Antonoglou, V. Panneershelvam, M. Lanctot, S. Dieleman, D. Grewe, J. Nham, N. Kalchbrenner, I. Sutskever, T. Lillicrap, M. Leach, K. Kavukcuoglu, T. Graepel and D. Hassabis, “Mastering the game of Go with deep neural networks and tree search,” Nature, vol. 529, no. 7587, pp. 484-489, 2016.
- A. S. Andrae, “Total Consumer Power Consumption Forecast,” in Nordic Digital Business Summit, Helsinki, 2017.
- J. Woo, K. Moon, J. Song, S. Lee, M. Kwak, J. Park and H. Hwang, “Improved Synaptic Behavior Under Identical Pulses Using AlOx/HfO2 Bilayer RRAM Array for Neuromorphic Systems,” IEEE Electron Device Letters, vol. 37, no. 8, pp. 994-997, 2016.
- S. Ambrogio, P. Narayanan, H. Tsai, R. M. Shelby, I. Boybat, C. d. Nolfo, S. Sidler, M. Giordano, M. Bodini, N. C. P. Farinha, B. Killeen, C. Cheng, Y. Jaoudi and G. W. Burr, “Equivalent-accuracy accelerated neural-network training using analogue memory,” Nature, vol. 558, no. 7708, pp. 60-67, 2018.
- D. Joksas, P. Freitas, Z. Chai, W. H. Ng, M. Buckwell, W. D. Zhang, A. J. Kenyon and A. Mehonic, Committee Machines—A Universal Method to Deal with Non-Idealities in RRAM-Based Neural Networks, arXiv preprint arXiv:1909.06658, 2019.
- IBM Research, “IBM Scientists Demonstrate Mixed-Precision In-Memory Computing for the First Time; Hybrid Design for AI Hardware,” 17 April 2018. [Online]. Available: https://www.ibm.com/blogs/research/2018/04/ibm-scientists-demonstrate-mixed-precision-in-memory-computing-for-the-first-time-hybrid-design-for-ai-hardware/.
Why Don’t we Cover the Sahara Desert with Solar Panels?
In 1986, German particle physicist Gerhard Knies said that « we are really, as a species, so stupid [not to make better use of solar energy] ». We are constantly being repeated that a transition to green and clean energy is crucial, especially as our energy needs keep increasing. While megacities are beginning to install solar panels on our roofs, it’s impossible not to ask ourselves why the Sahara Desert, the area which receives the most sunlight on Earth, still has not been exploited to its full potential.
A bit of history & the wakeup call.
Already in 1914, American engineer Frank Shuman wrote in a letter to the Scientific American magazine that "The human race must finally utilize direct sun power or revert to barbarism.'' While there weren’t any concerns regarding the limits of fossil fuel resources yet, greenhouse emissions were suspected to be responsible for an increase in global temperatures. However, it is the dangers of nuclear power, which was initially, and still is today by some politicians, considered as a ‘clean’ energy, which really spread awareness for the need for safer and more environmentally friendly resources. Indeed, in 1986 — two decades before Fukushima — the potential terrible consequences of a nuclear accident were seen. Quite ironically, during a safety test of the reactor at Chernobyl, a catastrophic explosion happened causing the death of 31 people in part because of the initial dose of radiation they deceived. In addition, the lasting effect of the fallout also caused further deaths. This, therefore, pushed scientists to find new ways to supply mankind’s needs for energy.
The potential of the Sahara Desert
Following this, Gerhard Knies searched for new energy resources and discovered the potential of the Sahara Desert. After a few calculations, he found that the solar energy received by the Sahara Desert in just six hours is greater than the total energy consumed by all humans in a year. And while this calculation was made in the 80’s, the results are still relevant. In 2015, the total global energy usage was around 17,4 TW power. To supply such energy demand, 43,000 square miles of solar panels, representing just 1.2% of the 3.6 million square miles of the Sahara Desert. In addition, the Great Sahara Desert is the area which receives the most sunlight on Earth Coal, oil, and nuclear could never possibly compete with that.
A frequent question raised is what would be the effect of covering the desert with solar panels, especially on ecosystems. But the fact that just 1.2% of the desert could replace all other energy resources in the world can certainly reassure us: the environmental gains from this project would most probably far outweigh the possible damage on the relatively small area of the desert (think of the effects of coal mining, acid rain, and nuclear waste). Actually, solar panels could create a new ecosystem in the region or help existing ones to flourish as the panels can provide shade. Actually, the dark color of solar panels could increase rainfall, thus allowing the desert to retrieve the vegetation it most probably possessed a thousand years ago. Indeed, this dark color would warm the ground causing the air to rise and form clouds. Furthermore, solar farms can also help limit sandstorms which contaminate the air and cause dramatic peaks of pollution in nearby cities by stabilizing the sand.
It is impossible to imagine that such potential wouldn’t attract large investors, and it initially did. Indeed, the Desertec Project was launched in 2009 and planned to cover some areas of the Sahara with solar panels to then provide most of this energy to North African and Middle Eastern countries while the rest could be exported to Europe to cover 15% of its energy needs (which would generate €60 billion euros). Meanwhile, Europeans would save €30 per MWh. Thus, it could have been seen as a win-win situation, without even taking into account the number of jobs this could create.
But the reason this project still has not seen the light of the day could suggest that it’s still a mirage: funding, technology, but most importantly political tensions and backlash from colonial times have seriously limited the exploitation of the desert.
The limits of the Saharan Desert project: funding, technology, and colonial history
Technically, there is one very simple issue but yet extremely complicated to solve that prevents us from creating solar farms in the Sahara Desert: cleaning them. Indeed, it is estimated that solar panels’ degradation can reach 2% per day due to dusty conditions. While this may not seem dramatic at first sight, efficiencies can decrease quite rapidly because of this. In turn, a high volume of water is needed to wash the panels which thus creates another environmental issue. Add to this the fact that their production is not 100% environmentally-friendly — a semiconductor manufacturing technology is needed (meaning that the materials produced must have electric conductivity which is between that of a conductor and an insulator) which thus generates pollution. Moreover, capacity management makes the project even more utopian. Indeed, Susanne Nies, head of Energy Policy and Generation at Eurelectric, the European electricity industry association, explains that “At a very basic level, we are still missing lines and capacities for export […] Spain is already struggling with its own excess renewables production – additional imports from third countries would certainly compound the problem”. What Nies points out is that there is a lack of grids to connect Maghreb and Europe at a level of energy which would exceed 100GW. Thus, large funding in research and development would be crucial to make this dream a reality, which, according to Desertec, would not even happen before 2050. Therefore, the high cost of the project — 400 billion euros — explains why out of the 17 initial investors (which included EON, Siemens, and Deutsche Bank) only three remained just five years later after the beginning of the project.
But technology and funding are not the only factors which made investors opt out of the project for more near-term profits: the political tensions and European colonial history adds another dimension of issues. Experts such as Professor Tony Day, director of the Centre for Efficient and Renewable Energy in Building at London South Bank University, Henry Wilkinson of Janusian Security Risk Management, and Wolfram Lacher of Control Risks consultancy have researched this issue and concluded these political issues consist in dramatically important obstacles to the project’s success. First of all, centering the world’s power supply in Libya, a country that has been and is being devastated by a civil war, clearly puts forward the critical security aspects of the project. More generally, for the whole of Europe to rely on countries which, for some, have had issues with corruption has increased concerns over the project. Desertec would also need for Algeria and Morocco to extensively work together when these two countries have closed their common border due to to a conflict regarding the Western Sahara. In addition, the large-scale cooperation between North African and European countries seems challenging due to heavy bureaucratic policies and, in particular, expropriation of assets. This explains why while the Arab League initially supported Desertec, countries member of the group are now backing off. For instance the Moroccan Agency for Solar Energy’s board member Obaïd Amrane emphasized that electricity consumption dramatically increasing in the country (due to a betterment in living standards) combined with the fact that 97% of Morocco’s energy resources are imported is pushing the Moroccan government to first keep new energy resources for the country rather than to sell it to Europe. More generally, there is also a form of reticence from local citizens due to colonial history. Indeed, Daniel Ayuk Mbi Egbe, a member of the African Network for Solar Energy, underlined that "[Europeans] make promises, but at the end of the day, they bring their engineers, they bring their equipment, and they go. It's a new form of resource exploitation, just like in the past». Thus, while the initial idea seemed great, funding, technology, and politics make it quite difficult for it to see the light of the day.
There is, however, a glimpse of hope for this project to happen. Dry cooling is a recent technology that could clean solar panels at a higher price but without using as much water as normally needed. In addition, an EU innovation project brought about the improvement of a silicone-based film with a Nano-Dentrite structure on it. The film is melded over the solar panels and the Nano-Dentrite structure makes that sand, water, salt, microscopic organisms, and molds cannot grip unto the Photovoltaic panels, therefore reducing the need to frequently clean these.
Moreover, while the idea of transmitting solar energy on very long distance has been often criticized, research has shown that the energy could be “cascaded” from one country to another in order for each state to collect its energy from a neighboring one rather than from far-away desert areas. Lastly, while the political obstacles are numerous, the direct effects of climate change on populations are increasingly portraying the emergency of the green transition. This, added to international and domestic pressure, could hopefully push countries to collaborate to create a safer, brighter, and more environmentally friendly future.
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Light Up - Municipal Waste to Electricity
According to World Bank, IBRD data, an estimated 840 million people do not have access to electricity . More than 95% of those live in countries located in Sub-Saharan Africa and developing Asia .
According to World Bank, IBRD data, an estimated 840 million people do not have access to electricity.
In terms of waste production, the fastest growing regions are Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, for which, by 2050, the total waste generation is expected to triple, double, and double respectively . Such waste generation could potentially contribute in solving the problem stated above, of not having access to electricity. Each year 2.01 billion tons of municipal (Household and Business waste collected by the local waste collection authority) waste are produced globally . Of this figure, advanced countries produce 34% (683 million tons) of municipal waste . The rest of the waste 1.372 billion tons of waste generated in the developing counties has the potential to be converted to 1012.14 Kwh/ person of electricity for the 840 million people who do not have access to electricity. This is considering that waste is efficiently converted to energy. It is often argued that waste can be recycled better than being converted to electricity, due to the gas emission involved during the conversion process of waste to energy. However, statistically it has been observed that only 15%–20% of waste is recycled . The municipal solid waste produced in developing nations is often not segregated at the source, which makes recycling even more challenging, and often impossible. It can also be argued that the emissions released from the waste-to-energy conversion are minimal, since they are controlled. Though zero waste is ideal, it is impossible to achieve, hence in the current scenario alternative ways to manage waste should be considered. 15%-20% of the waste produced in developing countries is recycled, while the remaining is left unattended to. This creates a large social and economic cost on society but can be turned into an advantage by generating electricity from it. The conversion procedure involves processes such as incineration, gasification, pyrolysis and anaerobic digestion. Some developed countries have benefited from their processes. Sweden, for example, by burning trash and converting 52% of it into energy. The amount of energy generated from waste alone provides heating to 1 million homes and electricity to over 250,000 Swedish citizens .
Waste generated is projected to increase to 3.40 billion tonnes by 2050, hence it is vital to start investing in waste management techniques.
An overview of the process by which electricity is created by burning trash in a waste-to-energy plant.
Furthermore, the amount of waste generated, is projected to increase to 3.40 billion tonnes by 2050, hence it is vital to start investing in waste management techniques in both developing and underdeveloped nations. However, the number and capacity of waste-to-energy-plants is very little compared to the enormity of waste produced. Currently there is only one waste-to-energy-plant in all of Africa .
Composition of Municipal Waste
Waste can be broadly classified as organic and inorganic. The composition of municipal waste is likely to vary from place to place, depending on economic development, climate, culture, energy resources, whether it is a rural or urban rea, etc. For example, low income countries are more likely to produce more organic waste, whilst developed countries are more likely to produce more inorganic materials. The cause of this is the consumerist lifestyle in the developed world. The waste segregation mechanisms also vary depending on the knowledge that citizens hold on waste management and what the municipality mandates of the citizens. Therefore, to create optimum energy from municipal solid waste, a mix of technology, suitable to the type of waste generated, is required. The following section briefly describes the various methods that can be employed to convert waste to electricity.
Waste treatment methods can be classified as Thermochemical or Biochemical processes.
- Pyrolysis: Waste is degraded using external thermal energy in the absence of oxygen. Here, the temperature is kept between 300 - 800°C. At 300°C, materials such as biological waste are degraded. Then, as the temperature is increased, the other materials are degraded. Solid, liquid and gaseous residues remain in the end. Syngas, the gas produced during pyrolysis process, is used to produce electricity. The liquid waste can be distilled to create a diesel like product.
- Gasification: In this process waste is partially oxidised, which leads to the production of fuel gas. Gasification can reduce the waste mass by 70%. The range of effective temperatures lies between 700 and 900°C. The Syngas produced in this process can be used to produce electricity.
- Incineration: In this process waste is burnt in combustion chambers at temperatures between 900 and 950°C, using flue gas and pre-heated air. This process has come under criticism as it releases greenhouse gasses if not treated properly. However, there are technologies being developed to control this side effect. The combustion process of incineration takes place in the presence of oxygen, while in pyrolysis and gasification the combustion happens without oxygen and with partial presence of oxygen respectively (usage of less oxygen in the combustion process reduces the emission of greenhouse gasses).
- Landfill gas utilization: A recent study showed that worldwide landfills produce around 75 billion Nm3(Normal cubic meter) of gas, but less than 3% of this potential is used to produce energy or heat . The methane that can be produced can be upgraded to Renewable Natural gas which can be used to generate electricity or as fuel for vehicles. If left unattended, landfills can release Methane and Carbon dioxide, which are harmful greenhouse gasses.
Waste segregation is not required in the case of pyrolysis, gasification, incineration and in landfill gas utilization which makes the thermochemical processes ideal for usage in developing countries, where waste segregation does not take place at the source.
Biochemical techniques are designed to treat organic waste. There are two types of biochemical techniques
- Aerobic (In the presence of oxygen), which includes techniques like composting.
- Anaerobic (In the absence of oxygen): The main product that is produced here is a combustible gas made of methane and carbon dioxide. This is considered to be more efficient than the aerobic process as it requires less energy and emits less biological heat. The biodegradable fraction is converted into biogas, which, in turn, can be heated to produce heat and electricity. This process can be further divided into “wet Anaerobic combustion” (to treat municipal waste water) and “dry Anaerobic combustion” (for waste with higher solid content). Both processes produce biogas, which can be used as a source of energy.
Pros and Cons of the Waste-to-Electricity Model
Like in every form of electricity generation, there are advantages and disadvantages to generating electricity by using waste.
- Abundant availability: Given the expected rise in the generation of waste, there is an assurance that there will be a continuous supply of material for the waste-to-energy plants.
- Reduction in the dependence on fossil fuels: Though waste-to-energy is not going to be the leading method of electricity generation, it is one step towards decreasing our dependence on fossil fuels.
- The utility of using bottom and fly ash from the incineration plants for road construction and cement production, which leads to an enhanced waste management and a positive impact on the environment.
- There is also the potential to decentralize waste management and energy production. This way, municipal waste does not need to be moved to a facility far from its source. Treatments like pyrolysis can even be conducted in mobile plants.
- Dumping grounds can be cleared and put to productive use: This will also make sure that the side effects of dumping waste, such as soil, water and air pollution (Landfills produce large quantities of methane and carbon dioxide, which contribute to global warming) can be avoided.
- The main criticism for the above techniques is that creating such waste-to-energy mechanisms, which do not require waste segregation, may lead to recyclable materials being burnt, hence valuable materials are being wasted. This also discourages composting.
- There is also a lot of criticism from environmental activists claiming that processes like Incineration release gasses that pollute the environment, which leads to many health concerns.
Challenges to Developing Nations
Though waste-to-energy techniques would be of great help for developing nations, they face the following challenges in implementing those.
- The construction and operating costs of the wasteto-energy plants can be expensive in comparison to traditional forms of power generation. This is especially difficult for developing countries to afford, whilst they are the ones, who are in need of energy.
- Due to the number of processes involved, there is also the need for storage facilities, which usually requires a lot of space, battery storage (which can be very expensive) and more technically advanced manpower, which is scarce in such countries.
As discussed, although waste-to-energy may come with plenty of advantages, it has its limitations. Considering that the generation of waste is increasing at an exponential rate, its potential to create a much sought-after source of energy (electricity in this case) is certainly a need of the hour. In developing nations, it is up to policymakers to decide, which type of waste management techniques to put into use, depending on the type of waste produced, the goal being the efficient utilization of municipal solid waste in order to make it a resource that can “light up”.
- The World Bank IBRD. More People Have Access to Electricity Than Ever Before, but World Is Falling Short of Sustainable Energy Goals. Available from: https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2019/05/22/tracking-sdg7-the-energy-progress-report-2019 (Accessed 27 october 2019)
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- Santiago Alzate, Bonie Restrepo-Cuestas, Álvaro Jaramillo-Duque. Municipal Solid Waste as a Source of Electric Power Generation in Colombia: A Techno-Economic Evaluation under Different Scenarios, MDPI: 14-15, Columbia, 2019.
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Micromobility and the Environment
One of the most prominent changes in transportation is the rise of micromobility, which include bike- and scooter- sharing. The change has profoundly altered the way people move from place to place. Has the rising use of these vehicles reduced automobile use and fuel consumption in general?
The Rise of Micromobility
McKinsey defines the micromobility market as mainly encompassing bikes and scooters . These vehicles have attracted consumers from all over the world due to their convenience and relatively low cost. Unlike buses or subways, consumers do not have to wait in line to use these vehicles, they do not need personal bikes or scooters, and riding costs are easily payable through phones at a low price. Increased awareness towards environmental issues also had a stake in this phenomenon.
Such perquisites of micromobility led to notable growth. From 2015 to 2017, the global bike-sharing market size increased by two times . Similarly, the scooter sharing market will likely grow to a size of $40 to 50 billion by 2025 . Major startups involved in the business emerged, such as Bird, Santander Cycles, Mobike or Lime. Great numbers of bikes and scooters appeared in the streets of London, New York, Beijing, and Amsterdam.
Because these vehicles serve as an effective alternative to automobiles, their environmental effects have been a frequently raised topic. To investigate this, mainly three regions will be examined: Europe, China, and the United States. Of the expected $40-50 billion growth in the world’s scooter-sharing market, Europe and the US will contribute the most , whereas extensive scooter-sharing systems in China are yet to come but is estimated to have a significant contribution. In the bike-sharing market, Roland Berger identified China, followed by Europe and the US, as having the most extensive bike-sharing systems .
Due to their population, economic leverage, and size of the micromobility market in these areas, delving into these regions will render useful insight into micromobility, its environmental impacts, and prospects thereof. This article will investigate the impact of micromobility by examining each of the two representative vehicles defined by McKinsey: bikes and scooters. It will begin with covering the bikesharing industry in each region and proceed onto the scooter-sharing industry.
Environmental Impacts of Bike-Sharing
The potentials of bike-sharing systems on the environment was recognized by multiple governments, promoting them as an alternative to public transportation. In Europe, the European Commission introduced a new system called Optimizing Bike Sharing in European Cities (OBIS) , encouraging member states to adopt the system by following guidelines. Transport for London also partnered with Santander Cycles, which was supported by the Green Party. The Seattle government also encouraged the use of shared bikes through the City of Seattle FreeFloating Bike Share Program (BSP) . This policy was adopted in response to the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA).
Impact on Energy
But has bike- sharing actually rendered noteworthy reductions in emissions and fuel use? Statistics and academic research do support this. Qiu and He suggests that consistent increase in bike-sharing in Beijing will produce positive results in fuel use and emissions, estimating a reduction of 225.06 thousand tons in energy consumption and a decrease of 616.04 thousand ton in CO2 emissions . NYC’s Citi Bike system, employed in 2013, led to gas savings of 292,951 liters and, thereby, a 676.41 ton CO2 reduction in 2015 . Europe has a similar picture. Widespread use of bike-sharing in the Netherlands , where the system first appeared, led to cleaner air in Dutch cities; overall in Europe, more bike-sharing did translate to less emissions of gases that were harmful to human health .
Shared bike. [Source: Unsplash]
Statistics do convey that bike-sharing did and will have a visible impact on emission reductions and fuel use, but its limitations are apparent as well. Such reductions are only valid in cities – where public transportation exists. It is highly unlikely that consumers will travel long distances with bikes – they would rather drive their own car. The United Nations has pointed out that bike-sharing systems were only effective in replacing public transportation, but not personal automobiles .
NYC’s Citi Bike system, employed in 2013, led to gas savings of 292,951 litres and, thereby, a 676.41t CO2 reduction in 2015.
It could thus be stated that bike-sharing has limitations as consumers will never abandon personal automobiles over shared bikes. Nonetheless, because they are capable of replacing public transportation, energy usage in cities will largely decrease. This will have significant impacts as cities are the main producers of greenhouse gases. Since this is the case, the future of bike-sharing systems in the environment seems optimistic despite its limitations. As long as bike-sharing can curb public transportation use, its impact on emissions and fuel use will remain valid.
One caveat of bike-sharing systems is in the difference between docked systems and dock-free ones. For docked systems, users are only allowed to ride and park bikes at designated areas. In contrast, for dock-free systems, users can ride and park anywhere. Negative externalities have been detected in dock-free systems.
In China, bike-sharing was initially welcomed for its convenience and ‘green-ness’. Dock-free bike-sharing startups mushroomed. Due to uncontrolled growth, however, complaints about messy roads with stacks of unused bikes skyrocketed. Despite such complaints, bike-sharing companies offered discounts and free rides for users due to competition. This eventually laid the foundation for the failure of many bike-sharing businesses, including the once-giant Ofo. As a result, “bicycle graveyards” of broken, unused bikes from failed companies rendered another environmental problem, creating masses of dumped metals .
Nevertheless, relevant and effective policies are in place can curb such externalities. Municipal governments in China introduced effective policies to reduce bicycle graveyards. For example, in 2017, the Shenzhen government tightened regulations, requiring these companies to dispose illegally parked bicycles . The US and Europe already has policies that pre-empt the formation of these graveyards by only allowing docked systems to operate, such as CitiBike in New York. Transport for London also has tight regulations regarding dock-free systems .
Shared Scooters and Docked systems. [Source: Unsplash]
Environmental Impacts of Scooter Sharing
Scooter-sharing is only a latecomer in the micromobility industry. It only began to gain popularity in 2017 worldwide, as consumers are less familiar with it . However, despite its short life, governments already seem to be skeptical about the vehicle due to its questionable environmental impacts. Its status as a vehicle is also very vague. In spite of being considered similar to bikes, unlike bikes, shared scooters are not human-powered; they are powered by batteries. Same as automobiles, trucks, and buses, scooters are ‘powered vehicles.’ Nevertheless, similar to bikesharing, scooter-sharing does serve as an alternative to public transportation to consumers.
Although major scooter-sharing firms operating across the United States and Europe, such as Lime or Bird, advertise their products to be free-carbon, the batteries of these scooters only last only 3 months at most and usually 1-2 months due to overuse [17,18]. Because of these batteries, scooters can emit more carbon than a bus ride . This suggests that in the current state, scooter-sharing will have suboptimal impacts on energy use compared to bike-sharing or can rather exacerbate the environment. It will fail to replicate the achievements of shared bikes: reducing emissions by replacing public transportation.
In addition to such energy- related downsides, infrastructural and safety issues have also been raised. Scooters were dumped around the streets and even in lakes in the United States , causing infrastructural and environmental hazards. Users usually ride these scooters on roads without any safety gear . Lack of safety infrastructure accordingly rendered many deaths. In Washington DC, a crash between a scooter rider and car happened last year . In Europe, 11 deaths happened from 2018 to August 2019 due to scooter crashes.
As a result, governments have either banned or further regulated the use of scooter-sharing. The UK has remained firm that scooter-sharing systems will be unallowed across the country . Other cities that allow the use of scooter-sharing have harshened regulations by imposing speed limits in hopes of slowing down battery consumption rates. In response to such regulation, scooter-sharing firms have thus started developing more sustainable, long-lasting batteries to improve their image.
Though it is difficult to make a definitive conclusion on the future of scooter-sharing on energy use, based on its current state, it does not seem so bright. Not only do non-energy related hazards and safety issues impede its adoption, but it has failed to produce impacts conducive to the environment. While the effectiveness of batteries currently being developed by scootersharing firms and that of government regulations are unknowable, for now it seems evident that scootersharing will render negative ramifications overall.
The environmental impacts of the micromobility industry should be examined by dividing the industry into two components: bike-sharing and scooter-sharing. As statistics and research results reveal, bike-sharing has had and will have tangible impacts on the use of energy. In spite of apparent geographical and functional limits – such as to what extent they can replace fuel-consuming vehicles their positive impacts still remain viable. Effective government regulations which are coming into play can also reduce non-energy related externalities. Based on the current picture, its future seems bright.
For scooter-sharing, adverse environmental impacts have already been detected and many shades of grey exist. Scooter-sharing produces rather adverse effects even though it can replace public transportation, and the system also caused safety and infrastructural issues in Europe and the US, where scooter-sharing is already operating. As these issues become more visible, governments have grown more lukewarm about the idea. In sum, the environmental and overall prospects for scooter-sharing does not seem so positive.
Ofo Shared Bikes. [Source: Unsplash]
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Is Nuclear the Bridge?
Atoms in the Fray: The Role of Modern Nulcear Reactor Technology in the Energy Transition
The Nuclear Energy Industry
“Now I am become death: the destroyer of worlds” J. Robert Oppenheimer remarked, after successfully detonating the first atomic bomb on July 16th, 1945 . This marked the first time the power of the nucleus entered public discussion. However, the science of atomic radiation, atomic change and nuclear fission had been developing since 1895. Scientists first realised the destructive potential of the nucleus in 1939, but it was Enrico Fermi in 1941 who first suggested we harness this energy as a prime mover, i.e. in nuclear power reactors with ‘controlled’ chain reactions as opposed to the runaway ones we see in a weapon.
After many iterations we arrived at prototype nuclear reactors in the 1950s, otherwise known as Generation I reactors. With nuclear power, reactor technologies come in waves referred to as ‘Generations’. Generation II, or Gen II, utilised major innovations in reactor technology and materials and were built up until the 1990s. Gen II represent the vast majority of nuclear reactors ever created, with 85% of electricity from nuclear power coming from this second generation . Due to the popularity of Gen II, few Gen III reactors were ever built, but they are still expected to gradually replace the second generation. The UK’s Hinkley Point C will have two Gen III reactors, approved by the UK government in 2016. Finally, we have Gen IV: a broad swathe of six reactor systems that includes the Sodium- cooled fast reactor (SFR), Molten Salt Reactor (MSR), Supercritical-water-cooled reactor (SCWR), and more.
In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated that at least 80% of the world’s electricity must come from low carbon sources by 2050, in order to keep global warming within 2°C of pre-industrial levels4. At present however, around two-thirds of electricity is produced from the burning of fossil fuels, making the transition to low carbon energy sources a matter of paramount importance and urgency. In this regard, nuclear technology is extremely attractive, since it releases no CO2 into the atmosphere whatsoever at the point of use, with emissions limited to other steps in the supply-chain such as mining, transport and plant construction.
Gen IV reactors come with further benefits, improvements and advantages to guide us through this transition. With Gen IV, the promises include:
- Lower cost
- Enhanced safety
- Disposal of old nuclear waste and/or minimal generation of new waste
- Proliferation resistance – lower chance of dangerous nuclear technology spreading
Figure 1: Technology roadmap of nuclear reactors since 1950 .
Does Nuclear Energy Make Economic Sense?
When assessing the cost-competitiveness of nuclear power, the metric for a single plant is the levelized cost of electricity (LCOE). This metric allows for a consistent cost comparison between different sources of energy. It is an economic assessment that accounts for the average total cost to build and operate a powergenerating asset over its lifetime and the total energy output of the asset over that lifetime. As shown in Figure 2, the cost of nuclear power remains competitive in Europe, Korea, and the United States.
Figure 2: Comparative LCOEs and system costs in four countries .
Gen IV systems further improve on cost competitiveness. The economic goals of Generation IV nuclear energy systems, as adopted by the Generation IV International Forum (GIF) , are:
- To have a life cycle cost advantage over other energy sources (i.e., to have a lower levelized unit cost of energy on average over their lifetime)
- To have a level of financial risk comparable to other energy projects (i.e., to involve similar total capital investment and capital at risk)
Using a ‘Standardised Framework for Cost Analysis’ , companies developing Gen IV reactors improve competitivity for conventional nuclear power by lowering average capital and operational costs. The average total operating cost for the advanced nuclear companies is $21/MWh, a reduction of $10/MWh from conventional nuclear technology.
Figure 3 shows levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) for the conventional nuclear benchmark and participating advanced nuclear companies. The average LCOE for the companies surveyed is $60/ MWh, a reduction of $37/MWh from the conventional nuclear LCOE of $97/MWh. The range of LCOE values across the participating companies reflects their specific combinations of design and delivery innovations.
Figure 3: Levelised cost of electricity of conventional versus advanced nuclear .
But What About Safety?
Despite public perception, generic nuclear is also the safest form of mass energy generation, excluding renewables. The production of energy can lead to deaths and illness at each stage of the process, for example during mining and processing, or from the pollution caused by burning fossil fuels. Due to the obvious risks, nuclear energy generation is a highly regulated process, with past fatalities limited to very high-profile accidents. This is reflected in the death rates (Figure 4): nuclear results in 442 times fewer deaths relative to brown coal per unit of energy. If global energy demand in 2014 was met solely through brown coal, it’s estimated global deaths as a result of energy production would be more than five million. In contrast, if global energy demand was met through nuclear sources, the number of deaths would have been only 11,800 .
Figure 4: Death rates from energy production by source.
Leading Gen IV Technologies
Both the Molten-Salt reactor and Sodium Cooled Fast reactor designs promise to further deliver on variables such as cost-competitiveness, safety and waste. This is achieved through several measures inherent to their designs. The definitive characteristic of a Molten-Salt Reactor is the use of a molten salt mixture as its primary fuel source. This reactor concept was first introduced in the 1950s and 60s, along with other nuclear technologies. They improve on the conventional nuclear reactor by replacing the coolant (water) with molten salt. This allows the use of a broad range of fuel and salt compositions, including the thorium fuel cycle instead of uranium. By switching to thorium, concerns with regards to waste disposal and resource supply can be addressed. Thorium is three times more abundant than uranium, and the decay of its waste ranges in the hundreds of years rather than the tens of thousands.
The cost of electricity for a molten salt reactor is estimated based on evaluations at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and compared to their pressurized water reactor and coal plant estimates of the same pre-1980 vintage plants. The results were 3.8 and 4.2 ¢/kWh for molten salt reactors representing a 10% decrease in cost against coal .
Molten salt reactors can be more cost effective for several reasons, mainly because the cost of construction is less expensive. They require smaller domes and make redundant many safety systems. It’s a trivial equation: fewer parts equals lower cost. Some of the innovations that make them simpler include:
- Simpler and standardised designs
- Factory manufacturing
- Lower materials requirements
Sodium-cooled fast reactors (SFRs) on the other hand are a type of metal–cooled fast reactor that uses sodium as a coolant and improves on cost competitiveness. Fast breeder reactors are self-sufficient in their fuel needs after reaching a steady state. The reactor can turn highly abundant (and relatively inexpensive) isotopes such as 238U and 232Th into relatively scarce, fissile isotopes (e.g., 233U, 239Pu, etc.), which are then used as fuel. These fast reactors have the unique ability to transform into fuel, and/or even directly use, nuclear waste from power production or weapons programs. This turns a liability into a fuel feedstock and prevents the need to produce and store large quantities of spent nuclear fuel.
Why is Gen IV Different?
Major anxieties around the issue of radioactive waste, the risk of nuclear disaster and the danger of increasing the likelihood of proliferation of nuclear weapons have plagued nuclear energy since its inception, drawing up images in the public conscious of Chernobyl and Fukushima. Greenpeace directly lists on its website these three areas in its opposition to nuclear, on top of high up-front capital costs , meaning to address these problems directly would go a long way to assuaging public fears.
This is where Gen IV is a breakthrough, as it achieves the feats of much greater safety (although of course some risk of accidents remain), lower waste and proliferation resistance in unique ways for each reactor design. For example, Terrapower, with Bill Gates as a primary investor, is generating a Gen IV sodium cooled fast reactor . This reactor acts as a ‘breeder’ reactor as previously described, that leaves virtually no depleted uranium (waste). By using depleted uranium as fuel, this new reactor could reduce stockpiles from uranium enrichment . TerraPower notes that the US currently stores 700,000 metric tons of depleted uranium and that 8 metric tons could power 2.5 million homes for a year . This directly addresses the concern of nuclear power’s long-lasting radioactive waste; this technology could revolutionize the industry by making radioactive waste a source of energy.
Safety and meltdown resistance on the other hand are achieved primarily through small modularisation. A small modular reactor (SMR) is a miniature fission reactor with smaller power and compact architecture, that allows it to be brought to be assembled on-site. The designs would vary from small scale versions of conventional reactors to wholly new design concepts. Small modularisation deals with these problems, on top of high up-front costs, by being cheaper, having a lower power leading to a smaller radioactive inventory, a potential for sub-grade (underground) location of the reactor for security, and a lower need for cooling water.
Beyond negating some of nuclear energy’s historical problems, SMR’s can assist us through the energy transition by meeting the growing energy demand of the developing world, where the low upfront costs make SMR’s an attractive energy source. Arguably, conventional nuclear reactors have never been a viable or sensible option, due to the high costs and security risks. From its listed benefits, small modularisation can negate these problems, and in tandem with hydropower, solar and wind, could provide a secure energy mix for aspiring high incomes countries (HICs).
Despite these benefits brought forth by innovation, any solutions or methods for dealing with the energy transition must be holistic and data driven; part of a wider energy mix, that will inevitably include renewables, old nuclear and natural gas. But the next generation of nuclear, Gen IV and beyond, will surely be crucial to replacing our fossil fuel dependant baseload energy supply.
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Is France Overlooking the Role of Nuclear Power to Support the Energy Transition?
When the French Environment Minister first announced in November 2018 that the country would significantly reduce its share of nuclear power in its energy mix, many were left wondering how France would achieve its ambitious climate goals while continuing to meet the increasing national energy demand .
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), nuclear power is currently the second largest source of low-carbon electricity globally after hydropower, counting some 452 operating reactors across the world which provided 2,700 TWh of electricity in 2018 — 10% of the global electricity supply . Nuclear power has prevented a staggering 55 Gt of carbon dioxide emissions — the equivalent of two years’ worth of greenhouse emissions — since it was first introduced some 50 years ago.
France currently has 58 reactors across 19 sites, 12 idled reactors, 9 of which are in decommissioning stage. The installed capacity of France’s nuclear power is currently sitting at 63.13 GW, making it the country with the largest installed nuclear capacity per capita. Nuclear accounts for 71.6% of the French energy mix — the world’s largest percentage .
Figure 1: The energy mix in France in 2017. Nuclear energy had by far the largest contribution. Data from the French National Assembly .
Nuclear energy has allowed France to have significantly low-carbon electricity since it was first introduced in the 1960s, with its citizens generating far less emissions than their European counterparts. In 2014, the carbon dioxide emissions stood at 4.6 metric tons per capita, a stark contrast with their German and British neighbours whose emissions stood at 8.89 and 6.50 metric tons per capita respectively .
Despite its renowned exemplar energy model, France has started an ambitious energy transition to further reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, which includes a national low-carbon strategy, carbon budgets, a carbon price trajectory and plans for energy investment .
The French parliament adopted the “Energy Climate Bill” in September 2019 which aims to make the Paris Agreement a reality for the country. The bill includes a number of measures with the ultimate aim to render France carbon neutral by 2050. France intends to achieve this ambitious goal by reducing its fossil fuels consumption by 40% by 2030 — including the end of coal-generated electricity by 2030 as well as the shutdown of France’s remaining coal power plants. The French government has also committed to spending 5.5 billion euros per year for the development and installation of new renewables energy capacity with the objective to reach 33% of renewables in the energy mix by 2030 .
Nuclear energy has allowed France to have significantly low-carbon electricity with its citizens generating far less emissions than their European counterparts.
The most ambitious move, though, is the reduction of nuclear power in the energy mix, from almost 75% of the French energy mix to 50% by 2030. This means that France has just over a decade to conciliate two of the goals it set in the “Energy Climate Bill”: reduce greenhouse gas emissions while cutting the share of nuclear power — a reliable source of carbon neutral electricity — in its energy mix.
However, the case of Germany leaves many doubts over the realisation of France’s climate goals. In September 2019, Germany’s federal government adopted the “Energy Concept” which promised to transform energy supply and provide a road map to a truly genuine “renewable age” . Until 2011, onequarter of Germany’s electricity was generated from nuclear power with a fleet of 17 nuclear reactors. However, Germany sped up the phase out of nuclear power following Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in April 2011 and more than halved electricity generation from nuclear amid safety concerns and negative public opinion. This was followed by a series of new policy measures, commonly known as the Energiewende, aiming at increasing the share of renewables in the German energy mix. In order to meet the requirements set by the Energiewende, Germany will require half of its electricity supply to come from renewable energy sources . While Germany produces more renewables capacity than the OECD average, the country wasn’t successful in replacing the lost nuclear power capacity with renewables sources and had to resort to imported coal — mostly lignite, also called low-rank brown coal — to replace nuclear capacity. The Uniper CEO further confirmed the failure of the Energiewende when he said in March 2017: “This winter has proved that supply from wind and solar alone does not work. In peak hours on January 24 renewable energy delivered just 1% of overall German demand. Conventional plants carried almost the entire load.” With nuclear power due to be completely phased out from the country by 2022, it is unlikely that the appetite for the dirtiest fossil fuel will decrease. In August 2016, coal-fired electricity generation accounted for a record 42% of the country’s electricity .
So why is France so desperately trying to cut its reliance on nuclear when phasing it out has proven so unsuccessful in Germany? Firstly, many argue that the nuclear matter has been used as a strategy by politicians to gain popularity amid rising concerns surrounding nuclear safety. While nuclear power was backed up by president Nicolas Sarkozy during his term, his predecessors Francois Hollande and Emmanuel Macron seemed determined to move away from nuclear. Second, the French nuclear fleet was built on the pressurised water reactor (PWR) design, which allowed for quick construction of a large nuclear fleet. However, the fleet is ageing and much of it is reaching the end of its life span, making it prone to more technical issues and constituting an unacceptable safety threat. It was only last month that the French Nuclear Regulator reported that up to five nuclear reactors, operated by state-owned EDF, had issues with the welding on their steam generators — particularly unwelcome news with winter fast approaching and the ensuing power crunch . The French government asked EDF to prove by 2021 that it could build reactors to replace part of its fleet, at a competitive price — possibly indicating that the government was reconsidering its stance on nuclear power. However, the debacle that was the reactor of Flamanville might not help the case of the future of nuclear in France. The reactor has seen its budget jump from an initial 3.3 billion euros — and was due to be completed in 2012 — to a staggering 12.4 billion euros according to EDF’s latest estimation; the reactor is now not expected to be operational until late 2022 to early 2023 .
The burning question is how does France plan on making up for the energy deficit induced by the fall of nuclear power in the energy mix? Recently merged oil and gas multinational Wintershall Dea is making the case for natural gas. The company argues that switching to natural gas is the fastest and most cost-efficient way to reduce greenhouse emissions efficiently . Indeed, natural gasses produce on average 45% less carbon dioxide emissions that its coal counterpart, and doesn’t release ash particles which contribute to air pollution. But with the French government planning on cutting fossil fuel consumption by 40% by 2030, natural gas sounds like an unlikely alternative at the moment.
While it is easy to see why the French government is eager to reduce the nuclear share amidst raising concerns over the ageing nuclear fleet, cutting nuclear production seems overly ambitious, especially in light of France’s climate goals. In order for the energy transition promoted by France and Germany to be successfully implemented, transmission and distribution networks must be developed to support renewable sources of energy. Until this becomes a reality, nuclear power will continue to play a key role in the French energy transition while helping France reach its ambitious energy goals.
[Germany] wasn’t successful in replacing the lost nuclear power capacity with renewables sources and had to resort to imported coal.
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